Vera Drake: serial killer

There is a film being released this week, Vera Drake, about the career of a back-street abortionist in the slums of London in the 1930s. The film has won awards from film critics in San Diego, and a poll of movie executives named it the fourth best British film this year - not very difficult given that the UK film industry is not exactly prolific. If a film is British it will always be pointed out. Mary Riddell, in a typical religion-bashing piece in the Guardian, describes the central character as “a social pioneer, moving from one council flat to the next with her biscuit tin containing rubber tubing and carbolic soap to ‘help out’ girls with nowhere else to turn”.

Finally, Vera, who judges no one, meets the forces of censoriousness. Her son considers her a killer, her employers treat her as a pariah, and she must make her case before a law that regards abortionists, except for those providing a discreet service for the rich, as murderers and corrupters. Leigh’s homages to the poor are sometimes cloying, but this one has a special relevance for a Britain in which pro-lifers urge tighter curbs on terminating pregnancies. It is also an eerily apt fable for today’s America.

Jennifer Worth, a former midwife writing in today’s Guardian, however, makes it clear that, as accurate as this film is about family life in 1950s London, medically it’s wildly inaccurate. The method Drake uses time after time without much apparent ill effect (for the woman, anyway) would in fact kill a woman instantly:

Mike Leigh is a writer and a film-maker, and can be excused for not knowing, but his medical adviser should certainly have known that Vera’s method of procuring an abortion - flushing out the uterus with soap and water - was invariably fatal. One of the most severe pains a human being can endure is the sudden distension of a hollow organ. Inflating the uterus with liquid will induce primary obstetric shock, a dramatic fall in blood pressure, and heart failure. Thousands of women have died instantly from this abortion method.

Worth is afraid that this film will be shown in many countries where abortion remains illegal, and the method will be attempted by people thinking it’s safe. Of course, there’s not much that’s humane about abortion anyway, especially late in a pregnancy (which speaks for itself as a baby is killed). This film, if these issues can’t be straightened out, should simply be pulled.

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