At one of the Parisian screenings for Claude Chabrol’s movie Une affaire de femmes in 1988, a tear-gas bomb exploded inside the theater. One man suffered a heart attack and died trying to escape. The explosion was set to protest the sacrilegious film, which recounts the last two years in the life of the abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud (called Marie Latour in the film), who was guillotined in Paris in 1943 for performing 27 illegal abortions. In the United States, Chabrol and his producer could not find distributors willing to screen the movie until the following year. But in America, unsurprisingly, distributors were motivated by commercial rather than religious concerns. They worried that the film’s “dark subject matter and unsympathetic characters limited its chances for commercial success,” as the New York Times reported.
You see, Marie Latour, exquisitely played by Isabelle Huppert, is not a likable woman. As Roger Ebert put it, “Most movies on themes like this instruct us about how to think, by portraying its characters as good or bad, and casting them to seem attractive or otherwise. Chabrol does not make it so easy.” The exacting director was honored for his efforts: Une affaire de femmes won three César Awards, including for best actress and best director.
Ebert wrote that review in 1990, but the trope regarding the American appetite for films about abortion remains apposite. Consider a handful of recent American movies on the subject: The comedy Grandma (2015) stars Lily Tomlin as the kooky-clever badass feminist grandmother to teenager Julia Garner. Garner’s character is knocked up by a jock loser, and she is both too young and too broke to have a baby. She and her grandma race to secure money for an abortion. The comedy Plan B (2021) stars Kuhoo Verma, a goody-goody high-schooler who is possibly impregnated at the only party she has ever attended, and spends the rest of the movie trying to secure Plan B in a red state before an abortion may become necessary. The documentary The Janes (2022) tells the riveting story of the pre-Roe feminist crusaders who developed an underground railroad for pregnant women who needed abortions. At their best—and of these three perhaps only The Janes qualifies as “best”—these movies are what William Deresiewicz has called “upper middle brow,” which exhibits “excellence, intelligence, and integrity” but “always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices.” Put simply, these are movies that do our thinking for us.
Unlike Une affaire de femmes, they buttress a myth about abortion that undergirds contemporary discourse: abortion is morally simple. For pro-lifers, the simplicity is obvious: abortion is murder. For pro-choicers, particularly those trying to craft political advertisements or devise viral tweets, the simplicity manifests in two ways. First, by focusing primarily on what Lauren Oyler, writing in the London Review of Books, recently dubbed abortions that are “easy to justify,” those that involve rape, medical emergencies or similarly extreme conditions. Consider the revolting case of the ten-year-old rape victim, which dominated news cycles for weeks. It’s true that these cases are easy to justify, but they are also manifestly more urgent than the less cinematic cases (forgive the crude descriptor, but journalists are trying to sell something). Of course, it is only natural the news will focus on victims most in need. An unintended consequence is that women who would simply rather not give birth, women who would simply rather not be mothers, are often implicitly delegitimized. The emphasis on dramatic cases, Oyler writes, has the unwitting effect of drawing an “implicit distinction between justifiable and unjustifiable abortions.” It does something else, too: it makes the right to abortion about self-defense rather than freedom.
The other way that pro-choicers make abortion seem morally simple is by behaving as if abortion involves no moral price at all. If it isn’t murder, they imply, it isn’t morally complex. This tone, unsurprisingly, dominates on Twitter and Instagram, where pro-choicers share glib infographics and slogans, like the Reductress meme that went viral of a coffee mug with “Don’t Talk To Me Until I’ve Had My Abortion” emblazoned on it. Increasingly, feminists identify as “pro-abortion” rather than pro-choice, as if abortion itself is an admirable display of feminist loyalty. But it isn’t: abortion is not something that all good feminists do, it is an often traumatic and always destructive act. The majority of abortions in the United States are performed within the first eight weeks of pregnancy, when the fetus is about the size of a raspberry. Medication abortions, which account for more than half of abortions performed in this country, involve taking two pills. The first, mifepristone, halts fetal development; the second, misopristol, causes the fetus to contract and empty. The other common abortion procedure, vacuum aspiration, involves using a suction device to withdraw the organism from the uterus. In both of these procedures, which must be done within the first ten and thirteen weeks of pregnancy respectively, the organism that is killed is manifestly not a human baby. But it is nonetheless a living creature, and one that, if nurtured, would grow to be a human being. There is no familiar moral category like this one. Abortion is not murder, it is not manslaughter, it is not even voluntary euthanasia. But it extracts a moral price, and while abortion is regulated and abundantly available within the first trimester, it is a price well worth paying. It seems at times as if feminists lack the confidence to admit this, as if autonomy for half the population is not reason enough to justify a moral cost.
Une affaire de femmes begins in 1941 in Cherbourg, which was under German occupation in the northern zone of France (though by November of the following year, the entire country was occupied). The credits roll over a field in which Marie Latour and her two children, a daughter who can’t be more than two and a son who looks about five, are scavenging for plants that they will then boil for their dinner. The Latours need to scavenge for food since the state benefits allotted to the mother of two children are too meager to suffice. (At the time, mothers were allotted benefits in part based on how many children they had.) The first abortion in the movie is performed by Marie on her neighbor, Ginette, whose husband, about to be returned to the battlefield, does not want a child whom the two could scarcely afford to feed. The French government serially failed to guarantee single mothers (whose husbands were either dead, in the war, imprisoned or working in Germany) the benefits that they needed to feed their children. This is grotesquely ironic for the following reasons: One of the coping mechanisms that the Vichy regime adopted for explaining the French defeat in the war was that French culture had become debauched, that immorality had poisoned French blood. Moral reform was considered vital and strictly enforced. The French abandoned the prewar slogan “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” for the puritanical and nationalist “Travail, Famille, Patrie.” All behavior that was construed as compromising the integrity of the family was severely punished; abortion, in particular, was raised to the status of treason in 1942, and was treated by a special tribunal established for trying crimes against the state. So, women were both dissuaded from working outside of the home, which was considered immoral, and also were not rationed enough food to feed their children. Under these conditions many single mothers saw no alternative but to find illegal work.
Marie discovers Ginette naked in a large metal basin filled with mustard water—a desperate attempt to terminate the pregnancy that the husband has forbidden. “You won’t get rid of it that way,” Marie mutters, and promises to provide the necessary assistance if Ginette can secure soap (a precious commodity in occupied France) and an enema bulb syringe. This she does, and armed with these utensils Marie brings water to boil in Ginette’s kitchen, cuts strips of soap into the burbling pot, and allows it to cool for a few moments. While they wait Ginette says, “Have you done this before?” Marie asks, “Are you scared?” and Ginette whispers, “You’ve never done this.” Marie shrugs and replies, “It can’t be harder than anything else.” Surely not more difficult than feeding two children single-handedly during a war.
Satisfied with the temperature of her concoction, Marie fills the syringe with the soapy water, which she then siphons into Ginette’s vagina and up to her uterus. This was a common method for performing illegal abortions. Another was to simply insert the soap directly into the uterus. The soap causes the tissue to become irritated and inflamed, which in turn forces the embryonic sac to burst and for the dead embryo to fall out along with cascades of blood. It was a dangerous procedure, which could result in poisoning or an embolism from which many women died. Ginette, however, falls to the floor in pain a day or two later, bleeds so much she thinks there will be no blood left in her body, and concludes with glee that the procedure has worked. To thank Marie, she gives her a Victrola.
This Victrola is the first indication that Marie can prosper by conducting these clandestine procedures. Prosperity is what interests her, not female solidarity. The moral complexity of the procedure is not, for her, a consideration. Chabrol’s only instruction to Huppert was to excise any trace of guilt from her performance: “You have to imagine that your neighbor, instead of coming to you to have a child removed, has come to you to get some plumbing fixed. You realize you have a talent for plumbing, and you start a plumbing business. Marie has no moral—moral in quotes—sense at all.” Punishment for breaking the law seems not to daunt her either. Again, most wartime mothers were forced to find some way of making money, and many of the methods available to them were criminal. Marie was like many other mothers, though it would be equally misleading to argue that she goes on to perform illegal abortions in order to feed her children. This is not a woman brimming with maternal sentiment. There is nothing selfless about her. She wants to make money so that she can afford a larger apartment, nice clothes, makeup and fancy hairstyles.
Marie’s husband, a former prisoner of war, returns home just after Ginette’s procedure, and asks where the Victrola came from. Marie brushes off his question with the contempt and disgust that color her treatment of him throughout the movie. He is a pitiful figure, apparently incapable of finding steady work, and powerless to control his own wife. She, on the other hand, is conniving and forceful. Word circulates quickly that she can provide abortions for a fee, a fee that she raises steadily throughout the film.
Soon, Marie befriends a prostitute, Lulu, most of whose clients are German soldiers, or collaborators, whose wallets thicken as a result of collaboration. Lulu registers the immorality of this devil’s bargain, and whispers to Marie, “Krauts pay through the nose, I can’t help it.” Marie, who is wholly deaf to moral perplexities, says that “Some of them are handsome.” To which Lulu replies, “True. But it’s a matter of principle.” Principles are not an animating concern for Marie Latour. She eagerly begins an affair with a collaborator and informer, a client of Lulu’s, who does favors for German soldiers in exchange for cash, curfew passes (which he secures for Marie), cigarettes and lucrative connections. She moves her family to a larger apartment, rents out a back room by the hour to Lulu and her colleagues and hires a maid, who occasionally assists her while performing the abortions. With the prostitutes running up and down the stairs of her apartment complex, and abortion clients trudging into the kitchen and lying with splayed legs on the dining table, Marie can, for the first time, afford a comfortable life. She plans on taking voice lessons to fulfill her dream of becoming a singer on the stage. Her husband’s humiliation and anger metastasize alongside Marie’s success.
One day a woman knocks on the door and explains that she has six children and she would rather die than have another one. She has already attempted to poison herself, and to kill the embryo using “curtain rods, parsley, umbrella ribs.” Her husband fears for her life, which is the only reason he has consented to the abortion procedure. This woman’s description of her own misery is worth recounting in full:
Six in seven years of marriage. Having a bloated body nine months a year. And always a starving little one hanging at my breast. I feel like a cow. I hate myself. It’s so hard to say. I don’t like my children. I put up with them… but I’ve never loved them. Not even the first. He took sixteen hours to come out, ripping apart all my insides… I remember only one summer when I was happy. I was sixteen. I had a beautiful body. Men would look at me without daring to touch. The weather wasn’t good that summer. But I felt so light.
This scene, more than any other, demands that a viewer renounce the comforting conception of woman as maternal caregiver, which is the stereotype (then and today, in France and in the United States) that often strangles conversation about abortion. Yet the scene is not in the movie in order to buttress a pro-choice worldview. There is no moment in the film when Chabrol offers his viewers an answer to the gnawing question of his position on the issue. The importance of the film to an understanding of abortion is precisely that it is not about an issue. It is about the experience of an act. The film is not pro-choice or anti-choice. It is pro-lucidity about what we are talking about when we discuss abortion.
As if to underscore the point, the next time viewers hear about that miserable mother of six, it is to discover that she has died, likely because of the procedure performed on the Latour kitchen table. The dead woman’s sister-in-law, accompanied with two of her six nieces and nephews, tracks down Marie and tells her that after their mother’s death, the children’s father threw himself under a train. She assures Marie that she will not press charges, since the children have been through enough already and she does not want them to discover how their mother died. (She explains that of the two children with her, the only one old enough to understand their conversation is deaf.) Before leaving she tells Marie what she came to communicate: “I just wanted you to know: babies in their mother’s belly have a soul. I pity you.” Marie had never considered the possibility that she had been extinguishing baby-souls. Later she asks Lulu if she believes this, and Lulu sniggers and says, “Their mothers would have to have one first.”
Lulu is gesturing toward one of the central theses of the movie: that metaphysics and high ideals are as scarce a luxury in occupied France as soap and fresh bread. Life is often brutal, and abortion is a brutal fact of life, just as war is. Those who seek to criminalize abortion ache for a moral purity that is anathema to real life. Their fanatical righteousness strips others of freedom. This is the lucidity at the heart of Chabrol’s worldview, and it is what makes the film a masterpiece.
One evening, Mr. Latour comes home earlier than expected and finds his wife and her lover asleep in their bed. Cuckolded and fuming, he informs on his wife to the police. Marie Latour is transported to Paris, where she is tried and sentenced to death by guillotine for performing abortions on “23 future mothers of your country.” After the sentencing, Marie’s lawyer sits on a park bench with a colleague and they exchange the following words:
“They’ll behead her.”
“That’s right. They’ll behead her… Work, Family, Fatherland. We have no rights. Just duties. She killed for money, and that’s it.”
“What monstrous hypocrisy.”
“You said it.”
“And the Jewish children sent to Germany? I feel like an accomplice.”
“We all are. They cut our balls off.”
“They’ve butchered us.”
“Blood doesn’t frighten them.”
“Think it’s because of them?” (He gestures toward two German soldiers.)
“That’s their excuse. In fact, they’re taking revenge.”
“On their own cowardice.”
“Theirs… mine… yours.”
“France has become one gigantic chicken coop.”
Marie Latour is selfish, shallow, beautiful, unintelligent and cold as steel. The brutal conditions in which she finds her calling develop in the context of war. Une affaire de femmes is terribly translated as “Story of Women”; its title actually means “Women’s Business,” a far more apposite name for a film whose subject is the bloody, painful, often traumatic and sometimes deadly procedure that women undergo and perform while the men in the film go about the business of war—which is une affaire d’hommes, or men’s business. In Une affaire de femmes, as in life, abortion and war are both facts of life. A free society must tend to and regulate both of them. And we might take the comparison a bit further: no country that takes its liberties and its independence seriously would disband its military of its own volition, even though it is evident that the moral price of war is high. When abortion is illegal, the independence of roughly half a country’s population is intolerably threatened. Even in an ideal country in which poverty or rape or health care were not serious concerns, abortion should still be a right. Therefore, no country committed to securing liberty and independence for its citizens should entertain the possibility of disbanding abortion clinics and criminalizing abortion.
Chabrol selected the movie in part because he wanted a role perfect for Huppert, who can manipulate audiences into believing anything at all except that she is an ideological avatar. The squalor, brutality, hypocrisy and corruption of the Vichy regime are the abundantly visible conditions in which Marie begins performing illegal abortions. Her activities take place under a government that, Chabrol told the New York Times, “was not a government. It began simply as stupidity, and became a horror. It led to all sorts of things—denunciations by Frenchmen against each other, against Communists, Jews. It was terrible.” Under such inhuman circumstances, Chabrol asks, “Who is to say what is a crime?” Abortion does not have to be morally simple in order for it to be a right. Its philosophical complexity should not be interpreted as a stroke against its legitimacy. Many just activities—some wars among them—are complex. Some of Marie’s clients are dainty and sweet; some of them are prostitutes, or adulteresses who have cheated on husbands away at war; and others are simply uninterested in giving birth. Many of them are not pitiable or likable. Pity and likability have no bearing on whether someone is deserving of an abortion.
Marie Latour’s actions are not somehow heroic because her behavior is “objectively” feminist—it isn’t. She often does terrible things, and occasionally does the right things for the wrong reasons. Marie is punished unjustly not because her accusers interpreted her actions as essentially immoral, an interpretation that can be easily contested, but because her accusers needed a scapegoat, and women throughout history have often met that need. It is no coincidence that in his opinion Justice Alito quoted Sir Matthew Hale, the seventeenth-century jurist who originated the marital rape exemption and sentenced two women to death for witchcraft. These men are members of the same tradition, and it is a tradition crafted by male authorities who did not consider women intellectual equals. What would that tradition have permitted and protected if women had been equal participants? Would the Catholic Church, which has always permitted and often initiated war, have considered abortion as morally justifiable as it once deemed the Crusades? Contemplating the answer is a fruitless theoretical exercise. As Chabrol strikingly remarked, “Countries become extremely ‘moral’ when they feel themselves to be weak.”