Review: If These Walls Could Talk (1996)


If These Walls Could Talk is a made-for-TV movie originally broadcast on HBO. The film is broken into three segments, taking place in 1952, 1974, and 1996, but all take place in the same house. It portrays the stories of three women, whose commonalities are that each once lived in this house and each struggles with the issue of abortion.

In 1952, the protagonist is Claire (Demi Moore), a widowed nurse who gets pregnant but feels there is no way she can keep the baby without shaming her late husband’s family. Because abortions are illegal at this time, she is forced to secretly find someone to perform the abortion for her.

In 1974, Barbara (Sissy Spacek) is a middle-aged mother of four who has recently returned to school. When she discovers she is pregnant, she seriously considers an abortion: with strained family finances, a teenager about to go off to college, and a husband who works nights, she doesn’t see how she can manage a fifth child. Barbara’s teenage daughter encourages her to have an abortion, but her husband is hurt that she would even consider that an option.

In 1996, Christine (Anne Heche), a university student, becomes pregnant by her married professor. Wanting to keep their affair a secret, the professor encourages her to get an abortion and gives her money to attain one. Christine is torn between getting the abortion and living with what she feels are “the consequences of her mistake”.

Potential plot-spoilers beyond this point.

The main focus of the film is on the personal struggles of each woman: how she feels about abortion ethically, how her family and close friend react, the decision-making process she goes through. The film is less about the wider political and ethical debates in which the issue of abortion is usually embedded, and more about the intimate nature of such decision-making in a woman’s life.

Over the course of the three segments, the options for women concerning abortion slowly improve. In the first segment we see that abortions are illegal and taboo; Claire claims to be seeking information about acquiring an abortion on behalf of “a friend” to disguise her real intentions. The prevailing attitude among her medical colleagues toward abortion is disdaining and hostile. The father of the child apologizes for his part, which doesn’t amount to much when he shortly abandons her to her fate. When she finally finds a willing “doctor”, the abortion is performed unceremoniously in her home, which results in hemorrhaging. The summation is that a pregnancy outside of marriage and, even worse, an abortion have the potential to ruin a woman’s life in 1950s America.

Fast-forward to 1974: abortions are legal, as Babara’s teenage daughter emphatically reminds her. But they are still de facto illegal, in that an “average” woman (Barbara, in this case), doesn’t feel this option is available to her. In a scene with her husband where they discuss the possibility of abortion, he is shocked that she could even think of such a thing. Even when she admits that she doesn’t want another child, he supersedes this by saying they can “make it work”. He says this as if he plays an integral role in the functioning of the household beyond his financial contribution, as if he shares a proportionate burden of responsibility. He also glosses over Barbara’s desire to remain in school; she has finally returned to college after setting aside her ambitions to take care of her family for most of her life, but he reacts to this desire as if it were purely selfish. He clearly sees her first, perhaps only responsibility to be the family. Barbara’s daughter is a hyperbolic contrast to her father: at first she urges her mother to consider an abortion, and then resorts to pressuring her, calling Barbara selfish and “a martyr” for deciding to keep the baby. This segment aptly portrays the realities a woman considering abortion would have faced in this time: abortion was still an unrealistic possibility for many 1970s women.

In the final segment,  Christine debates with herself and her best friend about whether or not to keep the baby. At first she goes straight to the abortion clinic, where she is confronted by a group of anti-abortion Christian protesters who remind her that her unborn fetus is a life and to end it would be a sin. While she meets with the clinic staff, she reflects on how unfair it is that her life has been turned completely upside-down while the father is getting on with life as usual. Christine’s best friend (Jada Pinkett) derides her for considering an abortion, and Christine changes her mind– much to the delight of the protesters. They spout the usual rhetoric of how she has saved a life and so forth. They are much disappointed when she returns a few days later, this time with her best friend who has, in spite of her moral qualms, decided to support Christine. The best friend’s logic initially was that Christine needed to live with the consequences of her actions, but is moved to pity by love for her friend. What is interesting is that Christine feels the need to beg her friends forgiveness, as if she is accountable to this friend or anyone else for the unwanted pregnancy. The day that Christine receives her abortion, the clinic doctor is murdered by one the protesters. In the world of 1996 America, while abortions are legal and, medically-speaking, safe, they are still potentially dangerous in a broader social environment of condemnation.

 Several themes surrounding abortion manifest in each segment: that it is a shameful or morally abhorrent act, that it is selfish on the part of the woman, and also that the main burden of the pregnancy– regardless of whether or not she chooses to end it– rests on her. Although the film isn’t explicitly pro-abortion, it does display it in a favorable light by realistically depicting the results of what a world looks like when abortion is illegal and de facto illegal. Particularly in the first segment, These Walls pulls no punches about the terrible possibilities women faced in the times before the Women’s Liberation Movement. While, in the eyes of the law, the situation of reproductive health seems vastly improved, the extreme reactionary attitude of the Right (particularly the religious Right) only shifts the violence from being solely on women to anyone seen as “aiding and abetting” women. The middle segment seems rather benign (albeit depressing) compared to the violence of the first and last segments. It would be hard to say that the film is very optimistic; rather its message seems to be that the struggle for women’s reproductive rights has a long way to go, both on a political level and on a personal level, especially concerning women’s own beliefs in autonomy of self and the right to self-determination.

 A “sequel” of sorts, If These Walls Could Talk 2, was made in 2000 and also deals with issues affecting women. Also on my “to see” list!

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