Unborn, Again

Justice, Justice: Andy Garcia is the newest Supreme Court associate, in Swing Vote.Photo: Randy Holmes/ABC Television Network

In the near-future America of Swing Vote (Monday, April 19; 9 to 11 p.m.; ABC), a conservative Supreme Court jettisons Roe v. Wade leaving each state in the pluribus union to write its own abortion law. In Alabama, this means a murder conviction and the death penalty for any pregnant woman who chooses to abort – more specifically, for an unmarried middle-class African-American lawyer who has made herself the extreme test case. Never mind the cumbersome appeals process; the country is tearing itself apart in a clash of bodies and symbolic pep rallies on the streets, and of competing magics of guerrilla theater and doctored spin for the mirrors of the media. A divided court must go into emergency session to establish guidelines. And since its leading consensus-builder has retired to a hospital bed, the newest associate justice, a moderate Republican trial lawyer appointed by an anti-abortion president, ends up in the hottest seat.

Thus, of all people, Andy Garcia will decide whether LisaGay Hamilton lives or dies, after he has knocked heads with robed brethren Harry Belafonte, Kate Nelligan, Ray Walston, Robert Prosky, James Whitmore, Bob Balaban, Albert Hall, and John Aylward, not to mention Margaret Colin as Andy’s wife, at home with their adopted daughter, and Milo O’Shea in his hospital deathbed, still politicking with his eyebrows. Not the least of Swing Vote’s virtues is its demystifying of the Supremes – the ultimate American committee, with nine pairs of eyes on the main chance, the good opinion of posterity, the Constitution, and the clock.

But if you expect a review of Swing Vote, directed by David Anspaugh from a script by Ron Bass and Jean Rusconi, that doesn’t discuss the court’s decision, so as to preserve the narrative suspense for your supine viewing pleasure, you should stop reading. (You might also seek some counsel from a doctor or a clergyman about your addictive “entertainment” habit.) In the poisoned context, it is a surprising TV movie for a major network. While on just about every other important social issue, from domestic violence to homelessness to racism to homophobia, television has gotten braver since the fifties, on abortion, with exceedingly rare exceptions to be noted in a minute, it’s been in steady retreat since a pro-choice episode of The Defenders in 1963. But Swing Vote however slick and brisk, can deliver on its promise only after stacking the dramatic deck.

Thus this TV-movie court assumes the morbidity of Roe v. Wade. Only Hall and Belafonte, the two black associate justices, dissent from the stampede, and only Belafonte is permitted 60 seconds to say something about “bargaining away” a freedom. All the other justices, on a sliding scale from an absolutist Aylward to a pragmatic Walston to the honest broker Andy, are just trying to make a done deal go down easier. This despite the fact that Nelligan, the only woman on the court, admits to having had an abortion herself when she was 16. And though Hamilton gets her two-minute say on behalf of women across all class and color lines, it is nothing like the passionate aria allowed to Michael O’Keefe, the “Martin Luther King of the pro-life movement,” whose eloquence improves on anything ever heard from Ralph Reed. Mention is barely made of firebombed abortion clinics, or of the murder of doctors and nurses, but such terrorism seems to have had the same desired effect as the assassination of Rabin had on the Mideast peace process. Since almost everybody in Swing Vote, including both Andy’s wife and the biological mother of his adopted child, agrees that abortion is wrong, the Garcia compromise comes as a relief only because it isn’t as one-sided as the movie itself led us to believe that it would be.

This compromise is less an opinion than a policy statement. Two “rights” – of a fetus to maturity and of a woman to the privacy of her own body – are in permanent conflict. So split the difference: “We are human; we are imperfect.” Abortion, even though it’s a bad thing, will be permitted during the first twenty weeks of pregnancy, and not thereafter, except when the health of the mother is at risk, but only after notification of parents, mandatory counseling, a 72-hour waiting period, and a written statement of intention. Under no circumstances are women to be criminalized for their choice. On the other hand, the individual states are to be held responsible for the welfare of all those children who are born “unwanted and unloved” – half a million of them in institutions and foster care, of whom only 32,000 ever get adopted. This is going to mean a lot of work, but so Garcia has decided for a majority that increases as he speaks.

And surely this is some relief. We must all wish to live in a world where no one needed an abortion because foolproof contraception was available and all children, anyway, were loved and cared for, instead of a world where children themselves are having children – usually sired by men who are no longer children – for whom moralizing ideologues don’t have time, money, or affection, so busy are they caring more about abstractions like prenatal sentience than about the kids already dying on the installment plan in the streets of our imperial cities. So good for Andy and good for ABC.

But has it been only a decade since Holly Hunter was a Supreme Court case in NBC’s TV-movie version of Roe v. Wade, reminding us that 2,000 American women died every year from illegal abortions before Norma McCorvey, whereas in 1985, only three did? And that film was itself a network exception from which ad agencies fled in droves, even though it cracked the Nielsen top 10. To be sure, there was a mid-seventies Maude abortion shortly after it became legal. And episodes of Cagney & Lacey in 1985, The Trials of Rosie O’Neill in 1990, and Law & Order in 1991, all three about protests at abortion clinics that turned violent, permitting us to “debate” the issues. And any number of pregnant women on the small screen almost always affirming their right to choose, and usually pretending to think about a D&C, but invariably deciding not to. Including, of course, Murphy Brown.

By 1992, however, when Joan Micklin Silver cast Sissy Spacek as Sherri Finkbine, the host of a Romper Room children’s TV show who decided in 1962 to have an abortion after finding out that the tranquilizers she’d been taking were thalidomide, A Private Matter had to blush unseen on HBO premium cable. Just look where we are now – having scientized, parsing trimesters; having theologized, counting “souls” like crazy Gogols – waiting around for a deliverance by technology (the French pill) or a Message from Garcia (the latest in a long line of men who know best).

Unborn, Again