Thursday, August 04, 2005

Dignity and Empathy: Vera Drake

4 August 2005

I thank the filmmaker, Mike Leigh, for providing an opportunity to share an evening contemplating the life of Vera Drake ( To the best of my understanding, his portrait of Vera is a fictional composite of the women of her era who did what she did.

Mr. Leigh could have picked no more controversial a topic than the story of a woman who devoted the limited free time at the margins of her life to provide young women in difficult circumstances with access to abortion at no cost. Mr. Leigh, the son of a physician and a midwife, would be in a position to understand what motivated Vera.

Others have analyzed this film better than I could do here. My intention is to address a single topic, and that is the role of empathy in Vera’s motivation. In its essence, Vera made the difficult choice to engage in a proscribed criminal act in order to provide young women of modest means with a service that was easily available at much higher cost to young women originating from well-to-do families.

Mr. Leigh makes it quite clear from early on that Vera is a woman whose life is driven by empathy. Aware of and available to others, Vera offers the only responses that empathy allows in a series of relationships – caring for a shut-in gentleman with a disability, for her aging mother, for her employers and for her immediate family members. It goes unstated that her provision of the service of abortion to women in unfortunate circumstances is no less a product of her capacity for empathy than all of the other actions that characterize her very busy life.

Another quality demonstrated by Vera is availability. Because she can connect directly and viscerally with the most ignorable of people even in passing, she brings home a young man whom her daughter soon chooses to marry. Vera is not able to ignore people or their circumstances, and she does the only things she can conceive of to respond to that which she is unable to ignore.

The issue of abortion, to my mind, is an unresolvable paradox. That is, it has no correct answer, but it forces us to make choices and to take action nonetheless. In my own view, the best social response to the issue of unwanted or unchosen pregnancy would be a type of free market system. That is, we cannot presume either to prescribe or prohibit the various options towards which a woman with an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy might be directed. Therefore, a wide range of supportive options should be available to her, not excluding economical and safe abortion, but also including parent and family support services, foster care, and a continuum of adoption models, including shared parenting. That is, “choice” neither equates with nor excludes abortion. And all of the choices would ideally be individualized as much as possible to the woman’s particular needs and offered in a supportive context.

But the movie Vera Drake is not really about abortion. It is about empathy, availability and dignity.

Is the fundamental thesis valid – that empathy forces choice, and therefore response?

I think that Mr. Leigh has captured a profound truth in recognizing that this is so.

Jane Jacobs (, still living and recently on CBC Radio’s Ideas Program, commented that it is the availability of citizens to each other that has most been lost in our emerging (post World War II) suburban infrastructure. Whereas individuals were always to be seen out and about in our traditional urban and rural neighbourhoods, it is quite possible to encounter no one at all in our expanding suburban housing developments. Ms. Jacobs also makes a point quite similar to Mr. Leigh’s – that without availability, empathy is blocked. And when empathy is blocked, we simply do not respond to the human circumstances of our neighbours.

The character Vera Drake is not a world improver, a social or political activist, nor an idealist. As a representative of the women who did what she did during this era, she stands as a model of the requirement to respond that empathy forces upon us.

Let us imagine for a moment that Vera had been an adoption advocate rather than an abortionist. The truth remains that when we permit empathy to take hold of our lives, we cannot “walk on by” the difficult moral issues. We must engage them as we engage the experiences and emotional responses of others. It is the engagement with the human circumstances of our neighbours that lends dignity to those who permit themselves to open their lives to empathy.

There is no turning back from this most difficult and tortuous but also rewarding of all engagements. Without the forced responses provoked by empathy, itself a consequence of availability, it is difficult to conceive how we can go about remaining human.

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