The Real Lesson of “Juno”

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. This ran several years ago. I am re-running it both because I think it says something important and because the murder of 17-year-old Hawa Gabbidonm, who was pregnant. (See “Pregnant Teen Murdered in North Carolina.”)
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“Contemplating his film’s [“Juno”] out-of-left field success, [director Jason] Reitman Jr. said, ‘Right now, there is a lot of really rough dramatic films that deal with things we don’t know much about. Most of us haven’t gone to war in Iraq, but most of us are in a family. Most of us understand about growing up. We live in a time where 16-year-old girls grow up too fast and 35-year-old guys don’t grow up at all. [Screenwriter] Diablo [Cody] portrayed three generations perfectly, and there is something to relate to no matter who you are.””
— Jason Reitman, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, January 23.

I would like to write what amounts to an addendum to what I had to say about a film that is this year’s “Little Engine that Could” entry. (“Juno” was made on a miniscule budget of $7.5 million and is approaching receipts of $100 million–with probably a lot more to come.

What’s really interesting to me is how so many people, including director Reitman, say “Juno” is not a “pro-life” film. This is certainly true at one level, although in a moment I’ll explain in what ways the film most decidedly is pro-life.

Pro-abortionists, we’re told, also like “Juno.” That is evidence #1. Evidence #2 is exemplified by a very clever quote from Reitman in “Entertainment Weekly” (which I wish I had kept) where he insists it is downright silly for anyone to think the film said anything “political” about abortion, one way or the other.

Pro-abortionists embrace “Juno” because when Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) finds out she is pregnant, her first impulse is to keep it a secret from her parents and have an abortion. Well, duh, not exactly a secret that girls can evade their parents and have an abortion unbeknownst to them.

But the reason pro-lifers like me marvel at the film goes way, way beyond the good news that she doesn’t take her child’s life. Let me cite just a few qualities about “Juno” that are pro-life in a way that goes well beyond the happy outcome.

#1. A lone voice–a classmate’s–disengages the autopilot response to a crisis pregnancy: abortion. Standing by herself outside the abortion clinic, Su-Chin (Valerie Tian) clumsily tries to dissuade Juno. By chance Su-Chin hits upon something that makes Juno stop in her tracks: she  tells Juno that her baby has fingernails. After all the other things she has said, does it make sense that this would change Juno’s mind? No, but teenagers in the throes of a crisis-induced let’s-get-this-done mindset are not thinking linearly.

#2. Both Juno and her parents are recognizable human beings with strengths and weaknesses. Her dad (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney) initially stumble over the news that she is pregnant but recover. Her exasperated father says, “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when.”

Critics and movie-goers alike love Juno MacGuff because she’s a wiseacre who appears to navigate the shoals of an unplanned pregnancy with nothing more than a sharp tongue and an unflappability that belies her age. But, in truth, the film gives us several lines that remind us that she is only 16, including her response to her dad’s statement: “I don’t know what kind of girl I am.” Later, she remarks that she’s encountered “something way beyond my maturity level.”

#3. After deciding not to have the abortion, Juno’s course of action is to find a couple to adopt her baby (“it”). The way she and her best friend go about finding the couple is exactly what you would expect from two teenagers. We discover that the couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), far from being perfect, are having serious marital problems that at the end of the film culminate in a separation. The point, again, is that none of life’s messiness is avoided or glamorized–something we see again when Juno is demanding a “spinal tap thing” (spinal block) when she is in labor.

The irony is that pro-lifers are forever being stereotyped as simpletons, people who are unwilling or unable to come to grips with the complexity and difficulty of an unplanned pregnancy. Pro-abortionists are said to be “realists.” In truth, this gets it exactly backwards.

I cannot honesty think of a single pro-lifer I know who has not had a first-hand experience with a crisis pregnancy, does not have a child who knows someone who has been in that situation, and/or is themselves friends with someone who has.

It’s not that we don’t KNOW the reality. We do. Rather it’s what we do with that knowledge.

That begins with the knowledge that it is abortion that is the “simple” answer. The swiftness and seeming finality of death (a woman can’t know how she will be haunted) is enormously appealing to a woman who is at her lowest point.

In fact, choosing life is the complex answer, the human and humane answer. It is also the response that demands the best not only of the woman herself but also of us, over time and in the face of immense difficulties. The pro-life response is the willingness to be there for pregnant women when they most need a helping hand and a soft shoulder.

What do women most often say is the reason they abort? That they believed they had no alternative.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is where you and I have come in for more than 35 years. And it is precisely because we refuse to abandon women that someday our just cause will prevail.

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