This Broadway hit gets a solid film treatment by director Norman Jewison, but that can’t make up for the weaknesses of the script (which were as true onstage as they are here). Jane Fonda plays a chain-smoking shrink sent to a convent to do a psychological evaluation of a novice (Meg Tilly) who gave birth to a baby and then killed it in her little room. Was it a virgin birth? A miracle? And what of the bloody stigmata that seem to spontaneously appear on her hands? Fonda also finds herself clashing with the Mother Superior (Anne Bancroft) over the line between faith and science. But writer John Pielmeier can’t flesh this out beyond an idea; in the end, the solution is a disappointingly earthbound one that even the strong acting in this film can’t elevate.
OK, so the film isn’t flawless and has garnered more than its fair share of “1 or 2 thumbs down”. With this said, I like this flick. Why so? In-a-word it lays in the fact Agnes the novice nun somehow manages to interact with the world thorough a lens of innocence. That is, the unjaded aspects of her being for the most part dominate her day-to-day existence and how she perceives life and those around her.
Hollywood nonsense, you say? I might have agreed with you if this were early 1999. But not afterwards. What changed for me? I spent more than four years in Japan living and teaching classes of Japanese young people from pre-school through doctoral level plus many corporate classes filled with adult working professionals. What I discovered was that virtually all the young folks were, well, in some ways “Agnes of God” like. Mind you, I was aware that there were exceptions and many expats I shared sake and chat with were quick to point out their bad experiences with pretty jaded Japanese characters. But on-the-whole even they agreed most Japanese people they had encountered while teaching and in society at-large exhibited less of the cynicism and sheer nastiness that appeared commonplace back in the US and the West in general (Some of these expats came from the UK, New Zealand and Australia).
My then girlfriend and later (2001) wife thought I was seeing her people through rose colored glasses. This changed once we moved from Japan to southern California in early 2003. Having left being the corporate world in Japan (18 years work for a major multinational corporation in Tokyo), she pursued her long held dream of becoming a marriage and family therapist. This journey took her through the MS in Counseling program at Cal State Fullerton (she graduated with honors) and internships at a number of places including the Salvation Army residential program in Anaheim. While doing an internship at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, she happened to counsel a number of Japanese students who had come to the US in order to obtain specific educational credentials in an English language environment. What she discovered — and made a point of mentioning to me — is that her Japanese charges were very “unjaded” compared to the American students she counseled. Maybe my glasses were not so rose-colored after all.
At the very least, there seems to be at least a modicum of real world evidence that my original observation was spot on: The Japanese were and are on-a-whole less jaded (“more innocent”) than Americans.
Were Americans less jaded in the past? It seemed that way to me when I was a youngster. TV and movies in the late 1950s into the 1960s tended to reflect a certain un-worldliness (Less cynical, less nasty). This began to go out the window with the advance of the sexual revolution, Vietnam and all that entailed, and the general rejection of authority and conventional ways among many young folks of that era (including moi).
Can we ever recapture what we lost short of embarking on a 2nd childhood (individually and collectively)? Is the genie out of the bottle for good? Is there any way to truly be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” (Rabbi Yehoshua’s admonition). Good questions, I think. We American Indians (Choctaws) have a saying that goes like this: “The dog you feed the most becomes biggest”. By this token if we as Americans feed ourselves on jaded & cynical things such as pornography, greed, pride, and other vices then the dogs that will steer our sled (lives) will be these vices. On the other hand, if we feed virtues and starve vices, well, we just might find ourselves less jaded and “wicked”. And while we may not become a nation of “Agnes of God” characters or even Japanese-like, we could inch a little closer to it.
Dr. Anthony G. Payne
Copyright 2013 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved.
If you belong to a faith tradition or religious perspective that views the fusion of sperm and egg as marking the advent of a human life, you are probably very unlikely to modify your stance. As one who grew up in the Bible belt among Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals (upwards of 90% of my family), I know where you are coming from. There is black & white, with grey being a species of unacceptable compromise that is akin to bedding down with evil incarnate.
If you happen to belong to the “B & W’ contingent, perhaps you buttress your antiabortion convictions like many aspects of your most cherished religious beliefs with borrowings from the world of science and medicine, however tenuous some of these may be. As you may know or at least have heard, many religious beliefs are not testable and thus lie outside the purview of science. For example, the religious concept that every human has a soul or spirit imputed by the Almighty at conception or thereafter is not something that can be tested and verified or refuted using the tools of science. There is no laboratory assay that will disclose or measure something that is held to have no material substance as we know it and which is not physically manifest in cells or tissues or such.
For religionists who hold that ensoulment (i.e., spirit is imputed) occurs at conception, and (who) refuse to consider even slightly modifying this perspective in light of contrary biblical reasoning, there exists an impasse that cannot be readily breeched (If at all). When enough people embrace such a spin on what constitutes viable human life, their collective influence on the direction state and even federal legislation takes is felt (Some would argue disproportionately so). Of course, the courts have weighed in to keep even majority sentiment from what they conclude impinges on or overrides the Constitutional rights of the minority.
Many scientists regard the convictions of those who hold that viable human life begins at conception or during the very early stages of development as both presumptuous and naive. Many religionists and theologians agree. Among those who happen to hold fast to a belief that a fertilized egg is entitled to full status as a viable human, the use of blastocytes or very early stage embryos constitutes a species of murder. Some even go so far as to decry those who take exception to their faith-based beliefs as being immoral or amoral.
Does the truth lie somewhere between the strictly secular and the sacred? Most of us probably harbor a feeling that somewhere in all this – lurking in the facts of biology and the world of polemics and logic, ethics and religion – there is an answer that will win the day. If this is the case, it is quite obviously going to take time for such a truth to fully emerge.
Many have asked me, “What is your spin on what constitutes viable human life?” Being as I have a foot in both worlds – which is to say religious belief and science – it seems logical to suppose that I would be able to offer up a “faith and science-friendly” opinion as to when viable human life begins. Well, yes, I do have something to offer up for consideration though the only thing I can be 100% certain of is that my opinion will be contested by people on both sides of the “great divide”. With this in mind, here is my spin – informed by biology, of course.
The heart begins beating at three weeks of gestation and the first neural reflex is manifest at eight weeks (and consists of hand withdrawal in response to stimulation of the fetal lip region). During weeks 9-13 the first brain waves appear and are discernible using special medical instrumentation.
Given that death is defined (in part) as a cessation of both heart and brain wave activity, one could argue conversely that to be alive in any meaningful sense beyond mere biological existence (A petri dish bearing a cell culture has biological existence, after all) begins when both heart and brain are operational – week 9 onwards.
Interestingly, in my own faith tradition which is informed by lines of moral & ethical reasoning in Rabbinic Judaism, the fetus generally becomes a viable human life after day 40 of gestation. In the ancient Jewish context, the fetus is deemed to be little more than water until “quickening” occurs, about 40 days after insemination. “What Do Orthodox Jews Think About Abortion and Why? By Judith Shulevitz – Orthodox Jews on Abortion. If we take week 9 as our bench mark — the heart and brain being recognizably functional – then the fetus would be deemed viable from about day 63 onward.
Applying this definition of when human life becomes viable, it follows that embryos from conception to week 9 or so are “pre-viable” or “proto-viable.”
Now is this to say that embryos prior to week 9 are “fair game”? Say, that we can create embryos strictly for the purposes of harvesting their tissue and/or stem cells for medical research or other applications? These embryos aren’t viable, so why not? Well this brings us full circle to religious and ethical concerns. Rather than belabor that in this op-ed piece, I would direct readers to an excellent treatment of this subject in this posted article: Jewish Virtual Library – Abortion
OK, so we don’t create embryos to harvest, how about using intentionally aborted fetuses as a source of tissues or embryonic stem cells for research or medical application? As one fellow actually said to me, “Hey, Doc, they are going to die anyway, so why not get some good out of them for sick and ailing people”. To my mind, this comes uncomfortably close to the arguments advanced by physicians and scientists who performed hideous experiments on human subjects in Nazi concentration camps. This very line of reasoning was, in fact, used as a defense by some of the physicians being tried for war crimes in the 1946 “Doctor’s Trail” in Germany). Granted, there is a world of difference between elective abortion and the intentional dispatch of life at the hands of doctors (such as the late Nazi “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele and his ilk) who abandoned universally acknowledged medical ethics in the service of the state. But even so, harvesting aborted fetuses from any source does strike many folks in America as constituting a form of callous utilitarianism that can’t help but bring to mind some of the most egregious polities and activities in the Nazi bio-state – or perhaps the fear that our country is headed in the direction of making prophecy of the classic sci-fi film “Soylent Green” – or both. And even if the intentional abortion of a fetus before week 9 were universally embraced as morally and ethically acceptable – in no way offensive to humankind or the Almighty – there remains something hauntingly “predatory” about utilizing material from intentionally terminated “pre-viable” human material.
All things considered, it seems unlikely that access to abortion will prove a genie that can be returned to the proverbial bottle (This side of the US becoming an authoritarian or police state run by pro-life factions at all levels, that is – something the majority of Americans would vehemently oppose). And while restrictions on the direction embryonic stem cell research and use takes will likely continue to be a legislative and ethical tug-of-war between various factions, a return to an outright ban on government provided/sanctioned embryonic stem cell lines seems unlikely. This leaves what is being played out now at the political level: That is, the fact many state legislatures such as my own native state of Texas in 2013 are leaning towards placing considerable restrictions on access to abortion services. This gambit may succeed especially in states dominated by a traditionally conservative majority although I predict any such this legislation will be eventually overturned by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional.
Perhaps my life-at-9-weeks-on criteria should be thrown into the abortion access deliberations mix. Let’s revisit it:
Given that death is defined (in part) as a cessation of both heart and brain wave activity, one could argue conversely that to be alive in any meaningful sense beyond mere biological existence (A petri dish bearing a cell culture has biological existence, after all) begins when both heart and brain are operational – week 9 onwards
Of course, I am not actually advocating that my definition (above) be transformed into new legislation or such that is imposed on all women across the land. But for women who come out of conservative faith traditions what I have laid out might help them in deciding at what point-in-time during a fetuses’ development abortion constitutes an ethical or moral misstep. For those who find my approach reasonable, use of a “morning after” pill constitutions no sin nor does an abortion prior to week ten (10) post-conception.
In the final analysis, the whole matter comes down to personal choice informed by the unique constellation of social and life factors & players that characterize each woman’s life.
© 2013 by Dr. Anthony “Choctaw Doc” Payne. All rights reserved.