Last week, I wrote a deeply personal post about how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will help me get much needed treatment for gallstones. I told a bit of my story and posed three basic questions for fiscal and social conservatives who oppose the ACA: 1.) Do they believe small business owners who don’t have access to affordable health insurance will be a drain on the economy? 2.) Do they think homemakers who re-enter the work force are undeserving of affordable health care? 3.) Does pro-life concern for mothers only extend to their utility as symbols for a cause?
The post generated a lot of reaction, both positive and negative. I appreciate all the responses because they tell me I tapped into something important. One criticism in particular stuck in my craw, though, so I’d like to respond to it. Then, I want to offer a challenge to institutions like Wheaton College, which cited religious freedom and sanctity of life concerns in its decision to file a lawsuit this week against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over the ACA contraception mandate.
What Does It Mean to Be Responsible for Oneself?
First, the criticism. Some accused me of wanting others to pay for the choices I’ve made in my life. This is not only an affront to everything I believe, but it is patently false. From the time I chose not to abort my child, I’ve taken responsibility for my actions. In a 2004 Christianity Today essay about my unplanned pregnancy, for example, I wrote the following words:
“I have always seen the decision not to terminate my pregnancy as the one courageous moment of my life. I acted with self-abandon for the benefit of the innocent. But lately, I’ve begun to think it curious that I should have seen not killing my own child as heroic. I could spin a sad tale to make myself look better, but the fact is I failed in my duty to my family, my community, and my Savior. Accepting the consequences of that failure was not heroism. Only in a culture where sex is divorced from meaning and where self-interest trumps everything could such a narrative be produced. Courage would have been to decline that offer of illicit comfort in the first place.”
I still believe this.
Likewise, when my husband and I decided that I would stay home with our children, it was, in part, an economic decision. It didn’t make financial sense for me to get a job and devote a large chunk of my income to childcare and other work-related expenses, so long before he was earning a six-figure income, we chose to live frugally on one income, at least until our children were in school. I either worked part-time or went to school part-time for much of the time that I “stayed home.” I also home-schooled our sons for several years because our urban district had some typical urban school problems that we judged not to be good for our children. If that was not taking responsibility for myself and my family, I don’t know what is.
I could go on and detail the myriad ways my husband and I have continued to be responsible citizens in the decade since he left his high-paying job, but I’ll simply say that when I was in the midst of any of the four gallbladder attacks I’ve had in the past two weeks, it would have been easy for me to go to the emergency room and not worry about who pays the bill, as I imagine some uninsured Americans do. But I am not one of those people. What I’ve been trying to do instead is to find a way to keep doing what I’ve always tried to do, which is to live my life with integrity. So, I sent in my application for NJ Protect last week, along with a check for $584, which is what a decent plan will cost me every month, and made an appointment with a gastroenterologist for August 2, when I will be insured again. My family will resume paying in the neighborhood of $1000-a-month for mediocre health insurance. How anyone can view this as me wanting someone else to pay my way is beyond me.
The History and Reality of Employer Sponsored Health Insurance
In 2005, the non-partisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center reported that “health insurance provided by employers is a tax-free fringe beneﬁt that costs the government over $140 billion annually.” The report said employer-sponsored insurance covers almost two-thirds of workers and their families, but “overwhelmingly favors” the middle and upper classes. That was seven years ago. I’d guess fewer workers are covered by ESI now.
In a 2006 New England Journal of Medicine article, Dr. David Blumenthal described our system of employer-sponsored insurance as “an accident of history that evolved in an unplanned way and, in the view of some, without the benefit of intelligent design.” He said President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose not to advance universal health insurance as a part of Social Security because of “fierce opposition from the American Medical Association,” which was “a much more potent lobby then than it is now.” As it happens, Roosevelt had lunch with his father-in-law, an influential neurosurgeon who opposed the plan, just before deciding not to push for universal health insurance.
Private insurance emerged to fill the gap and then a series of federal laws cemented the ESI system into place. During World War II, because of inflation concerns, the federal government “limited employers’ freedom to raise wages,” but allowed them to expand benefits like health insurance so that they could compete for scarce workers, Blumenthal said. Then, in 1954, the IRS “decided that the contributions that employers made to the purchase of health insurance for their employees were not taxable as income to workers.” By 2004, the tax benefit for every American with ESI was about $1,180, he said.
Many would argue that a tax break is not the same thing as a subsidy, but it bears noting that workers who have ESI already get a break that the uninsured do not get, and the decisions that led to this break were political, and perhaps even personal, if it’s true that Roosevelt’s father-in-law influenced his decision to not push for universal health insurance.
What Does It mean to be Responsible for One’s Rhetoric?
Now, onto my challenge. In my previous post, I said that vocal pro-lifers seem to care more about the contraception mandate than they do about the long-term well being of women who don’t abort their children. This week, in a highly unusual step, Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois, announced that it is joining other Christian colleges in suing the Department of Health and Human Services over the mandate, in part because it will require Wheaton’s employee health insurance plan to cover abortifacient drugs commonly known as “morning after” and “week after” pills. These schools have every right to do this, but I’d like to challenge them to adopt a more consistent pro-life policy, like the one my uncle Charlie Gifford pushed to have enacted when he was associate dean and campus pastor at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.
I talked to my uncle this morning. He said that when a freshman at the school came to him and told him she was pregnant, he questioned Taylor’s policy of suspending unmarried pregnant students until after the births of their babies. He also questioned why fathers were not similarly disciplined. As a result, Taylor changed its policy. The school no longer suspends unmarried pregnant students, but it does require them and the male students who impregnate them to live in approved off-campus housing during the third trimester of pregnancy. My uncle did more. He and my aunt welcomed two pregnant Taylor students into their home so that these women could continue their educations. Both women gave their babies up for adoption, he said, and their parents are among the most loyal supporters of his current ministry in Sheridan, Wyoming.
When my late son Gabe was a student at Wheaton College, I asked the dean of women what the school’s policy was on pregnant unmarried students. She said Wheaton had to do what was in the best interest of the whole community, which I took to mean that it suspended or expelled unmarried pregnant women, just as I would have been suspended or expelled when I became pregnant at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, if I hadn’t already left the school. Wheaton’s current policy, which its communications director LaTonya Taylor sent via email late this afternoon, says the school is prepared to “stand with” both the mother and the father, but in practical terms it is vague, saying only that on-campus residency and/or enrollment “will be considered in light of what is best for all those involved.”
So, I’ll conclude by saying that if Christian colleges want to take a strong pro-life stand, they need to be consistent and do a better job of supporting women who become pregnant on their campuses. Allowing pregnant women to continue with their studies is not synonymous with condoning extra-marital sex. “Grace and mercy is a scandal. It always is,” my Uncle Charlie told me this morning. How about let’s all be scandalized for the right reasons for a change? Wouldn’t that be refreshing?
Update 7/27: Wheaton College emailed the following clarification regarding its policy:
“Under the current policy, which has been Wheaton’s policy since 2001, the College has allowed pregnant female students—as well as the fathers of their children, if they are also enrolled—to continue their studies before and/or after the births of their babies. Students are not automatically suspended or expelled for becoming pregnant while unmarried. The challenge to community life is largely related to providing appropriate housing for an expectant mother and newborn, given the realities of residence hall life. Our practice has been to assist young women in finding off-campus housing during the final months of pregnancy. The living situation following the pregnancy is, of course, dependent on many factors—most of them related to the new parents’ decisions about marriage, adoption, or single parenthood. Our goal and practice for expectant students is to provide spiritual support and practical assistance in arranging appropriate housing, adjusting to their new reality, making decisions, and completing their studies.”
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…. Therefore honor God with your body.” 1 Cor. 6:19-20
It is well known that blacks live sicker and die younger than any other racial group. Look no farther than the church with the pastor battling hypertension and diabetes or the congregation with several obese members sitting in the pews. It would seem that the black church in America would be the leading ally supporting the nation’s first black president in the debate over access to affordable healthcare. It would seem that the black church would lead the way toward healthier eating and living.
Could it be that black church culture is leading us astray?
I thought about this during a recent conference in Baltimore on black global health. The International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora, hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions, brought together healthcare professionals and researchers, from across the Western Hemisphere to discuss common health problems among the descendants of African slaves. Black Arts Movement icon Sonia Sanchez set the tone as the keynote speaker July 4, inspiring the crowd with a special poem for the occasion. The award-winning author participated throughout the weeklong conference.
Listening to a sister from Brazil and a brother from Peru discuss high rates of obesity, diabetes, infant deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS among blacks in their countries sounded like the health crisis of black New York, Chicago, or the Mississippi Delta. Modern racism and the legacy of slavery haunt all of us. Participants also shared solutions and pledged to work together. In fact, according to Dr. Thomas LaVeist, a book and curriculum addressing these health themes are being created for the public and for high school and college educators. Thomas, who happens to be my brother, directs the Hopkins center and is the mastermind behind the conference, which is scheduled to take place every two years.
Solutions are basically what government and institutions can do to end racism and ensure all people have access to quality affordable healthcare and what blacks can do themselves to care for their “temples of the Holy Spirit.”
The black church should be more outspoken in support of increased access to quality affordable care. Our cousins from Canada and Central and South America, who for the most part receive varying degrees well-executed and poorly-executed universal healthcare, are puzzled as to why we richer Americans are debating what the rest of the industrialized world has long settled — that healthcare access is a God-given human right, not a privilege to be determined by profit-seeking private insurance companies.
After the conference, Thomas told me that the Catholic Church (obviously many Catholics are also black) has been the most vocal Christians on healthcare, mainly around the debate on whether Catholic organizations should be mandated to support abortions for employees (some evangelical Protestant organizations have recently joined that fight, too). Thomas suggested the traditional black church denominations could find their unified voice by calling for all Americans to be insured (Obama’s Affordable Care Act would still leave 20 million people uninsured). However, regardless of what the government does, black churches should lead by example with healthier eating and living, he said.
BAD FOR THE SOUL? Black churches are routinely feeding their people unhealthy soul food staples such as fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Is that biblical?
“Black church culture is out of alignment with some biblical teachings, particularly when it comes to how we eat,” my brother said. “Church culture has got us drinking Kool-Aid, eating white bread, fried chicken, large servings of macaroni and cheese and collard greens drenched with salty hog maws (foods that are high in sugar, salt, calories, and carbohydrates that trigger health problems). We’re eating this in the church basement at dinner and at church conventions! Meanwhile, the Bible teaches against gluttony.”
Don’t judge or condemn those who are obese, but encourage and show everyone how to eat healthy, Thomas added. He cited Pastor Michael Minor of Oak Hill Baptist Church in the Mississippi Delta as pushing the healthy eating message that all black churches should adopt. The Delta is one of America’s poorest areas and leads the nation in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates. In 2011, Pastor Minor, known as “the Southern pastor who banned fried chicken in his church,” banished all unhealthy foods and insisted soul food meals be prepared in healthier ways; many of his members are losing weight and improving their overall health. Other churches across the country such as, First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, are on similar missions.
Ask yourself, when it comes to health, what is the black church best known for?
What might the state of black health in America (and the African diaspora) be if your answer was healthy eating and living?
Teen birth rates by age, race, and Hispanic origin were the lowest on record in 2010 and the lowest they’ve been since 1946, the National Center for Health Statistics said in a new report. The number of babies born to teenagers declined 9 percent from 2009 to 2010 (34.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19) and 44 percent from 1991 through 2010. Black and White teenagers saw identical declines of 9 percent, while American Indians, Alaska Natives, Hispanics, Asians, and Pacific Islanders saw a 12-13 percent decline.
“Rates tended to be highest in the South and Southwest and lowest in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, a pattern that has persisted for many years,” the report said. “Some of the variation across states reflects variation in population composition within states by race and Hispanic origin.”
Contraception and Sex Education Work
Dr. John Santelli, a professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University told The New York Times Well blog that increased contraception usage has made the biggest difference. “In the ’90s, it was the big increase in condom use; most recently it looks like it’s an increase in the use of oral contraceptives, the patch and perhaps even the IUD.”
“There was a major change in public messaging about teenage sexual activity and condom use,” Rebecca A. Maynard, a professor of education and social policy at the University of Pennsylvania told The Times. “The former was fueled by the abstinence education advocates and the latter by public health concerns about the high rate of sexually transmitted disease among teens.”
Teen STD Rates Still at ‘Historic’ High
Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, told Baptist Press the new numbers reflect a variety of factors including “family structure, parental expectations, socio-economics and type of sex education.” She also said sexually transmitted disease rates remain “at historic highs.”
“Even though the STD rate among teenagers is at an all-time high, the NAEA found a 1:24 disparity in federal funding of abstinence education compared to contraceptive-centered programs. From 2007 to 2012, the funding gap between the two is more than $4.2 billion — $675.9 million to $4.9 billion. The most recent budget proposal by President Obama recommends only 4 percent of sex education dollars be spent on abstinence-based programs,” Baptist Press reported.
American Teens Have Twice as Many Babies
Additionally, U.S. teens still have twice as many babies as 20 other industrialized nations, The Washington PostWonkBlog reported. The reasons cited are more economic inequality in the United States, lower contraceptive usage among American teens, and higher abortion rates abroad.
Teen pregnancy costs an estimated $10.9 billion annually and only 50 percent of teen moms will earn a high school diploma by age 22, CBS News’ HealthPop reported.
“We are in a woeful shape,” television’s Dr. Drew Pinsky told CBS News’ HealthPop. “The strange thing about the entirety of the sexual revolution is that no one even thought this sexual revolution thing hoisted by adults was raining down on teenagers and young adults. It’s had dire, dire consequences.”
What do you think?
Should sex education for teens be comprehensive or abstinence only?
FRIEND AND PASTOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Rev. Joel C. Hunter stands in the foyer of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida. Hunter is one of President Obama's closet spiritual advisers. (Photo: Phyllis Redman/Newscom)
The Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter grew up in small town Ohio, the son of a widowed mother who loved black jazz musicians. Now he is a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama and pastor of 15,000-member Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida. “Cooperation and partnership are hallmarks of Dr. Hunter’s ministry,” his church bio says. “Together, he believes, we can accomplish more because of our differences than we would on our own—without giving up our unique identities.” UrbanFaith talked to Hunter about how this kind of cooperation is possible, and about his unique testimony of coming to faith after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., his friendship with the president, and what Sanford area ministers are doing in response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: You have a unique testimony in that you were involved in the civil rights movement and came to the Lord after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. You also recently wrote an op-ed for Charisma about the Trayvon Martin case. Has racial reconciliation always been a thread in your ministry?
Joel C. Hunter: Yes, it has been. The little town I came from in Ohio didn’t have one ethnicity other than white. I think it was one of those Midwestern towns that had a law about the exclusivity of races. But my mother, who reminds me in some ways of President Obama’s mother, was one of those free spirits who loved everybody and thrived on jazz: Nat King Cole and all of those greats—back in that day they were called “Negro geniuses” with music. And so, when I went to Ohio University, it was a natural thing for me to go to the other end of the spectrum and get involved almost immediately with the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t from a faith perspective that that first happened, but when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I went to Galbraith Chapel, a little generic chapel at Ohio University, and came to Christ. Caring for those who are left out was at the core of my calling to ministry and that’s always been.
Now that there has been an arrest in the Trayvon Martin case, have things settled down in the Sanford area?
We are in the same county and I’m actively meeting with ministers from Sanford, being led by the African American ministers. We have another meeting scheduled for tomorrow night about how we can take our community toward, not just reconciliation and healing, but toward improvement because of what has happened here. We’ve had ongoing meetings together: prayer meetings and brainstorming meetings. We may have a community memorial service with the Martin family. I’m not sure. The publicity has somewhat died down now, but the ministers and spiritual leaders are much more conversant, active, and cooperative than we’ve ever been. So, I’m thinking God is really going to do something wonderful from this.
As a pastor who comes from a relatively humble upbringing, how do you keep being a spiritual adviser to the president of the United States in perspective?
I don’t know how this happens, but it’s really true: people are people to me. The president is a person. He’s great about this; he has a great sense of humor and he’s very personable, so it’s not like this is a lot of work. I realize that to the world, it’s a long way for a kid from Shelby, Ohio (where the largest buildings literally are the grain elevators for the farmers), but to me he’s a person and the job of a pastor is to help the person in front of him or her to get closer to God. And so, that’s exactly what I do.
I remember a time when I had had a conversation and a prayer with the president and within 24 hours I was back at my church talking to a AIDS-infected prostitute who wanted to get closer to the Lord. It struck me that my conversation with her resembled very closely the conversation I had had with the president less than 24 hours previous. To me, that was the ultimate. That’s what a pastor does. Each person has the same value in God’s eyes. I didn’t count one of those conversations more valuable than the other.
When your five-year-old granddaughter Ava passed away from glioblastoma in 2010, the president called you and prayed with you. How do you respond to criticism of his faith when you’ve been so personally engaged with him on a spiritual level?
The president called me when Ava was first diagnosed and then, of course, he called me when she passed away, so it was very tender and kind thing for him to do. I understand that people are ignorant, that is they lack knowledge about his faith walk. I realize there is some political agenda when people accuse him of not being a Christian. I’m not naïve about that, but the president and the candidate Barack Obama chose—even more after he was president—not to make his faith walk very public because he knew it would be politicized and that’s an area of his life he didn’t want politicized.
I always say that nature hates a vacuum and when you don’t have a lot of information, you will fill it in with your latest email. That’s exactly what happens. I know from personal experience and from many personal conversations that they’re wrong. I know his daily practice of reading Scripture. I write many of those devotions. Our prayer times in the Oval Office, over the phone, and on special occasions have been just as sweet and participatory as you can imagine. Of course, there’s always the defensiveness for a friend. I consider the president a friend and any time a friend is wrongly accused, you want to defend them. But, by the same token, I can’t really go much further, because this is the president and I don’t want to give a lot of information that is not directly related to his role and official duties. So, I have to be very careful about not saying too much.
You were on a press call defending President Obama’s faith around the time the Rev. Franklin Graham publicly questioned it. How do you address other Christian leaders who cast doubt on the president’s faith?
I can and do openly tell them about my personal relationship with the president and my personal knowledge of his spiritual life. Sometimes I say I wish most of the people in my congregation were as attentive to reading the Bible every day, praying every day, and trying to put their faith into practice as the president is. Some of them are really taken aback, because they just don’t have the knowledge. It’s not covered in the media by design. That’s fine. I’m very open about my personal knowledge of his walk.
AN OVAL OFFICE CHAT: Last February, Rev. Hunter shared a light moment with President Obama and Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Photo: Pete Souza/Newscom)
I heard the president debate Sen. John McCain at Saddleback Church in 2008. He seemed more articulate and comfortable talking about faith than McCain then and continues to sound more comfortable and articulate talking about faith than some other candidates now. Do you attribute doubts about his faith to politics or to his policy positions on issues like abortion?
It’s kind of all of the above. I think a lot of it is politically driven. I also think there’s some racism attached in this. I don’t play the race card, but I do think that because his father was from a different country (not faith, because his father wasn’t a man of faith) and with the hyper-sensitivity about Islam, there’s been an effort to paint this man as being very different because he does come from a unique background.
In that particular debate with McCain, he said something that didn’t quite come out right; he was a little too flip about it. When questioned about when life begins, he said, “That’s above my pay grade,” or something like that. Because he is such a respectful thinker in terms of religious questions, he won’t give the reflexive responses. When he didn’t say the axiom that “Life begins at conception,” he was hearkening back to something that is not particularly addressed in Scripture. If we don’t come from a particular faith tradition that says this is the dogma of my church and you simply look to Scripture, “Does life begin at conception?” is an open question. And so, part of this is because he is very careful not to give just the patently religious responses, or the religious platitudes. When people don’t get those, then they begin to say, “Maybe he’s not a Christian like others that have given us boiler-plate Christianity.” I would say to that: he doesn’t pretend to be a theologian, but he really does want to search the Scriptures authentically and personally, and it’s because he takes it so seriously and so personally that he won’t automatically give the response that everybody is looking for.
Is there a level of theological illiteracy on the part of the general public that contributes to this kind of misunderstanding?
Absolutely. In cultural Christianity in general there is, but specifically, the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity have shibboleths: “You have to say the right thing with the right accent or you’re not really one of us.” Part of the problem is not his level of sophistication, but ours, not his level of thinking, but our lack of more broad-based responsiveness to the depths of the theology of Scripture. When you don’t come with automatic or dogmatic sound-bite answers, that’s a good thing. That’s a sign of personal engagement. But because we would rather just have a category of correct belief and many people are satisfied with that, then we are the ones making ourselves upset. It’s not because he’s not answered adequately; it’s partially our discomfort at not having simple answers. That’s part of the unease with his particular faith walk.
The president comes down on the side of keeping abortion legal and you are pro-life. How do you, or anyone else, preserve relationships with other believers when there are such deep disagreements over these kinds of issue?
Abortion is probably the premiere issue where we see this. I am pro-life; therefore I think that’s a baby. I don’t happen to subscribe to “It’s a baby at conception,” because I don’t see that in Scripture, but I do believe that soon after that baby is implanted in a womb, it becomes a person. So I think abortion is homicide. Having said that, the way that I want to work with other Christians who don’t have the same theological presumption that I do about the personhood of a developing fetus is to keep my eyes on the goal. My goal is to have no abortions some day, ultimately because no woman decides to do that.
Other people say, “How can we reduce, by practical common sense, the number of abortions?” I’m on board. Every baby that can be saved, I think, is invaluable. And so, if I talk to somebody who is pro-choice and they say, “A lot of abortions come from feeling financial pressure or because people are afraid they won’t be able to complete their education, and if we could relieve that kind of pressure, they would carry their baby to term,” I’m all over that. I don’t have to have an all or nothing. That’s why the president and I, even though we would disagree probably on who should be able to get an abortion, we still can agree on the reduction of abortion as a very important goal together. That’s kind of how I walk that through.
While The Hunger Games received most of the attention at the box office last weekend, another film also opened that, in its own way, was equally as notable. October Baby, a small-budget Christian film with a pro-life message, earned $1.7 million, which may seem negligible when compared to the $155 million of Hunger Games, but October Baby opened on less than 400 screens (compared to more than 4,000 for Hunger Games), and was produced for a fraction of the cost. The fact that it was ranked number one for limited-release movies demonstrates the continuing demand for quality Christian films. Not that long ago, a film made by overtly Christian filmmakers and released nationwide happened infrequently. Thankfully, that is changing. The quality and quantity of faith-based movies is increasing and so are the topics these films are addressing.
October Baby tackles admittedly provocative questions like: What would you do if you discovered you’re not exactly who you think you are, and that what you assumed about your origins is not true? What if you found out that you almost weren’t born, and furthermore that someone wanted it that way? It’s not easy to approach a subject like abortion, but October Baby does it with grace, class, and love. Rather than beat you over the head, or even tap you on the shoulder, the film wraps its arms around you and simply waits for your reaction to all it has to say.
I recently had the privilege to chat with brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, the co-directors/writers/producers behind the film, both in person and by telephone. Excerpts of our conversations follow, edited for clarity and conciseness.
CHANDRA WHITE-CUMMINGS: Considering that this is your first foray into filmmaking, why did you pick such a provocative and emotionally charged subject matter?
ANDY ERWIN: If you had asked us a few years ago, what would our first feature film be, we would have probably picked something other than this one. Not because it’s not a compelling story, but because it’s such a risky subject, and there’s so much heated emotion attached to both sides of this issue. I think as a filmmaker, sometimes you go out to find a film, but nine times out of ten the story finds you. Jon heard a woman speak named Gianna Jessen. She gave her testimony of surviving a saline abortion and having cerebral palsy as a result. She just has a beautiful spirit, and when we heard her story, Jon was so moved by hearing her speak.
CWC: Jon, what was it about her story that captured your attention and moved you?
THE STORY FOUND THEM: 'October Baby' filmmakers (and brothers) Jon and Andrew Erwin decided to tell a story that is a 'celebration of life.'
JON ERWIN: Andy’s right — sometimes a movie finds you, and when I heard Gianna speak … just the concept of an abortion survivor, those are two words I had no idea fit together. I was jarred, surprised, and shattered by it all at the same time. The more I researched it, the more I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just felt this was a unique take on the topic, and it made a political issue become very real. When you look at it through that lens, when you put a face on it, you look at the person. You look beyond the politics to the human issue. And the whole thing moved me. People have said, “You’re very brave taking on this issue.” It’s really not that at all. I’m an artist and whatever is going on in my life works its way out in what we do. In this case, God moved in my life, shattered me over the issue, and it worked its way out into a movie. I felt like we’d been given a gift, a tool to shed light on the issue, but the challenge became how to do that. We ruled out a documentary, so we thought maybe we could take a different approach and make an entertaining film about a beautiful young girl.
AE: Yes, we used the context of Gianna’s life and inserted it into a coming-of-age love story in which a 19-year-old girl finds out that she’s a survivor of an abortion, goes on a road trip to find answers, and ultimately finds forgiveness. But our goal going into it wasn’t to do a political film but to do a human film, a human story that looks at the issue of abortion as a human rights issue, not as a political debate. So it was very interesting that through the eyes of the victim the story became much more entertaining and engaging. That’s when we knew this was the story we wanted to tell.
CWC: So the film was really story motivated and story driven, rather than message driven?
AE: Any movie should be. I think the movies that engage me the most as a viewer are not the ones that try and get a message or agenda across. I think that comes across as propaganda. Our goal is to tell a good story. The story that captivated our hearts as filmmakers was hearing Gianna’s testimony of survival. That’s what motivated us to tell this story of Hannah in October Baby. Being story driven allowed us to speak on a lot of topics we’re passionate about in a way that was not forced.
CWC: Let’s talk for a moment about the idea of “messaging” in films, especially those made by Christian filmmakers. I know you weren’t message driven with this film, but if you had to identify a message, what would it be?
AE: The message of October Baby is very much about forgiveness and healing. Those are universal and relatable topics and they allow you to address issues that you normally wouldn’t. This film deals with everything from abortion to adoption, from abstinence to post-abortive realities. There’s a line in the movie that says to be human is to be beautifully flawed. I think the reality that some films miss out on is that as humans, we are broken and we have issues. We use that reality to touch on these topics through the eyes of grace and through the eyes of the gospel in a way that I think a secular world can engage with.
JE: We hope the film doesn’t tell anybody what to think, but the biggest thing we wanted the movie to confront was indifference and inaction. This is one of the crucial issues of our time, and we very rarely stop and think about it. We wanted to address that apathy.
CWC: Do you consider this a pro-life movie? Are you comfortable with that term?
JE: Yes, I do consider it a pro-life movie. Is this a political movie? Absolutely not. The movie is about celebrating the value of life. In my opinion, that should be the definition of pro-life. It’s not an “anti-anything” movie. This film has a broad brush and encompasses not only the abortion/pro-life issue, but also adoption and caring for those who can’t care for themselves. I believe there’s an awakening in our culture, especially among our youth, to the value of life. I think we can all agree that we haven’t valued life enough, which manifests itself in a lot of different ways. So I would even go beyond pro-life and say the film is a celebration of life.
AE: I don’t think people will be offended at the way it’s presented. We don’t vilify or demonize anybody as much as we look at a very harsh reality, the very hard subject of abortion in a fresh way — through the eyes of someone who survived one.
CWC: But given that October Baby speaks to so many universal themes, like forgiveness and healing, do you have any concerns about people pigeonholing it as just a theatrical vehicle for the pro-life movement? Conversely, are you at all concerned about groups intentionally minimizing that aspect of the movie?
AE: My job as a filmmaker is to stir the pot and get people talking. If I can do that, then I’m able to step back from the process and trust that God will allow it to be productive. There are a lot of hurting people from all walks of life that will watch this film and it will stir all sorts of emotions and issues in them, and they will need to deal with those things. This is why our ministry partners are so valuable. For example, a ministry like Surrendering The Secret can step in and minister to post-abortive women. Or Care Net and Heartbeat International can minister to girls that are in a crisis pregnancy and don’t know what to do. I’m very excited about that.
I’m very comfortable with how Jon and I present the message in October Baby. I think we took an honest look at it. So I’m not ashamed at all, because I don’t think there’s anything about the way the story is told that I would apologize for. I think one thing my generation craves is a positive way to engage these issues. We’re tired of the negativity and the hurtful rhetoric. But we do want to stand for life and to raise awareness of the value of human life.
CWC: The value of human life is an important theme in the film. How have you extended that theme beyond the movie-going experience?
AE: Every life deserves a chance. Every life has value, no matter what. Jon and I decided that our film needed to be a catalyst for active involvement on these issues, so we started the Every Life Is Beautiful Fund. We and our distributors agreed that once the movie turns a profit, 10 percent of that profit will be set aside and distributed to frontline organizations that work with crisis pregnancies, post-abortive care, and care for orphans and adoption. We’re still working out all the details on that, but we’re excited to be able to give back with our movie.
CWC: Given the disproportionate incidence of abortion in urban communities, what do you think is an effective way to bridge the gap and use a film like this to penetrate that audience?
A DIFFERENT ROLE: Actress Jasmine Guy's time on screen is brief, but her character is pivotal in 'October Baby.'
JE: Great question. I think one of the biggest ways is to persuade people in all communities to wake up to the value of life and realize that faith without works is dead. Let’s get beyond politics and bring help to girls making this incredibly difficult decision, especially in our urban communities. As Andy stated, that’s one of the reasons we started the Every Life Is Beautiful Fund. We want those funds to go straight through to pregnancy care centers, including those in black and other urban communities.
CWC: One potential draw for the black and urban community is the role of Jasmine Guy. So many of us remember her from her role as Whitley on A Different World. Talk about the significance of her presence in this film.
JE: Without giving away the story line, she plays a character that ends up being the key that unlocks the mystery for Hannah. Hannah understands exactly what happened to her after her encounter with Jasmine. The whole movie hinges on Jasmine’s scene. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t have a movie. You can get ostracized for taking a role like this, so I’m just grateful she was bold enough to take it.
October Baby released nationwide March 23, 2012. Check the official film website for a list of cities where it’s showing and for resources related to the issues and themes presented in the film.