Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/376/4238
directed by Mike Leigh
AFTER SEEING a Mike Leigh production you generally feel like putting your head in the oven. But this film makes you feel angry as well.
Vera Drake spends her days working as a domestic for a number of people, as well as looking after her infirm mother and her own husband and grown-up children. She is always running around ready to help anybody.
The film is set in 1950 when abortion was illegal. Furthermore, contraception was not as reliable as it is today, and not available to unmarried women. Girls who became pregnant out of wedlock were stigmatised and often cast out by their families or forced to have their baby adopted.
Vera Drake helps women in this situation. She doesn't ask for any fees, she does it for free. It is not just "girls who get in trouble" whom Vera helps but mothers who already have several children and, because of poverty and overcrowding, cannot support another one. What she does is just a continuation of her life helping people she comes across.
Unfortunately, the method she uses, carried out in the women's own kitchens, is not sterile and very dangerous, and one of the girls ends up seriously ill in hospital. Vera is arrested and ends up getting a custodial sentence.
Juxtaposed to this story is the situation faced by the daughter of one of the middle-class families Vera cleans for. The young woman becomes pregnant after being raped by an acquaintance. She goes to a doctor who is prepared to agree to a termination at a hospital by a qualified obstetrician, for the sum of 100 guineas.
The same establishment that condemns Vera is prepared to bend the rules for a price. You ask yourself why the doctor, psychiatrist and nurses who carried out the middle-class girl's abortion weren't arrested and sentenced in the same way as Vera.
Fortunately, times have changed since the 1950s. Nowadays it is socially acceptable to have a baby even if the mother is unmarried. Contraceptives, such as the pill, are far more reliable and accessible and abortion has been legal since 1967.
THE FILM has been awarded the Venice Golden Lion Award and Imelda Staunton as Vera gives a stunning performance. It brings the atmosphere of post-war London into the modern era. The conversations between the family and friends show how they coped with the recent experience of the war.
The film also shows that working-class families like the Drakes depended on themselves and their efforts to make life better. The different attitudes to abortion are shown when the mother is arrested and the son at first can't believe that his mother could "do such a dirty thing". The daughter and the husband, however, rally behind Vera when the story comes out.
Vera Drake does not pretend to be a complete picture of back-street abortions. Most of the practitioners undoubtedly did not carry out the 'work' for altruistic reasons but for gain. Vera's medical knowledge was almost zero and she did not understand the extremely dangerous method she used (involving a syringe and soapy water) and its consequences.
One woman almost dies but we do not know what happened to the other women she helped over the previous twenty years.
Right to choose
The film may help a new generation appreciate what conditions were like for women before the legalisation of abortion. Thousands were maimed or died. This is important because, although abortion is available legally today, reactionary elements do periodically try to attack this important right.
We need to be able to explain that without the legal right to choose many women today would also be forced to go to a back-street abortionist like Vera Drake.
In The Socialist 15 January 2005: