Regarding that abortion in Prometheus
WARNING: Some spoilers for Prometheus ahead.
Sitting in the dark at a midnight screening of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise prequel last Thursday, I clutched my popcorn in excitement when the film’s reluctant heroine, Noomi Rapace as Dr. Shaw, took her unwanted alien pregnancy into her own hands and approached the ship Nostromo’s medical pod, determined to get a writhing fetus out of her abdomen.
I wasn’t trembling with anticipation for the next gruesome sequence of corporeal malfunction (although, this scene delivered on that front). I realized that as she gave verbal directions to the machine, Rapace’s character would have to direct the machine to perform a medical procedure we would term as a late-term “abortion.”
I was not excited for the procedure itself. It is itself a gruesome prospect, and part of my Catholic upbringing in the Deep South included watching footage of abortions being performed at the tender age of 13 in an effort to incite rage and terrify me. It mostly did the latter. But then, I’ve never liked doctors.
So what intrigued me about this scene was the fact that a Hollywood actress would utter the word “abortion” in a Hollywood blockbuster (in 3-D!), and the movie itself would not be about abortion (a la Cider House Rules) and this plot point would not be obscured with euphemisms (a la Dirty Dancing).
Alas, after Shaw instead informs the med-pod she requires a Caesarean section. Minutes before, the android David informs her she’s three months along, but not with a wholly human fetus. As it thrashes wildly in her abdomen, she’s forced to circumvent the uncaring system around her. First, she must pretend to be asleep and attack her own shipmates to escape being forced to carry the fetus to term. “We know best” is the refrain from the android, the corporation he represents, the ship, and her shipmates, ignoring Shaw’s own wishes.
Then, amidst excruciating pain, she breaks into the private area of the ship to direct the med-pod to get the fetus out. However, she doesn’t use the word “abortion,” instead opting for “Cesarean.” In a darkly funny moment, the ship’s omniscient computer informs her that the machine is programmed for men only.
As the fetus has grown rapidly in the passing ten hours since its conception, it makes sense that Shaw would want a Cesarean section instead of a vaginal “birth.” But her next command to the med-pod is telling. She informs it that she has a “penetrating wound” and a “foreign object” lodged inside of her. As she watches as the robot cuts her open and lifts out the squirming, tentacled being, she can barely look at it as she screams for the pod to “sterilize” the “object,” to “neutralize” what just came out of her womb.
She escapes the pod just before it seals up again and sprays the creature with an unknown chemical fog. In a desperate, painful haze, Shaw stumbles along the ship’s corridors, freshly stapled and aghast at what she’s endured. (However, all this is long forgotten when she makes a discovery that sets her on a new trajectory towards her lifelong professional goal.)
I’m not sure if Scott was trying to make this scene an allegory for the difficulty of obtaining an abortion in a society where it is legally possible, but fraught with obstacles. Certainly, the entire Alien franchise is predicated on the idea that we as humans have only so much control over our bodies, and the original heroine Ripley is confronted with the reality that her procreation produces something unwanted (that is again half-human, and deadly). I don’t know if “abortion” was used in the original script, and I don’t want to conjecture if Fox Searchlight would have put a halt to use of that word. I would like to consider how this scene, in this otherwise cut-and-dry sci-fi summer action movie, would have been received by the American public if the medical terminology had been different. Would the average moviegoer recoil, not from the sight of flesh being cut open and cauterized, but from that word itself? Would the allegory then be too real?
In a cultural climate where we routinely watch torture porn that runs the gamut from artsy (Game of Thrones) to the unfathomable (Human Centipede, the entire Saw franchise), why are we ready to see people sewn together or beheaded, but we can’t utter a simple medical term on screen? This seems like a missed opportunity for a real dialogue about the conditions that predicate a real-life abortion: unplanned pregnancy, the feeling that the “object” that is alive inside is foreign and strange, and sometimes the medical reality that it will in fact kill the “host,” and the obstacles women in this country face when exercising their reproductive rights.