A young woman buttonholes a musician with whom she’s recently had a one-night stand—“a stupid experiment,” as she later calls it. She has to remind the young man who she is, because he can’t even remember her name. Then she tells him: “I’m going to have a baby.” As she stares into his eyes, his face goes blank and he replies, “Congratulations,” as if he were merely a friend of the family.
Whether this response diverts her to Plan B or simply confirms her in the course she has already chosen, we don’t know. But her next words are: “Don’t worry. I’m not going to cause you any trouble. I just want you to find me a doctor—an address, you know?”
And so he does. This being 1963, it takes some doing: a rendezvous on a deserted street, a walk up a dark corridor in an unheated building, a “finder’s fee” to a shady character. At one point, the unhappy pair looks up his parents for help raising the cash the procurer wants. All unawares, his folks dote on her as a prospective daughter-in-law, and they give him some money thinking it’s for a night on the town.
At every step of the way, she keeps staring at her single-shot lover, and we can see her heart-chilling while he keeps her at arm’s length as the “solution” to their “problem” draws near.
Finally, she goes into an empty room with an old woman who lays out a blanket, a flashlight and some medical instruments on the floor, while the girl stands stiffly at a window and starts undressing. But he, alarmed that he’s found her a butcher instead of a “doctor,” breaks in on them, and she, turning and looking upon the blanket, the flashlight, and the instruments, screams, “Oh God, no!” and collapses in his arms. The abortionist and her procurer high-tail it as the young lovers embrace for the first time in the picture.
That’s the first half of “Love With the Proper Stranger,” an early effort of movie producer Alan J. Pakula, with Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen in the starring roles. It’s a fine film, totally down to earth, with excellent performances all around. But what’s the moral of the story?
Suppose the young woman had been able to look up an abortionist on her own, in the Yellow Pages rather than on a deserted street, with a “Dr.” in front of his name and a waiting room with comfortable chairs and nice pastel prints on the wall and a stack of ladies’ magazines to read? Would that make her lover’s blank face and the chill inside of her and the instruments and the scream all go away?
Some women don’t think so. If you don’t know any such at home, church, or work, you can get in touch with them online at Feminists for Life or at your local crisis pregnancy center.
My own experience with such things is limited to an attempted private adoption. The effort failed when the girl in trouble found out her boyfriend had cheated on her and decided to abort their baby out of spite.
To the Altar, Go!
The alternative to abortion isn’t always a trip to the altar, but it has been often enough. That may not be the best way to enter wedlock, but millions of happy marriages have started out with seven-month babies. Such marriages were frequent even in the Puritans’ New England.
Historian Marvin Olasky writes that in colonial America, unwed mothers “had high expectations of marriage” by the time they gave birth. Shotgun marriage “was common and did not carry disgrace. . . . Where fathers resolutely refused marriage, courts in Virginia and other colonies ordered payment” of child support. Social stigma fell largely “on a father who would not do the right thing, not on the mother. Abandoned unwed mothers were not shunned, and court records show them marrying other men of the community.”
Abortion, on the other hand, was rare in the days before modern medicine made it relatively risk-free. The more common anti-life course was the concealment of pregnancy and the secret murder of the newborn. Olasky reports “the existence in both America and England of many ballads about infanticide,” songs such as “The Cruel Mother,” whose protagonist gives birth in secret to bastard twins, kills them and buries their bodies.
“And then she said she would go home,” the lyric goes.
As she was in her father’s hall
She spied those babes a-playing at ball.
“Oh babes, oh babes if you were mine
I’d dress you up in silks so fine.”
“Oh mother dear, when we were thine
You dressed us not in silks so fine.
You took your penknife keen and sharp
And pierced us babies’ tender hearts.”
Then as always, however, cruelty was a forte of men. Olasky found a case from 1652 in the Archives of Maryland in which a bondservant named Susan Warren testified that her master, a Captain William Mitchell, had seduced her and, perceiving “she bore a child by him, he prepared a potion of physick overnight,” mixing it in a poached egg. He brought it to her in bed and “bid take, and she requesting to know for what, he said if she would not take it he would thrust it down her throat, so she being in bed could not withstand it.” The abortifacient made Susan “break into boils and blains, her whole body being scurfy, and the hair of her head almost fallen off.”
Susan Warren survived, but the baby was stillborn, and a grand jury indicted Mitchell for having ‘Murtherously endeavoured to destroy or Murther the Child by him begotten in the Womb of the Said Susan Warren.’ It could not be proven that Mitchell had murdered the child, but he was convicted of ‘adultery, fornication, and murtherous intention,’ fined five thousand pounds of tobacco, and required to give a bond for his future good behavior. Lord Baltimore forced him to resign as a member of the governor’s council, and he was forbidden to hold any public office in Maryland. Susan Warren received a whipping for fornication but was freed and discharged from any further service to Mitchell. Court records show Mitchell in repeated trouble thereafter.
Olasky comments in a footnote that the Maryland chronicler saw Mitchell’s actions “as a natural result of his beliefs: he made ‘a Common practice by blasphemous expressions and other-wise to mock and deride God’s Ordinances and all Religion, thereby to open a way to all wicked lustfull licentious and prophane Courses.’”
The Revolution Was Televised
When the modern sexual revolution was just getting started, when JFK had several years of secret philandering still ahead of him and Teddy had yet to meet Mary Jo, Hollywood actually turned out more than one film that sounded a cautionary note on the trend of the times.
In the 1959 weeper “The Best of Everything,” three Manhattan working girls get anything but the best. An aspiring actress dies in a fall from a fire escape while stalking the director who used her and dumped her. A guileless secretary throws herself from a playboy’s speeding sports car when she learns he’s taking her to an abortionist, not on an elopement. The heroine (Hope Lange), a rising figure in the publishing world, fares better. She’s able to fend off her boss’s under-the-table patty-fingers easily enough, but when her fiancé jilts her for another woman, then proposes to make her his mistress, she goes on a bender in the company of a co-worker who, luckily for her, is the only decent guy in the whole picture.
“Make love to me,” she begs him, but he puts her to bed and sits up all night watching over her. Naturally, true love ensues. Attention, frat boys: Only a scoundrel takes advantage of a girl who’s had too much to drink.
“Where the Boys Are” from 1960 is even more explicit in its counterpoint to the revolution. The heroine (Dolores Hart) starts out preaching free love to her college classmates but learns better by the end of spring break in Fort Lauderdale with, again luckily, no lasting harm done. One of her friends isn’t so lucky. Passed from man to man, the girl ends up seeking death by walking down the center of a busy road at night. (Hart showed what she thought of the ’60s sex scene when, at the height of her success, she left Hollywood to become a nun.)
Alan Pakula, who as producer, director, or writer was responsible for such liberal movie milestones as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “All the President’s Men,” may have conceived “Love With the Proper Stranger” as an appeal for abortion’s legalization, but the story it tells is hardly a pitch for abortion itself. (Spoiler alert: the tale has a happy ending, an ending that involves courtship and marriage.) It’s not surprising that when Pakula died in a 1998 traffic accident, polls were showing American women increasingly opposed to legal abortion, with a corresponding devotion to sexual virtue, marriage, and religion.
Perhaps that trend has stalled in recent years, but today may be a watershed in favor of a sexual counterrevolution that is long overdue. Disgust with the workplace piggery of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, et al., and revulsion at the “hookup culture” (misnamed the “rape culture”) now prevailing on college campuses, may finally put paid to the era of “peace, love, dope.”
The Weinsteins of this world— the spiritual heirs of Maryland’s Captain Mitchell—may worry that the party’s over for them. But the rest of us can take heart. Abortion-weary, divorce-ridden and AIDS-plagued, our country may yet stumble past its “stupid experiment” with easy sex.
Some of us may even find a happy ending, just like in the movies.
Photo credit: Paramount/Getty Images