This is a guest post by Erik Bondurant. Long before established reproductive rights, including the right to contraception and abortions, were being challenged, there was a long battle to earn these rights in the first place. Half a century before Griswold v. Connecticut would mark a real turning point for reproductive rights, director Lois Weber offered a powerful commentary, inspired by Margaret Sanger, on the morality of contraception in her 1916 silent feature Where Are My Children?
The film opens in heaven, where the souls of babies dwell, awaiting conceptions that will bring them down to Earth. These souls are divided into three groups. There is the highest order, granted to those who desire having children, there are chance babies, and then there are the unwanted babies, noted as being quick to return due to the intervention of either contraception or abortion. This casts the film in what may be an uncomfortably religious and moralistic tone for many.The issues of contraception and abortion are handled from a variety of angles. Richard Walton, a District Attorney, is taken with the idea of birth control primarily in its potential to weed out the supposed poor and unfit, perhaps preventing crime. This endorsement of eugenics was quite popular before the Nazi’s embrace of the concept made such support untenable. No less than Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for an 8-1 majority, would claim that “three generations of imbeciles are enough” in upholding a forced sterilization law. Sanger herself was not above seeing the eugenic appeal of contraception. Eugenics remains tightly bound to the debate over abortion, with anti-abortion groups often citing drastically higher abortion rates among Black women as a form of eugenics and economist Steven Levitt arguing in Freakonomics that the legalization of abortion was a primary cause of the subsequent fall in crime rates.
Intellectually, the film hits its peak with its focus on Dr. Homer and his testimony at a trial in support of contraception. Through his eyes we see various large families stuck in poverty and women suffering the grinding fate of being pregnant every year, until menopause or death. With a bit too much symmetry to the recent all-male Congressional panel on the matter, we are told “a jury of men disagreed with Dr. Homer’s views.” Thus a pamphlet discussing family planning is ruled obscene.The emotional heart of the story takes place within the District Attorney’s own household. He is desperate to have children, but his wife enjoys the freedom to remain in the social scene. This is a group of women who, in contrast to the poor families that Dr. Homer discussed, are curiously unladen with children. This, we find out, is because they have access to an illegal abortion provider named Dr. Malfit. When one of his patients dies from complications and the District Attorney’s prosecution unveils the client list, the film roars to its dramatic conclusion with Walton condemning his wife, asking her the titular question.
Like Vera Drake, this film shows class divisions within reproductive services in an environment where those services are illegal, and the cost that can come from illegal abortions. However, unlike Mike Leigh’s film, this film is decidedly anti-abortion, which may be off-putting to some watching it from a modern perspective. Ultimately, the important pro-contraception aspect of the film and the compelling dramatic construction in portraying the heavy moral component to abortion, no matter what one ultimately thinks of abortion, makes Where Are My Children? a must-see film. Lois Weber, one of the first and greatest directors in cinema history, provides a much-needed woman’s voice and eye on the topic.Where Are My Children? is available to stream for free.
Erik Bondurant is a political scientist and a film blogger at The Movie Review Warehouse and contributor to Sound on Sight, with a primary focus on the portrayal of politics, gender and sexuality in cinema.