Hard cider

Combining the frivolous suspense of a game show and the solemnity of a coronation, the "Oscars" (March 26, this year) seem to have a little something for everyone not glued to "Mother Angelica Live." Given the self-promotional nature of the event, it is dangerous to read too much significance into which films are nominated or eventually awarded prizes. Social or cultural trends detected on Oscar night are often as skimpy as the outfits worn by some participants. That said, one of the movies nominated for best picture this year merits further scrutiny.

The Cider House Rules is an extended meditation on abortion, and it is a disturbing film for several reasons. Adapted for the screen by John Irving from his own novel, The Cider House Rules is by turns affectingly sentimental, sure about its own virtue, and more than a little troubling in the way its pragmatic philosophical message relies on violence to resolve human problems. Ultimately, it is a very manipulative film.

The story is set in an orphanage in Maine in the early 1940s. Dr. Wilbur Larch, the director of the orphanage, is an ornery soul and a skilled obstetrician, as dedicated to caring for the "abandoned" children left on his doorstep as he is to providing abortions for women who request them. Larch has trained Homer Wells, the eldest boy in the orphanage (and who hasn’t been to high school, much less medical school), as an obstetrician and clearly sees him as his heir. One of Homer’s chores, along with delivering babies, is to dispose of aborted fetuses in the backyard incinerator. However, young Homer will not perform abortions. This refusal infuriates Larch, who berates his protégé for misplaced scruples, always stressing that the first moral duty is "to be useful."

Inevitably, a teen-age victim of a botched abortion shows up at the orphanage and dies. Larch is outraged, and blames the girl’s death on the "ignorance" and "silence" surrounding illegal abortion. "This is what doing nothing gets you," he reprimands Homer. "If she had come to you, what would you have done? Nothing."

It is not hard to see where this story is going (or why Planned Parenthood plans to use it at fundraisers). Homer leaves the orphanage and ends up working with migrant apple pickers. Eventually the world places another desperate woman in his path, only this time author Irving further stacks the deck by making her the victim of father-daughter incest. By this juncture Homer’s earlier resolve has already been eroded by his own initiation into sexual passion and duplicity. The now more mature Homer, confronted with a woman who threatens to "fix it" herself, performs the abortion.

Homer’s decision is presented as an initiation into manhood, his recognition that being morally responsible means being of "some use." Rules, especially moral rules touching on human relationships, are obstacles to be overcome when faced with the messy business of life, or so Irving wants us to believe. Trained in surgery, Homer simply had an obligation to perform the abortion. Never a subtle writer, Irving drives this point home again and again, while the worries of those who accuse Dr. Larch of "playing God" are dismissed out of hand. "Men and women of conscience," Larch tells Homer, "should seize these moments when we can play God." "I’m not sorry for anything I’ve done," he goes on. "You have to choose.... Someone’s going to get hurt, and it’s no one’s fault."

The same message is also put into the mouth of the father who has committed incest. "The rules don’t mean nothing at all," he tells us. "Someone who don’t live here made those rules. We make our own rules-every single day."

Opponents of abortion on demand are frequently confronted with questions about incest and dangerous back-alley procedures. There are no easy answers to such challenges, although it is useful to be reminded that incest is involved in a minuscule number of abortions and that the number of deaths caused by illegal abortions before Roe has been wildly exaggerated. Allowing legal access to abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when a mother’s life is in danger, is a morally defensible position. But none of these hard cases logically commit one to abortion on demand. The movie’s insistence that physicians unwilling to perform abortions are morally responsible for the deaths of women who resort to knitting needles is just one example of how extreme Irving’s view is.

More disturbing is the movie’s sentimental fatalism about the inevitability of violence. Abortion, whatever one thinks of it morally, remains a violent act, and it lies at the dramatic center of the story. Incest is also violent, yet the movie coyly undermines the idea that there can be any strict accounting for-or any "rules" concerning-what the father has done. And when the father meets his own violent end, the same dynamic is at work; no one is really responsible. Finally, Dr. Larch’s death, by an accidental drug overdose, is intended to seal the case against moral rule-making of any sort. Evil, it seems, is an impersonal force loosed in the world which no one need confront and for which there is no final answer. In short, in Dr. Larch’s words, "Someone’s going to get hurt, and it’s no one’s fault."

Opponents of abortion have long worried that in a society where 1.4 million fetuses are disposed of every year, respect for all life will inevitably coarsen and diminish. That concern is usually dismissed as idle speculation. But if the esteem in which The Cider House Rules is held is any indication, our common moral vocabulary may well be atrophying. At a minimum, it is bewildering that some critics call a movie that soft-pedals the crime of incest and elevates abortion to an absolute moral duty "a tribute to the human spirit." That its promoters imagine it to be an "American classic about family" is simply macabre. But where Irving’s story is most dangerous is how it taps into the growing moral sentiment, spurred on by our scientific mastery of nature, that "men and women of conscience should seize these moments when we can play God."

There is no avoiding moral dilemmas in which all the choices may seem unsatisfactory. But how we approach such decisions will in large part determine whether we do harm or good. Certainly we must not "seize" these moments with the utilitarian fervor of Dr. Larch. To do so would be to lose sight of our innate limitations and the hard-won wisdom of moral tradition. Humility, awe, and a willingness to question our own motives are essential moral attitudes. We cannot "make up the rules every single day," for that, as The Cider House Rules unintentionally reveals, is an invitation to violence.

Published in the 2000-03-24 issue: 

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