MOTHER AND SON: UrbanFaith’s Christine Scheller with her late son, Gabe.
Would it surprise you to learn that when I describe myself as a pro-lifer, I don’t think it particularly matters what I believe about the legality of abortion? Well, it’s true. In my two opinionposts on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, I argued from a pro-life perspective, but the legal battle over abortion is not a priority for me. I believe I have the right to wear the pro-life label, no matter what my position is on the legal issues, because I walked the talk as a nineteen-year-old and because I consistently advocate a life-affirming message.
Perhaps it’s battle fatigue. Like many others, I’m tired of the culture wars and the way they’ve turned friends and family members off to the gospel. Some of the people I love most in this world have either had abortions or have participated in abortion decisions and I increasingly don’t want to be associated with rhetoric that hurts them. Conversely, I hope they don’t want to be associated with unkind, unfair, and untrue rhetoric that hurts me.
I know the legal fight is important, but it’s not one I’ve engaged in other than as a writer (occasionally) and a voter. I’ve never protested at an abortion clinic, attended the annual March for Life in Washington D.C., or volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center. I have taught a life skills class to teen moms at an alternative public school though.
What it means for me to be a pro-lifer now is to be an advocate for a comprehensive ethic of life, one that spans from womb to tomb, from conception to natural death. It includes issues like healthcare and immigration reform, extreme poverty, euthanasia, and more.
Ever since my son died by suicide, my first pro-life priority has been suicide prevention. That’s why I was so glad to read that Tony Cornelius, the son of the late Soul Train founder and host Don Cornelius, has launched a suicide prevention foundation in memory of his father. “This is a huge, huge issue and it’s an issue that has a veil of shame over it. People are still very uncomfortable with who’s talking about suicide,” Cornelius told EURweb. “Breast cancer at one time was something that was under the table. Women didn’t want to discuss it. AIDS was something that was under the table. No one wanted to discuss it. I mean I think this is an opportunity to bring this to the surface.” That’s a pro-life message, if ever I heard one.
I’m also glad to hear pro-lifers like the Rev. James Martin advocating for stricter gun control laws in response to the Aurora shooting. (There’s common ground to be had here too, according to Craig C. Whitney, author of forthcoming book, Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.) Like me, Martin believes in a “consistent ethic of life.” Writing at the Catholic weekly America about abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and poverty, he said, “All of these issues, at their heart, are about the sanctity of all human life, no matter who that person is, no matter at what stage of life that person is passing through, and no matter whether or not we think that the person is ‘deserving’ of life.”
In an email exchange with Religion News Service reporter David Gibson, Russell D. Moore, dean of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued that “we ought not to let the term ‘pro-life’ become so elastic as to lose all meaning.” He charged that “in most cases, the expansion of ‘pro-life’ is a way to divert attention from the question of personhood and human rights.” I disagree. Just as the gospel message speaks to all of life, so too a pro-life ethic can and should be all-encompassing.
On Sunday evening as I was relaxing after dinner, my gallbladder violently rebelled against the meal (scrambled eggs and sautéed zucchini). This would not be worth writing about, except that, for the first time in my adult life, I don’t have health insurance. When, late last year, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey informed me that my $600+ per month individual plan rate would increase to $753 (just for me), I knew I was done. My husband is retired with a work-related medical disability, you see, and we were fast approaching financial insolvency as we awaited the resolution of his decade-old workers’ compensation case. (That’s a story worth telling about the kinds of people who can outlast insurance companies in court, but one for another day.)
As I was doubled over in pain and retching in my bathroom, I begged God for relief so that I wouldn’t have to go to the emergency room and possibly have a surgery that would plunge my family into thousands of dollars worth of debt. I thought about the millions of people who have lived this reality for years and felt ashamed of myself for having been so indifferent to their plight for so long. God answered my prayer eventually, but I woke up Monday morning dry heaving from the taste of bile rising in my throat.
I made an appointment with my primary care physician, hoping he would give me the green light to delay the surgery that had been recommended last year until August, when I’ll be eligible for NJ Protect, a federally subsidized health insurance plan for New Jersey residents who have pre-existing conditions, but who haven’t had health insurance for at least six consecutive months. The doctor did give me the green light to wait, along with dietary and homeopathic recommendations and a prescription in case I have another attack. For this, I paid $100.
Do Economic Conservatives Believe Small Business Owners Will Be a Drain on the Economy?
Before he came into the room, however, I told his nurse that I would need him to fill out a form for NJ Protect affirming that I have a pre-existing condition. She began grilling me about my situation. “Can’t you get a job?” she asked. “I have a job. I’m an independent journalist,” I said. She wanted to know how I get paid. God only knows why I submitted to this inquest, but I told her I have contracts for steady work, but given the state of journalism (especially since fall 2008 when I moved from California back to New Jersey and began job hunting), it doesn’t matter how hard or much I work, I will never be able to afford $753-a-month for health insurance. I didn’t bother telling her about my supplementary work in catering or substitute teaching, and I didn’t tell her that I’d just been tapped for a coveted vocational school teaching job that I had to decline because of the kind of senseless bureaucratic regulations that many, including me, fear “Obamacare” will usher in.
Her rudeness got me thinking though. What is it, I wonder, about my free-market loving friends that makes them willing to suggest, even by default, that entrepreneurs and small business owners like me will be a drain on our national resources or that we have some sort of moral obligation to take corporate jobs in order to be deserving of affordable health care? I’m not speaking of her, of course, but of the plethora of conservative pundits who rail incessantly against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the name of freedom. I don’t get it. Are they saying I shouldn’t be free to choose the kind of work that best suits me, my God-given temperament, and the needs of my family? Or that if I do, tough luck when I get sick? If it weren’t for the exorbitant cost of health care, I’d be earning enough income right now to meet my family’s modest financial needs. We can even manage the subsidized plan at $369-a-month now that my husband’s case has settled, but that’s a function of the ACA, so they’d like to deny me that.
Do Family Values Conservatives Think Mothers Reentering the Work Force Are Undeserving of Health Care?
On Tuesday, someone asked me what I thought of the Supreme Court ruling on the ACA. I took a deep breath and said I was glad it wasn’t struck down, because I need affordable health insurance sooner rather than later and the ACA is the engine that will give it to me.
I probably would have opposed it a decade ago when my husband was earning a six-figure income in home improvement sales and we were owners of an apartment building in addition to our own home. But then my husband’s back gave out and he spent several years trying to do other kinds of work before he was forced to retire at age 47. He now lives in crippling pain every day and takes care of the house. His medical expenses will be covered for the rest of his life through Medicare, a supplementary plan that we pay for, and workers’ comp. He’s eligible, in part, for these benefits because he worked outside the home and was injured at work, while I mostly stayed home and raised children for 20 years.
So, what I’d also like to know is why the family values crowd thinks it’s okay to abandon women like me, who bought into their message and eschewed careers, but then had to re-enter the workforce because of death, divorce, or disability without the benefit of a strong work history? Is this really how they want to repay us? You know, the uninsured mothers who serve as teachers’ aides in their children’s classrooms, or bring them their salad at The Cheesecake Factory, or wipe their aging parents’ bottoms so they don’t have to?
Does Pro-Life Concern for Women Only Extend to Their Utility as Symbols for a Cause?
And, what about my fellow pro-lifers? All they seem concerned about when it comes to the ACA is the contraception mandate. Don’t they care about women like me who dropped out of college to have our babies instead of aborting them because we heard and believed their message, but then are forever playing catch up career-wise? Don’t they owe us some level of fidelity for living out what they merely preach? Or did we only matter to them when our stories affirmed their cost-free convictions?
These are serious questions, not accusations. A freedom-loving, family values, pro-life writer is asking them.
Now, I understand that one reason an individual health insurance plan is so expensive in New Jersey is because insurers here are not permitted to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions and insuring everybody drives up costs. But, I thank God New Jersey is ahead of the curve in this regard. In California, I could not purchase insurance for my son after he was routinely kicked off our family plan as a young adult and then diagnosed with a debilitating, uninsurable condition.
He eventually got well with the help of a generous doctor who treated him on the cheap and a county health service that he still uses because so few specialists take his lousy $190-a-month individual plan. You see, he works for a non-profit organization as a warehouse supervisor, but like many employers, his employer hires most of its workforce for just under the number of hours at which employer-delivered health insurance is mandatory. I know what “government” care looks like and it isn’t pretty, but it’s something and I thank God for it.
I frequently hear insured people say that if the ACA survives, it will mean they won’t have access to timely medical care. This tells me they not only believe they have a right to health care, but that they have a right to the prompt delivery thereof. And yet, they don’t seem to think people like me and my son have any right to it at all. Well, I disagree with them. I need heathcare reform and I think I deserve it, not from “the government,” but from the society that my family and I have contributed to and served for most of our lives. I’m not saying Obamacare is the answer. I’m only saying that we need to solve this problem and the uncaring rhetoric of my conservative friends is speaking so loudly that I’m finding it difficult to hear anything else they’re saying about healthcare reform.
*Please note: an editorial change has been made to this article.
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER FIRE?: Supporters of religious freedom and against President Obama's HHS mandates on faith institutions rallied in front of the HHS building on March 23. New protest rallies led by Catholic and conservative groups are taking place around the nation. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Newscom)
Last Friday at noon, hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Capitol Hill and at rallies across the nation to protest President Barack Obama’s health-care law and, specifically, the law’s mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives.
Conservative politicians and activists led the charge, with leaders such as Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann declaring, “This is about, at its heart and soul, religious liberty. … We will fight this and we will win.” Bachmann’s battle cry represents a growing movement of religious conservatives who contend that the president’s plan violates their freedom and beliefs.
Growing up, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until my senior year. As a result, I know first-hand the strong commitment to pro-life causes that many Catholics hold. For instance, as a choir member, it was an annual tradition for us to sing at the youth mass that occurred before the Right to Life March, a protest against Roe v. Wade. Abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty were topics that came up regularly in religion class. So it came as no surprise when I heard that 34 Catholic organizations have filed 12 federal lawsuits challenging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ birth control mandate under the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”).
Under the mandate, employers are required to provide access to contraceptive services as part of their health plans at no cost. However, as President Obama stated during a February 10 press conference, “[W]e’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and a Christian, I cherish that right.” Knowing that many religious institutions oppose the use of contraceptives, originally all churches were exempted from the requirement. Now, that exemption is extended to any religious organization that has an objection to providing contraceptives; in those cases, the insurance company is responsible, not the organization.
To many people, including Christians, this sounds reasonable. So, why are Catholic organizations complaining?
The problem, they argue, is in the definition of “religious organizations.” In a lawsuit filed by Catholic organizations in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs state that the mandate requires religious organizations to satisfy four criteria.
• First, the organization’s purpose must involve teaching and sharing religious values.
• Second, employees must subscribe to the same faith.
• Third, the organization must primarily serve those that subscribe to the same faith.
• Finally, the organization must be a non-profit.
“Thus, in order to safeguard their religious freedoms,” the lawsuit continues, “religious employers must plead with the Government for a determination that they are sufficiently ‘religious.’ ” Failure to adhere to the mandate could lead to penalties and fines. Since many Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, employ and extend services to people of different faiths (and many people who claim no faith at all), it would be difficult to prove they are exempt from the mandate based on religion.
“If a group isn’t perceived as ‘religious,’ then they will be forced to provide drugs that violate their doctrine,” says Chieko Noguchi, the Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, one of the plaintiffs. “If the government can order us to violate our conscience, then what comes next?”
But don’t think that this is just a Catholic issue. According to the mandate’s opponents, it affects all Americans who profess to believe in God.
“One of the central missions of any church is supporting the less fortunate in our communities,” writes Lutheran pastor Joe Watkins in a June 3 editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer. “With this mandate’s redefinition of a religious institution, many charitable operations will effectively be driven out of business. Under the new law if you are a Lutheran charity and you provide help to or hire non-Lutherans, you cease to be a religious institution. The same goes for Catholics, other Protestant denominations, and all other faith-based organizations.” He also argues that this will not only impact all religious groups, but also those who are either influenced or helped by these groups, since more time would be dedicated to religious background checks for potential employees and clients.
“It is distressing that our government would opt for a coercive and unfair regulation that requires us to make such an impossible choice,” Watkins wrote. “As a church, we have always opposed the use of drugs and procedures that are abortion-inducing. … Under this new governmental regulation, though, just by simply following our beliefs, we will face penalties under law.”
Watkins isn’t alone in his critique of the mandate. Back in February, some 2,500 Catholic, evangelical, Protestant, Jewish, and other religious leaders signed a letter asking the President to “reverse this decision and protest the conscience rights of those who have biblically based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients.” Also, the Catholic Church is planning to invite evangelicals for their upcoming event “Fortnight for Freedom,” which will take place the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 in order to bring attention to religious freedom issues.
In his speech announcing changes to the mandate, President Obama reflected on his first job in Chicago working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhood. “I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”
I am living proof of the positive effects of the faith-based organizations that President Obama described. I’m a proud, non-Catholic alumna of a Catholic school who understands why Catholics and their supporters are upset and concerned by the Affordable Care Act’s implications for religious freedom. By defining what a religious organization is, the HHS mandate could potentially hinder Christians from living out their faith with integrity. We, as Christians, are called to serve others no matter what. As a self-professed believer, President Obama should’ve recognized this.
What do you think?
Are Catholics and their conservative allies overreacting to the mandate or do they have a point?
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.