Mike Leigh’s film about a backstreet abortionist provides a much-needed antidote to ‘pro-life’ propaganda
Friday January 07 2005
Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake opens today, evoking 1950s Britain in its every period detail, down to the last tin of Vim. But what starts in a warm glow of nostalgia for less materialist times is brutally punctured by what lies just beneath the surface – a suppression and punishment of sex that led to untold suffering. Ask any woman or gay man from those pre-60s liberation times and they all have stories to tell about sex and terror for themselves or friends.
Vera Drake, angel of Peabody Buildings, friend to all neighbours in distress, props up the sick, the lonely and the darkly depressed. She is goodness personified, between her jobs cleaning the homes of the rich in her old floral pinny. She is what people mean when they exaggerate the fine old community spirit of a rosy yesteryear.
But she is also the neighbourhood abortionist, helping out hundreds of desperate women for free. Imelda Staunton’s painfully simple Vera is a woman of such blinding innocence about the risks she runs that we never learn how she got into this line of mercy. But when one of her clients gets septicaemia and nearly dies, Vera goes to jail.
A midwife from those days, writing in G2 yesterday, rightly points out how sanitised this vision is. Backstreet abortionists were often more money-grubbing Mrs Gamps than gentle Veras. And the method she used – squirting water and carbolic soap into the womb – would have harmed many of the women she “helped”. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant film, full of understated truths. Vera’s family is shocked rigid: her son can hardly bear to speak to her. The disconnection between him and his friends picking up girls in the dance hall and what his mother does with her syringe and carbolic in frightened girls’ bedrooms says it all.
Excellent social history, but why bother making a film about the bad old days? Because people have forgotten. Above all, because attitudes towards sex and the young are almost as bizarrely hypocritical now. Every primary school kid is bumping and grinding like Britney through luridly graphic songs in a miasma of sexual imagery, yet threats from a tiny moral minority still deny the young the right to protection from the dangers of all this sexualisation. Good sex education is still not compulsory for schools.
So far, public opinion stays resolutely pro-abortion – but the religious right, spurred on by US politics, keeps pushing for new limits. Even David Steel, author of the original 1967 reform, now wants the present 24-week limit cut. New pictures of foetuses “walking” are guaranteed headlines in rightwing papers. In schools, abortion is presented as a subject for abstract debate. When does a foetus acquire human rights? When does life begin? So Vera Drake is a timely reminder of mundane reality: whenever abortion is hard to get, thousands of desperate pregnant women end up dead or maimed.
No woman ever wanted an abortion. The stigma still runs deep, although on average one in four women will have one at some time in their life. The stigma is reflected in a recent Abortion Rights survey showing that in some areas women are made to wait up to nine weeks for a termination.
It is young girls who are most vulnerable to anti-abortion propaganda: once pregnant, only 44% of 15- to 17-year-olds choose abortion. At their most sentimental and vegetarian age, they are the ones easily influenced by Life’s horror videos. Sex education in many schools is still so bad that the young are often subjected to Life’s free propaganda and readily available speakers, telling them abortion causes infertility and trauma. See how their website for the young says that condoms don’t protect against HIV/Aids. Some TV soap storylines reinforce the myths: EastEnders’ Sharon is infertile after an abortion.
The young are less likely to hear reasons why abortion may be the wise option put by Education for Choice, a small organisation with a fraction of Life’s resources offering the materials and training for teachers to put balancing arguments. Girls will make their own choices, but they should at least know that abortion is safe, quick and very common. Mistakes happen to all kinds of people. (Ask the prime minister.)
The government has missed its target to cut teen pregnancy by 15% by 2004. It is down by 9%, but getting it down by 50% by 2010 looks impossible – without a revolution in government attitudes. From the start Labour was too prudish and too afraid of the Mail to make the best possible sex and relationship education (SRE) compulsory in all schools. It was none other than David Blunkett who refused to make proper sex education compulsory. (He put out a press release to say so in 1998.) So the curriculum only requires a basic biology lesson.
Anything more is optional, decided by the governors – of all people. The whole tenor of the official guidance on sex education is defensive: “designed to ensure that SRE recognises the importance of marriage; keeps unsuitable materials out of the classroom; is age appropriate; involves parents fully in its development and helps to reduce teenage pregnancies.” This caution was needless: only four in every 10,000 children were ever withdrawn from classes, and parents say they want more, not less, sex education.
Last month the government’s own independent advisory group on teenage pregnancy wrote a fiercely critical report. Ofsted’s last report on sex education found one in 10 schools poor, and the standards not good until lessons for 15- to 16-years-olds – far too late. All say sex education has improved, with some brilliant local programmes – but why not make the best compulsory for all?
However, even that might not fix the problem. Rowntree research into why girls who get pregnant don’t choose abortion showed much deeper reasons. It’s class – again. Middle-class girls are less likely to get pregnant and twice as likely to choose abortion. In Wokingham rates are 10 times lower than Lambeth. Why? “Cultural reasons,” some say. Unpick “culture” and it means class and unequal opportunities. Girls with no expectations see a baby as the only meaningful hope on a bleak horizon. Why delay motherhood for that exciting future as a carer or a cleaner? The real deterrent is the chance of something better.
Scandinavia and the Netherlands have the best sex education programmes with great openness and access to contraception. Starting early, with an emphasis on relationships and negotiating unwanted pressures, they have the fewest teen pregnancies and start sex later.
But that’s not the whole story. Those countries also have the fewest poor children, have widespread middle-class aspirations and low pay differentials between occupations. But interestingly, even in those countries, among their very few poor communities there is also a high teen pregnancy rate. That suggests that, yet again, Labour is finding that hosts of problems they set out to solve separately at the start keep coming back to the one great issue – Britain’s exceptional social inequality.
Copyright Guardian Newspapers.