A BORTION ON demand is one of the core values of our secular media class, so it's astonishing to find a theatrical feature like Citizen Ruth that aspires to treat the subject even-handedly. Most mass entertainment products are knee-jerk pro-choice.
Citizen Ruth's director Alexander Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor have fashioned a fast-paced, plague-on-both-your-houses social comedy in the style of classic Hollywood satirists like Billy Wilder (Ace in the Hole) and Preston Sturges (Hail the Conquering Hero). Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) has been busted 16 times for glue-sniffing and placed in chemical dependency programs for treatment six times. Chronically unemployed, she whines about “being in a bad place” and promises “to get her life together” soon. She's lost custody of her four children, and when she's jailed for overdosing in the convenience store parking lot of a small Midwestern town, she's found to be pregnant once again.
The judge, tired of repeat offenders like Ruth, defines her “hazardous vapor inhalation” as felony child endangerment because of her pregnancy and threatens her with a long jail sentence. But, privately, he offers to drop the charges if she'll get an abortion.
Although conflicted, Ruth's willing to agree to the deal when the local chapter of Baby-savers, a national pro-life organization, posts her bail, and a born-again Christian couple, Gail and Norm Stoney (May Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith), takes her into their home, determined to reform her.
Like most mainstream-media portrayals of pro-life Christians, the Stoney family is crudely caricatured as a bunch of selfrighteous hypocrites. But the familiarity of the stereotypes doesn't make them any less offensive. The Stoneys are depicted as more concerned with exploiting Ruth as a symbol for their cause than responding to her individual needs. Norm secretly lusts after Ruth, and the Stoneys'teenage daughter is shown sneaking out to do drugs with her boyfriend behind her pious parents' backs.
However, most of the movie's satirical barbs are directed at the family's lower-middle-class lifestyle and aspirations (Norm works as clerk in a hardware store). Their pro-life beliefs are presented as an extension of their tacky tastes in clothes, furniture and hair-styles. It all has the feel of a kind of cultural class warfare—a pair of well-educated, upper-middle-class filmmakers smugly looking down their noses at their less refined, social inferiors.
But amazingly enough, Citizen Ruth also allows the pro-life side to make its case in some detail, arguing that the fetus is a living thing and that aborting it is murder. Ruth is shown to be visibly shaken after watching a documentary on the medical realities of abortion.
She is on the verge of deciding to have her baby when the Stoneys'pre-adolescent son tries to stop her clandestine glue-sniffing. Furious at the interruption, she smacks the kid around a few times. His mother freaks out and sends Ruth away with Diane Singler (Swoosie Kurtz), another member of her group.
Diane turns out to be an undercover agent for a militant pro-abortion group, and she spirits Ruth off to a farm where she lives communally with her lesbian lover (Kelly Preston), some other fanatic activists and a one-legged, Vietnam-vet biker named Harlan (M.C. Gainey) who provides security for the local abortion clinic.
Diane and her cohorts are satirized as savagely as the pro-lifers. They are also shown as eager to exploit Ruth for their cause, completely ignoring her as an individual and indoctrinating her with radical feminist propaganda. They even try to get Ruth to join them in singing pagan hymns of praise to the moon goddess. The filmmakers underline the hypocrisy of Diane's belief that the message of “a woman's right to choose” will be best served if Ruth aborts her baby.
This sharp-edged caricature of the feminists has more bite than the movie's equally vicious depiction of the pro-lifers because it's so unexpected. The pro-abortion cause is rarely attacked this brutally in the mainstream media. Both sides are shown as trying to outdo the other in venality. The pro-lifers offer Ruth $15,000 to have the baby—a kind of bribe. The prochoice biker, Harlan, promises to match that with $15,000 from his pending Agent-Orange settlement. Baby-savers up the ante to $30,000.
As the publicity surrounding the incident goes national, the smarmy head of the national pro-life organization (Burt Reynolds) arrives to take charge. The cold, calculating leader of a big-bucks pro-abortion group (Tippi Hedren) soon follows to do likewise. Both are more concerned with their media images than with poor Ruth.
At this point the movie cops out. The focus is shifted away from the morality of abortion to Ruth's empowerment as an individual. The young woman has an accidental miscarriage that she hides from both sides. She then cleverly manipulates things to wring the maximum financial advantage for herself out of the situation. In this, the filmmakers applaud her. From their perspective she has at last taken responsibility for her life and gotten the better of those trying to exploit her. The message seems to be that the pursuit of personal freedom is the highest value in our culture.
The problem is that once the young woman becomes pregnant it's not only her rights and freedom that are at stake. As a living being, her unborn baby also must be taken into account, and this the movie refuses to do. The viewer never gets the sense that two lives are now involved, not just one. Each of the story's twists and turns is presented exclusively in terms of its impact on Ruth.
Abortion is an issue on which it's impossible to have it both ways, and Citizen Ruth finally buys into the prochoice position with its emphasis on unfettered individualism. But the profound doubts expressed about the tactics and intentions of pro-abortion activists are perhaps a small sign of hope. The movement's moral flaws have finally become apparent to some of its natural sympathizers, even in Hollywood.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.