In "A Private Matter," a pro-choice movie on HBO that the producers claim was too controversial for the commercial networks, a woman facing the birth of a deformed baby has nowhere to turn for a legal abortion in her own country. (It airs at 8 tonight.)
Directed with coiled passion by Joan Micklin Silver and starring Sissy Spacek in a performance that builds to a shattering pitch, the movie is based on the true-life ordeal of a pregnant woman (one of many at the time) who fell victim to the dangerous sedative thalidomide (which was later outlawed).
The time is 1962, when abortions were illegal in the United States, and what a desperate, isolated life it is for Phoenix housewife and popular local TV kiddie show hostess Sherri Chessen Finkbine.
When she and her husband (a sturdy, affecting portrait by Aidan Quinn) learn that the tranquilizer she's been taking will likely cause their baby to be born with twisted limbs--or no limbs at all--they choose not to bring the child into their lives or into the lives of their four other children.
But the law, they learn, is against them: Terminations are legal only if the mother's life is at stake. Not to worry, says their doctor, "things can be done" by a surgeon on the QT in a hospital.
Thus begins the couple's journey into hell.
As advocacy TV, "A Private Matter" is a timely, urgent, dramatic statement, all the more effective because it's a first-rate production.
To protect the hospital, Finkbine sees a psychiatrist, who, as if on automatic pilot, confirms that her pregnancy has made her a depressive/suicidal basket case. Now if she will just quietly check into the hospital, she can have her secret abortion.
No big deal, says one of the administrators. "We perform hundreds of abortions every year."
But the woman does not stay quiet, and that makes all the difference. With the intention of alerting other women who are taking the same sedative, she tells a reporter at a garden party about the terrible drug thalidomide. It's only a matter of time before her name is leaked to the press and the nightmare begins.
Immediately she loses her job as hostess of "Romper Room," her husband is asked to leave his job as a high school teacher and their children are abused by schoolmates.
Most humiliating of all, in this brutal portrait of suburban America, is the hounding the couple endures from their callous neighbors and from unconscionable TV reporters who enter their home, set up their lights and turn them into punching bags with questions like, "What's it like to kill your baby?"
Initially not given to histrionics or excessive anger, the Finkbines' veneer of control finally breaks when fearful hospital administrators deny the woman an abortion because of the bad publicity at stake.
The only avenue left to the beleaguered woman looks like a coat hanger in a back alley. "There are discredited doctors," their physician tells them, "who will do it for $50." The couple's journey doesn't reach that point, but it gets close.
Writer William Nicholson has drawn a passive but vitally complex heroine, endearingly brought to life by Spacek, who comes to bristle at the way her life is increasingly controlled by men. "All you men around me," she yells at her husband, "are treating me like a child. All of you--doctors, lawyers, judges--all of you are men and you talk in your secret meetings and make decisions about me without asking me. I am not a child!"
Welcome to life in America before Roe vs. Wade. And maybe after.