Can A Person be Pro-Life and Pro-Choice at the Same Time?: The Film "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" Confronts Abortion in Ceausescu's Romania

By SHERRY F. COLB

Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008

A film called "4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days," now in theaters, treats the issue of abortion in a manner that is - at least among current movies on the subject - quite unusual. It tells the story of a college woman who, with the help of her roommate, seeks an illegal abortion in 1987 Romania. (Under Nicolae Ceausescu, abortion was prohibited from 1966 until 1989, when the dictator was removed from power).

Unlike popular movies in the U.S. such as "Waitress," "Knocked Up," and "Juno," all of which are fun to watch, screenwriter and director Cristian Mungiu's film does not treat unplanned pregnancy as a happily inescapable event. In this respect, the film helps educate viewers not only about reproductive rights in 1987 Romania, but about our current political standoff on abortion as well.

Why Abortion was Illegal in Romania Then, and What This Means for the U.S. Now

One fascinating aspect of the film, and of the time and place that it depicts, is that the Romanian law against abortion then and there was not a religiously- or morally-motivated law. Rather, as Mungiu explains to Terry Gross in a radio interview on Fresh Air, the purpose of the law prohibiting abortion was to increase the population of Romania (which it did) and thereby make Romania a great and powerful country on the world stage (which it did not). Mungiu also notes a fact that is not apparent in the film: Romanian laws at that time prohibited not only abortion but contraception and sex education as well.

Does the absence of a moral/religious underpinning for the law against abortion matter? In one respect, it does not. When abortion is against the law, whatever the reason, desperation fuels a horrific black market, and the film illustrates this well. But in another sense, it is useful to understand that one can ban abortion for entirely secular reasons and yet produce a set of rules that looks very much like the current, religiously-motivated approach to abortion advocated in this country (including, for example, rules that would preclude informative sex education and decrease contraceptive availability).

Such parallels allow for the possibility that those who would ban abortion for religious reasons may - perhaps without fully understanding this themselves - be engaged in an altogether different, additional project, one far more like that of a totalitarian dictatorship than anyone might care to acknowledge. As was evident in some of the footage in Lake of Fire, a film about abortion on which I wrote a blog post, the wish to ban abortion often (if not always) reflects hostility to women's ability to control their own bodies and reproductive lives.

As in the case of anything with a sordid history, one must be especially skeptical of the motives behind legislation that so frighteningly resembles the malevolent laws of a totalitarian dictatorship. Indeed, though filmmaker Cristian Mungiu believes (and demonstrates in "4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days") that the choice to have an abortion has significant moral implications, he also says in his interview with Terry Gross that the Romanian ban on abortion might have represented the most repressive aspect of Soviet totalitarianism.

The Limited Lessons of Prohibition

One argument that arises quite powerfully out of the Romanian film is that if abortion is banned, then women will, out of desperation, visit back-alley abortionists at whose hands they could lose their lives. At least one source estimates that in Ceausescu's Romania, for example, 500,000 women died in the course of botched abortions. This argument resembles one that was made (with ultimate success) to defeat Prohibition of alcohol in the U.S., and that is currently made here (less successfully) on behalf of the legalization of "vice" or so-called "victimless crimes" such as drugs and prostitution. To examine what people do when such conduct is criminalized is to see that criminalization itself generates many ills that would otherwise not accompany the conduct itself. The violence associated with the alcohol industry during Prohibition and the current violence associated with both drugs and prostitution testify to that reality.

The weakness in this argument as applied to abortion, however, is that, in the view of those who oppose the practice on moral grounds, having an abortion is not a victimless crime in the way that using drugs and engaging in prostitution arguably are. And in the view of those who defend a woman's right to reproductive freedom, the analogy to vice is flawed as well: Few promote the fundamental right to use drugs or to pay for sex with the passion that surrounds advocacy of a right to choose abortion. The stakes are therefore greater on both sides of the debate.

Nonetheless, the adamant refusal of our species to submit to the prohibition of "vice" or abortion - however brutal the alternatives might be - is instructive. The question becomes this: Should the secondary effects of a prohibition regime - including the deaths of many women, in the case of abortion - carry any weight for someone who believes that abortion is murder? The answer one might embrace after viewing the film is "Perhaps."

"Pro-Life and Pro-Choice"?

A bumper sticker one never sees on the highway is "Pro-life and Pro-choice." One could imagine a variety of meanings attached to such a phrase. A person could be signaling a rejection of the implicit message of the "pro-life" slogan - that people who support a right to choose abortion are somehow "pro-death." Alternatively, such a bumper sticker could mean something very different. It could refer to a person's beliefs that abortion is wrong, that women therefore should not have abortions, but that a criminal prohibition against the practice is wrong as well. By some lights, this is what President Clinton had in mind when he said that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare."

Is such a position coherent? It is if one believes that the goal of the pro-life movement is ultimately to reduce the prevalence of abortion, rather than to exact retribution on those who provide or obtain one. A film like "4 months" shows just how desperate many people are to have an abortion, a desperation that prohibition may actually fuel. A large number of women will even submit to violation and possible death at the hands of the unscrupulous "providers" who predictably take the place of clinics and hospitals when abortion is illegal.

Mungiu describes a scene recounted to him by the woman whose story inspired the film. In this incident, the abortionist shows his prospective patient two barrels, one containing water and the other containing acid. If she dies during the procedure, he explains, she will be placed in the second barrel. That she does not immediately change her mind about her choice after confronting this potential fate dramatizes the intensity of "demand" for abortion. It also shows that answering that demand with criminal prohibitions guarantees tragedy.

Still, one might say that abortion is wrong enough to justify the foreseeable and terrible consequences of prohibition, particularly when most of the people who suffer will be those who decide to kill an unborn human being. And furthermore, even if we could reduce murders more generally by lifting the criminal ban on murder, one who takes this position could argue, would that make it right to permit murder?

I do not have a definitive answer to this question. Preliminarily, however, I have two thoughts. I would say that if the primary objective of the law against murder is to protect people from being murdered - and thus to protect people's lives - then the fact that such a law results in a greater numbers of deaths than its absence should give any legislator pause and might well militate against having such a law. Second, the reality of women's desperation to terminate unwanted pregnancies at such a cost should tell us that abortion truly is something distinct from murder more generally, regardless of how one views the fetus or unborn child.

To be both pro-life and pro-choice, then, could translate into the desire to persuade people not to have abortions, to spread the word that abortion is wrong, that it is murder, and that the alternatives - including, crucially, contraception, are better. It might mean creating a world in which women no longer seek abortions in large numbers. But at the same time, it would mean that one opposes a law that compels women to remain pregnant against their will, in recognition of what women will do - what women have done - when living in a world that includes such a law. After viewing "4 months," it is easy to imagine that its writer and director, Cristian Mungiu, is both pro-life and pro-choice in just this way.


Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is currently a Visiting Professor at Columbia Law School and will be joining the Cornell Law School faculty in the fall. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is currently available on Amazon.

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