The pro-life film critic who wasn’t: Reviewing Roger Ebert’s views on abortion

April 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 15, 2014

Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013. It’s early going yet, but there is a bit of a tradition that seems to be developing among some conservative-leaning scribes: To mark his passing by publishing dubious claims that the beloved pioneering film critic was pro-life.

Here’s an item that First Things blogger Matthew Schultz posted on April 8, 2013, with the title “Roger Ebert, Pro-Life”:

In a column published a month before his death, the revered film critic stated his opposition to abortion:

My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child.

A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.

That first sentence leaves something to be desired, but Ebert was a film critic, not an ethicist. May he rest in peace.

On April 8, 2014, Jill Stanek posted a very similar item over at under the headline “Film Critic Roger Ebert Opposed Abortion, Including Rape, Incest”:

My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child.

A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.

— Film critic Roger Ebert“How I am a Roman Catholic,” March 1, written a little over a month before he passed away on April 4

I find it curious that Stanek’s blog splits the quotation into two lines, just like Schultz’s. In fact, the sentences appeared consecutively as part of a longer paragraph in Ebert’s original article, which was titled “How I am a Roman-Catholic.”

But that’s not really what I find so objectionable here. The real issue is that Schultz and Stanek are presenting an incredibly cramped and skewed version of Ebert’s actual stance on abortion, which was fairly nuanced. The two sentences quoted above are in fact part of a nearly 1,300-word-long essay by the critic.

When Schultz’s claim came to my attention last year, I was so bothered by its warping of Ebert’s actual position that I took the (for me extremely rare) step of posting a comment on his First Things blog entry. I submitted the following:

To call Roger Ebert pro-life is to render an astonishingly shallow and thoroughly (ahem) uncritical judgment of what Ebert wrote in the essay you cite.

The sentence immediately before the two that you quote in your blog post indicates that Ebert was a pro-choice individual who, evidently, would never personally advise anyone to have an abortion — although it seems he would neither object to nor interfere with another person’s decision.

Moreover, the sentence immediately after the two that you quote indicates that Ebert was a man of contradiction; a man who, as I noted above, did not believe abortion was right but also did not believe in preventing others from making their own decisions.

Here is the relevant passage, quoted more completely:

Birth control? Here I subscribe to an unofficial “double” loophole often applied in practice by Catholics faced with perplexing choices: Do that which results in the greater good and the lesser evil. I support freedom of choice. My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child. A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.

I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God. I refuse to call myself a [sic] atheist however, because that indicates too great a certainty about the unknowable.

(Note: I have re-formatted the text of my comment slightly, and I inserted sic to indicate a typo in Ebert’s essay; otherwise, no changes to the text have been made.)

Was Ebert pro-life? Perhaps, in an extremely narrow and technical sense. Still, I’m skeptical that Ebert supported, or would have supported, the many laws passed by state legislatures in recent years that impose pro-life morality upon millions of women who may not want or who may not be able to afford to support an infant.

I submit to you that it’s much more accurate to label Ebert pro-choice, if one feels compelled to label him. To me, the key phrase in those two sentences that Schultz and Stanek quoted are the first two words: My choice. And remember the sentence that immediately precedes those two words, which those bloggers somehow overlooked: “I support freedom of choice.”

At the bottom of “How I am a Roman-Catholic,” Ebert linked to an April 2009 essay of his called “How I believe in God.” It contains this passage:

At some point the reality of God was no longer present in my mind. I believed in the basic Church teachings because I thought they were correct, not because God wanted me to. In my mind, in the way I interpret them, I still live by them today. Not by the rules and regulations, but by the principles. For example, in the matter of abortion, I am pro-choice, but my personal choice would be to have nothing to do with an abortion, certainly not of a child of my own. I believe in free will, and believe I have no right to tell anyone else what to do.

There are some other pieces that signal Ebert’s stance on abortion. One is his review of the 1999 film The Cider House Rules, based on the 1985 John Irving novel. (I read the novel years ago, and enjoyed it, as I have other Irving books; I’ve not seen the screen adaptation.) Ebert wrote that he identified with a fellow critic’s complaint that the film “makes men the arbiters of what happens to a woman’s body.” Does that sound like the words of a pro-life advocate to you?

Then there’s Ebert’s review of a 2004 film by Mike Leigh, in which he wrote:

“Vera Drake” is not so much pro or anti-abortion as it is opposed to laws which do little to eliminate abortion but much to make it dangerous for poor people. No matter what the law says, then or now, in England or America, if you can afford a plane ticket and the medical bill you will always be able to obtain a competent abortion, so laws essentially make it illegal to be poor and seek an abortion.

Most revealing of all may be Ebert’s review of a 2007 documentary called Lake of Fire. The entire piece, like so many by Ebert, is well worth reading, but I’ll quote two passages that seem particularly telling. First up are these sentences dealing with the content of director Tony Kaye’s movie:

[W]e hear grim statistics: If abortion is made illegal again in America, the abortion rate will remain about the same as it was before Roe v. Wade, but the fatality rate will start climbing. Before the Supreme Court decision, the leading cause of death among young women, we’re told, was not cancer, not heart disease, not accidents, but side-effects of illegal abortions.

Again, this is consonant with the sentiments of a pro-choicer. But consider how Ebert chose to conclude his review of Lake of Fire:

At 152 minutes, [Kaye’s] film doesn’t seem long, because at every moment something absorbing, disturbing, depressing or infuriating is happening. True, he comes down on neither side of the debate. But what he shows inadvertently is how the tradition of freely exchanged ideas in America has been replaced by entrenched true believers who drown out voices of moderation.

Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, tells a parable that seems to apply. A rabbi is asked to settle a marital dispute. He hears the husband’s view. “You’re right,” he tells him. He hears the wife’s view. “You’re right,” he tells her. One of his students protests: “Rabbi, they both can’t be right.” The rabbi nods. “You’re right,” he says.

If they were passionate about truth and accuracy, it would have behooved Schultz and Stanek to dig a little deeper before claiming Ebert as a champion of or fellow traveler in their movement.


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