Posted on April 7, 2000


Glorifying the Butchers

Hypocrites praise cider house rules


Daniel Clark


One might expect a film which depicts illegal abortionists as heroes to be unanimously condemned. After all, "pro-choice" activists often say that they only want to protect women from illegal "back-alley butchers." Anyone who believes that would expect to find them picketing The Cider House Rules, a romantic portrayal of two criminal abortionists, one addicted to ether, and the other having had no medical schooling at all. One might even expect the film to receive a hostile greeting in Hollywood, where everyone who's anyone is an outspoken advocate of "safe and legal" abortion.

To the contrary, the recent Miramax release has received seven Oscar nominations, and has even been given an award by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The annual Maggie Award, named in honor of PPFA founder Margaret Sanger, was given to author John Irving and his film for emphasizing "the critical importance of reproductive freedom."

What gives? Sanger had always written that the horrors of illegal abortions were what drove her to start the birth-control movement in the first place. She even claimed to oppose abortion in principle, although she did employ the old libertarian saw that legalizing it would cause it to be less common. Even if we take that to mean she approved of legal abortion for its own sake, she certainly would not have made any gesture to justify the existence of those who do abortions illegally. So why has her organization done exactly that?

The answer to that question requires a closer look at the movie itself. This will necessitate giving away most of the story, but since it adheres so closely to the standard abortion propagandists' formula, it's not as if there's much suspense to ruin.

Michael Caine

Epic expectations, soon dashed, are built up early by the film's swelling music, impressive scenery, and World War II era authenticity, not to mention the poor man's Richard II soliloquy delivered by Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine) as he puts the orphans to bed. ("Goodnight, you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England!") The orphans ask each other why Dr. Larch says that to them every night, and they're not sure, but they agree that they like it. The impression comes across that Irving may have been thinking the same thing.

Caine's attempts to produce a Maine dialect come across at times as if he were starting to morph into W.C. Fields, but that distraction fades once the viewer gets used to it. The same can't be said of the film's predictability, its irresponsible message, or the inexplicable behavior of some of its characters, who seem self-conscious of the need to move the story along.

The movie begins by summarizing the childhood of Homer Wells, who is born in the orphanage, but never matched with suitable adoptive parents. Dr. Larch, who delivered Homer, takes it upon himself to become his father figure, and trains him as an apprentice in the delivery room. The conflict develops when Homer discovers that Dr. Larch also does abortions.

Irving pretends to represent both sides of the abortion debate through the two main characters, although his opposition, embodied in Homer, is conveniently meek. From the outset, Homer says he has "no problem" with Dr. Larch doing abortions, but just that he refuses to do them himself. He never says exactly why, nor does this curious objection of his preclude him from assisting Dr. Larch's abortions by dutifully disposing of the bodies in the incinerator. Judging from the way the story unfolds, it appears as if his initial convictions were the product of a weak stomach, rather than a strong will.

As if following the bullet points from an abortion advocacy group's "fact sheet," the plot defends Dr. Larch's actions by contrasting them with the work of a "bad" illegal abortionist. A teenage girl from the orphanage turns up mortally wounded by a crude abortion attempt with a crocheting needle. After anesthetizing her, Dr. Larch shows the damage to Homer, and tells him that he would have been responsible for it, if the girl had approached him for an abortion and he'd refused. (Of course, he could have offered her an alternative, like an orphanage for instance, but never mind.)

Some time later, a young pilot named Wally, and his girlfriend, Candy, arrive in Larch's office looking to get rid of their ... problem. After several terse discussions with the couple, Homer asks if they will take him along when they leave, and they do. The decisions made by the three of them are so abrupt, one might suspect they'd all gone to the medicine cabinet together between scenes.

Showing an astonishing lack of foresight, Wally agrees to put his young male hitchhiker to work in his father's apple orchard, in close proximity to Candy. Before long, duty calls Wally to the Pacific, but he's relieved that Candy will have Homer to watch over her ... which he does -- very, very closely.

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger

This itself should have barred the film from consideration for the Maggie Award, considering the strong possibility of producing an "unwanted pregnancy." It is clear that Homer and Candy have no intention of getting married, yet they act without concern for the consequences. If faced with a pregnancy, it is likely they would opt for another abortion, which Planned Parenthood says it wants to be "rare." Far worse, from Ms. Sanger's viewpoint, they might produce a second-generation orphan.

While working as an apple-picker, Homer lives in the cider house, with a group of black migrant workers. Although they are paid employees, they lead a virtual antebellum existence. When they're not working the fields, they generally remain in or around the cider house, an old wooden shack with no twentieth-century conveniences. In one of the films scarce subtleties, Irving uses this setting to draw a tiresome feminist parallel between childbearing and slavery.

Homer finally gets his mind right when he discovers that the picking crew's foreman, Mr. Rose, has impregnated his own daughter, Rose. (That's "Rose Rose," lest we forget that she and her father are related.) Naturally, no option but abortion is given serious consideration. Without much hint of an internal struggle, Homer volunteers his services, thereby demonstrating his growth and concluding his coming-of-age experience.

The slavery comparison is completed by the item for which the film is entitled, a slip of paper marked "cider house rules," which is tacked up next to the pickers' bunks. Homer, being the only literate one in the house, is asked to read the rules to the others, who then decide that each rule is either wrong or insultingly obvious. Although they perceive the rules as a form of racial oppression, none of them takes it upon himself to tear down and destroy them. Instead, they elect Homer to burn them in the stove.

This makes no sense from a motivational standpoint, but it is done for the sake of the metaphor. Homer frees the apple-pickers from the cider house rules the same way he frees Rose Rose from the rules of nature -- by incinerating the oppressor.

While Homer is away on his adventure, Dr. Larch, remaining hopeful of his return, makes preparations for Homer to succeed him in running the orphanage. He qualifies his young, unschooled assistant for that task by printing counterfeit diplomas and a medical license. This, like most of the illegal and immoral acts in the film, is justified. You see, if Larch doesn't forge the documents, then Homer can't take over the orphanage, and it will fall into the clutches of those meddlesome Christians, who, perish the thought, would discontinue the abortions.

It is telling that the theme of this, perhaps the most openly pro-abortion movie ever made, takes the form of a spirited defense of dishonesty. In the world created by John Irving, nearly everything is justifiable, with the exceptions of incest and Christianity. If a person is acting on behalf of a noble cause (and what nobler cause is there than "choice"?), then he can lie and break the law with impunity.

There are many, many lies in The Cider House Rules, and not a single one of them is presented as if it were wrong. Some of them are truly harmless, like fibbing to the smaller children in order to avoid telling them about another orphan's death. No distinction is made, however, between those lies and the bigger ones which have troubling moral consequences.

At the end of the film, for example, Homer is told that Dr. Larch lied when he diagnosed him with a heart defect, in order to spare him from the draft. But this meant that the army had to send someone else (perhaps Wally) in his place. Furthermore, Larch didn't even let Homer decide whether he wanted to take part in that lie. Had it been up to him, he might have led an honorable military career, rather than living a lie, as an unlicensed doctor and an illegal abortionist. None of that matters, though, as we are assured by Homer's gratified smile.

We are given a peek into the "pro-choice" psyche by the fact that the leaders of that movement have embraced a movie which, in the course of supporting their cause, tells them that they can lie with a clear conscience, because their lies are good. Planned Parenthood's rewarding this film paints a picture of a movement so desperate for validation that it needs to consult a video self-help manual.

Taking into consideration the degree to which Planned Parenthood's reaction to The Cider House Rules has been a visceral one, they, and other like-minded organizations, should be given a second chance to address particular elements of it which are worthy of condemnation. In the interest of fairness, here are a few questions addressed to abortion advocacy groups, to help them clarify their positions:


  1. If your primary concern is the health of the women who seek abortions, then why would you sympathize with one illegal abortionist who's whacked out on ether, and another who has no license to practice medicine?
  2. When you refer to "back-alley butchers," do they necessarily have to use tools as crude as coat hangers and knitting needles? Can forceps and suction machines also be instruments of "butchery," or is a pseudo-medical appearance all that is required for an abortion to win your approval?
  3. Three female characters become pregnant in this story, and each of them has an abortion, without anyone making any effort to prevent it. If you truly want abortions to be rare, why don't you criticize the presentation of them as routine?
  4. Irving's film condones illegal abortions performed on minors. Would you encourage, or even tolerate, abortions which are done in defiance of a state's parental consent law?
  5. Mr. Rose crystallizes the message of this movie when he says, "sometimes you gotta break the rules to put things right." Had a major film made such a statement against abortion, every known anti-abortion group in America would by now have disavowed it. Yet such a statement made in defense of abortion is rewarded. Do you renounce vigilantism in all cases, or is the rule of law only important when it coincides with the advancement of your cause?


There can be no reconciling the professed beliefs of abortion advocates with their reactions to Irving's film, which have ranged from conspicuous silence to effusive praise. If their answers to the questions above indicate to them that the message of The Cider House Rules is irresponsible and immoral, then they should make a point of publicly saying so. If, however, they have only been reassured that the film shares their views, then they should agree to never again utter the slogan, "safe, legal and rare."


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