By Jonathon Van Maren
Abortion activists have been trying to make feticide funny for a long time. There was the 2014 film Obvious Child, billed as a daring attempt to produce an “abortion comedy” in which a comedienne has a one-night stand, finds herself pregnant, and gets an abortion. It flopped. There was last year’s HBO production Unpregnant, a slapstick demonization of the pro-life movement that featured two girls on a road trip to procure an abortion, and Sasha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary in which the Borat character’s daughter goes to a crisis pregnancy center to mock a pro-life pastor.
As I’ve noted before, the entertainment industry has done a very effective job at making evil funny over the past several decades. If you can make people laugh at sin, you neutralize the moral weight of what is being done. From promiscuity to porn, TV sitcoms have made sin a punchline for generations of Westerners, and the result has been a moral deadening.
The entertainment elites have had the toughest time making abortion funny because the vast majority of Americans — even “pro-choice” people — find abortion to be a tragedy. When alleged comedienne Michelle Wolf joked about Mike Pence’s belief that abortion is murder at the 2018 White House Correspondent’s dinner (“Don’t knock it ‘til you try it — and when you do try it, really knock it … you’ve got to get that baby out of there”) she got groans in response rather than laughter. When comedians like Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. have tackled the issue, they have done so in a way that emphasizes the seriousness of abortion rather than undermines it — even while supporting it.
But with recent pro-life victories across the United States, entertainers aren’t giving up on the idea that they can persuade audiences to see abortion as a punchline. Saturday Night Life star Cecily Strong, who worked for the corporate office of Planned Parenthood in Chicago for years because she is “passionate” about abortion, recently appeared alongside Colin Jost in a comedy sketch on Texas’ Heartbeat Bill. Dressed as “Goober the Clown,” Strong was introduced as a clown who had an abortion at age 23.
“I had an abortion the day before my 23rd birthday!” Strong announced to laughter. “Well, actually, I really don’t [want to talk about it]. But people keep bringing it up, so I gotta keep talking about freaking abortion. But it’s a rough subject, so we’re gonna do fun clown stuff to make it more palatable. Whee! Hey, who wants a balloon animal? You want a giraffe? … And I wish I didn’t have to do this because the abortion I had at 23 is my personal clown business. But that’s what some people in this country wanna discuss all the time, even though clown abortion was legalized in Clown v. Wade in 1973.”
Strong then shoehorned a series of pro-choice talking points into the sketch: “Did you know that one in three clowns will have an abortion in her lifetime? You don’t, because they don’t tell you. They don’t even know how to talk to other clowns about it, because when they do talk about it, if you were a clown who wasn’t the victim of something sad like clown-cest, they think your clown abortion wasn’t a ‘righteous clown abortion’ … Laugh! I need it! I need you to laugh so hard, like the way I laughed when the doctor asked if I got pregnant on my way over to the clinic because I wasn’t very far along. Not like a funny-haha joke, but like, in a funny, you’re not an awful person and your life isn’t over joke. A-honka honka!”
She then goes on to say that she owes her career to having aborted her baby: “Here’s my truth. I know I wouldn’t be a clown on TV here today if it weren’t for the abortion I had the day before my 23rd birthday. Clowns have been helping each other end their pregnancies since the caves. It’s gonna happen so it oughta be safe, legal and accessible. We will not go back to the alley. I mean, the last thing anyone wants is a bunch of dead clowns in a dark alley.”
Despite glowing mainstream media reviews predictably dubbing the sketch as brilliant, I have serious doubts that this sort of thing will work as effectively in neutralizing moral discomfort with abortion as it did for other moral issues. As Tricia Bruce noted in her fascinating Notre Dame study on American attitudes about abortion:
None of the Americans we interviewed talked about abortion as a desirable good. Views range in terms of abortion’s preferred availability, justification, or need, but Americans do not uphold abortion as a happy event, or something they want more of. From restrictive to ambivalent to permissive, we instead heard about the desire to prevent, reduce, and eliminate potentially difficult or unexpected circumstances that predicate abortion decisions (whether of relationships, failed contraception, lack of education, financial hardship, or the like). Even those most supportive of abortion’s legality nonetheless talk about it as “hard,” “serious,” not “happy,” or benign at best.
Abortion isn’t funny, and Americans do not see it as funny—not even those who support it being legal. The entertainment industry can try its best, but at the end of the day, dead babies are no joke — and their audiences understand that.