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Cutting through the moralizing about abortion
Vera Drake is not a criminal

Review by Elizabeth Schulte | November 19, 2004 | Page 13

Vera Drake, written and directed by Mike Leigh, starring Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis.

MOVIES THAT even mention abortion are few and far between. So when a movie like Vera Drake, which depicts what life was like for women before abortion was legal, makes it to the theaters, it's a welcome surprise.

The low-budget film by British director Mike Leigh tells the story of Vera Drake, a working-class woman in 1950s London who has secretly helped women end unwanted pregnancies for at least 20 years. Described as a "saint" by the people who know her, Vera busily moves in and out of others' lives, caring for the sick, feeding lonely neighbors and providing abortions to women in need.

This film captures the daily hardships of working-class people in postwar London. In an early scene in the Drake's cramped apartment, Vera's friends and family discuss their shared experience of the Second World War--those who were killed on the battlefield or perished in their homes during the Blitz. For workers, wartime rationing never ended, so Vera buys black-market sugar and tea for her family.

Their lives stand in stark contrast to the upper-class families whose homes Vera cleans--with their modern conveniences and hours of leisure time.

This gap is especially pronounced when the film compares abortion options available to wealthy women and the women who turn to Vera. The distraught daughter of a family whose house Vera cleans obtains an abortion from a doctor for the right price, after telling a psychiatrist the magic words--that she'd rather kill herself than have the baby, the product of a rape. At the time, women who had enough money could obtain legal therapeutic abortions if they proved that they were suicidal.

Vera's clients are almost exclusively poor and working class--young single women, immigrants, married women who already have more children than they can care for. When Vera's secret is revealed, her daughter's fiancé, who comes from a large, struggling family, puts Vera's mission perfectly: "If you can't feed them, you can't love them."

In a standout performance, Imelda Staunton portrays Vera as a very ordinary woman, who does what she does because she knows that if she doesn't help, no one will.

After she is arrested, you want her to stand defiant in the face of this injustice. But she doesn't--and this is part of the point. Vera is defying the law because that is the only option.

In this way, the film cuts through all of the moral crap used by the Religious Right to vilify abortion. Abortion is not a question of morality, but about the basic needs of women. The strength of Vera's character is that she doesn't struggle with a moral dilemma--she simply feels that she is helping young girls who have nowhere else to turn. This idea--and Vera herself--fall apart when she's arrested and her secret is revealed.

Women who sought illegal abortions usually didn't meet women like Vera. Poor and working-class women faced humiliating and dangerous conditions at the hands of unscrupulous back-alley abortionists. Vera may never have accepted a dime for "helping young girls," as she calls it, refusing to use the word "abortion," but most back-alley abortionists exacted a high price for procedures that weren't guaranteed to work and were more likely to mutilate or kill the women.

The message is clear--making abortion illegal will not stop women from seeking it, and potentially dying in the process.

Be prepared for many depressing and emotional scenes in Vera Drake--for this is a movie that takes on an important and virtually ignored subject, and it can't be done in any other way.

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