Abortion and Palindromes

2 June 2009 at 17:51 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I gasped when I read the news on Sunday about Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider from Wichita, Kansas, who was shot and killed before Sunday services at his local church. Dr. Tiller was one of only two doctors in the country to perform the highly controversial late-term abortion procedure, and as a result, the man was plagued by lawsuits, media attention, and protests by anti-choice activists. Dr. Tiller’s death demonstrates the risks taken to provide women with the option of abortion, and I suspect that he will be seen as a martyr by the pro-choice movement for years to come.

In learning about the death of this doctor, I immediately thought of Palindromes, the 2004 film written and directed by Todd Solondz of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness indie fame. Palindromes follows teenage girl Aviva (played by multiple actresses), an awkward suburban teenager who desperately wants to have a baby. After sleeping with a family friend and becoming pregnant, Aviva’s parents manipulate her into aborting the fetus in spite of her wishes.

Which brings me to the key concern of this entry: how does Palindromes portray abortion and the far-right’s response, and what might we draw from this portrayal in terms of the ongoing political debate over choice? On the one hand, I would argue that if you define pro-choice as a female’s right to terminate or carry out a pregnancy by her own free will, then Palindromes qualifies, as it seems to be condemning Aviva’s manipulation by her parents. On the other hand, the film implies that the procedure inadvertantly sterilized Aviva, permanently robbing her of her dream to have a baby. This negative portrayal of abortion as possibly dangerous to a girl’s health (though in reality pregnancy is far more likely to lead to health complications) could be construed as condemning the procedure.

The film’s representation of the abortion issue becomes even more complicated by later plot developments. Aviva runs away from home and after a series of events, accompanies an assassin out to execute the doctor who conducted her abortion. In a movie full of disturbing scenes, this particular moment startled me the most: from outside the doctor’s home the hired assasin spots him playing charades with his family. Pointing the gun at the doctor, the assassin hesitates as Aviva goads him along. Suddenly, a girl stands in the cross hairs just as the gun shots ring out. The child falls before the startled doctor is also shot. Aviva and the assassin race off together.

Aviva and an abortion provider assassin in Palindromes.  Taken from barrettchase.com

Aviva and the abortion provider assassin, in Palindromes. Taken from barrettchase.com

This is the moment from the film that I kept thinking about when I learned of Dr. Tiller. The mundanity of the doctor interacting with his family clashes so suddenly with the violence of the shooting. Palindromes heightens the level of irony with the accidental shooting of the child, the very exemplar of “innocent life” that the sniper intends to prevent from dying with his murderous act. In the end, it seems that the film portrays the murder of the abortion doctor as absurdly futile.

The same sense of futility over executing the abortionist pervades the film in other ways. Aviva’s subsequent efforts to get pregnant, for instance, will fail no matter how often she tries. Even the film’s title, Palindromes, relates to the concept of an unchanging self, as demonstrated by the following quote from character Mark Weiner: “People always end up the way they started out. No one ever changes. They think they do but they don’t. . . . Essentially, from in front, from behind. Whether you’re 13 or 50, you will always be the same.” The same attitude seems to apply to the film’s framing of abortion, and as a result, Palindromes’ politics are difficult to pin down.

If anything might be taken from the film, it could be that while abortions should be safe and legal, they do not guaranty empowerment and could potentially disempower girls and women in certain circumstances (I wouldn’t argue these circumstances are common, just plausible). After settling down from her initial reaction to Aviva’s pregnancy, her mother (played by the wonderful Ellen Barkin) attempts to comfort her daughter by telling her to abort the baby:

The scene reveals a disconnect between mother and daughter over the ways in which they conceptualize her pregnancy: mom sees it as a cluster of cells, daughter as a hypothetical baby. What makes the abortion issue so complicated is that both characters are right. This conflict of ideas reminds me of an interview I heard on Fresh Air of author Ayelet Waldman, who underwent a second trimester abortion. She explained to interviewer Terry Gross that while she valued her right to choose and defends the rights of other women to access safe abortions, she also feels that abortion advocates should face-up to the horrific nature of abortion procedures. I would add that those in favor of abortion rights need to recognize that abortion in and of itself is not an inherent good, but can be abused to a girl or woman’s disadvantage (for further reading on the topic, I recommend Jennifer Nelson’s book Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement). The most extreme example would be a forced abortion for eugenics purposes, but Aviva’s story in Palindromes is a more subtle example of the ways in which abortion can undermine rather than reinforce choice.

As we reflect upon the murder of Dr. Tiller, we must advocate for the economic, social, and sexual empowerment of girls and women so that they may be able to take charge of their bodies without feeling ashamed. Such efforts enable girls and women to truly choose their fates, of which abortion should definitely be an option.



  1. k said,

    great post c! what are your thoughts on issues of identity politics in that a male actor, girls of color, and an older female (jennifer jason leigh) all play aviva? how does this complicate the abortion narrative – is this todd solondz’s way of trying to universalize abortion? as you pointed out there are already issues with this idea in relation to race and the US’s history of eugenics and denying females of color their reproductive rights.

    btw – The Root has an interesting article on Tiller’s death and the ways race factors into issues surrounding abortion and reproductive rights in general:


    • c8ic8 said,

      I’ve been mulling over Palindromes’ use of race and sex since I saw it, and I’m still somewhat puzzled by it. Using black, male, and adult actors to play a white girl seems to be an effort to interrogate each of these identities. Expressing her desire to have “lots and lots of babies” signifies something very different when the actor is black as compared to white, and of course, this plays very nicely into issues surrounding the abortion: in more ways than one, Aviva’s abortion is a means for her to maintain her privilege and conform to an illusion of innocent, white girlhood that black teenage girls simply do not have access to from the beginning. I guess you could argue that the use of actors of other races/sexes/generations calls attention to these efforts.

      That’s a bit of a rambling answer, but at this point, it’s the best one I’ve got! I really would have to see the film again to better formulate a theory on this. What a great question!

  2. Childhood Cinematic Traumas #4: Fantasia « Dark Room said,

    […] not a horror buff. While I can abide by much of the dark comedy Caitlin writes about (though Todd Solondz’s filmography is as scary as any torture porn), I’m pretty lightweight when it comes to […]

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    […] of Palindromes in passing, but was interested in watching it after Caitlin at Dark Room’s essay that links the movie to the death of Dr. George Tiller. But if it’s polarization Solondz […]

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