When I think of "back alley abortions" my image is of defrocked alcoholic doctors wielding dirty instruments -- or the legendary coat hanger -- for all the money a poor girl could come up with.
But we saw "Vera Drake" tonight and I was reminded that the truth may have been less chilling.
Vera is a lower class Londoner living with her husband and two grown children. The year is 1950. Vera works part-time as a domestic and cares for an ailing mother.
Unknown to her family, she also does abortions. She has a syringe and knows a formula involving shavings of carbolic soap. Her "power douche" induces shedding of the uterine lining within a couple days, after which everything is "right as rain." Her clients are terrified girls and worn out women who can't bear the thought of a seventh child. Rich women can go to private clinics; poor women must take their chances.
She is cheerful, kind, energetic, and full of compassion. A regular sort of gal whose family loves her. Although it turns out that the woman who arranges the meetings has been taking a small fee, Vera does not expect payment for "helping girls."
Who knows what's correct in any given circumstance?
Still, it's dangerous and one of her girls nearly hemorrhages to death. Vera is arrested and put on trial.
But the movie is more an indictment of a system than of a woman. Desperate women will end pregnancies. The rich will do it safely. The poor cannot.
I think about these things not only because I'm a pro-choice liberal, but also because my great aunt Nellie died from an illegal abortion in 1913. As I look at "Vera Drake," I realize Nellie's death was probably caused by a well meaning woman from the neighborhood rather than by a drunken doctor with a coat hanger.
Nellie made a tragic choice. In a desperate state of mind, she gambled and lost. We will always wonder why. We will always wonder where a different choice might have led.
We are so black-and-white these days. Men in charge are sure of what's right and love to condemn -- as if they've never made a wrong decision. As if they never wake up at 3 A.M.
Who knows what's correct in any given circumstance? Certain segments of our society would put Vera Drake in the same category as a Mafia hitman -- someone who gets rids of inconveniences. But I find myself loving her. When it's 3 A.M. in your soul, you do what you gotta do and you take whatever help is available.
Vera Drake (2004). British drama about a woman "helping girls" in post-WW2 Britain. (Captions ok)