Now this isn’t a post defending any particular view on abortion. Rather, I want to look at how the two views in the debate were presented and why their presentation was so apt to make people angry. I also say a little bit about how we ought to discuss controversial issues of this sort, whether it be in unorthodox fan creations or elsewhere.
So if you want a breakdown of the comic’s portrayal of abortion or just want a little more insight into what made the comic so controversial, read on past the break.
For those who follow this site closely, you probably recall this post that drew attention to borba’s comic, I Will Survive (IWS). In this comic, Judy has, against all biological probability, gotten pregnant after being intimate with Nick, and the two of them disagree about the fate of their offspring. Judy wants to get an abortion, and Nick wants her to keep the child. Needless to say, it wasn’t your typical Zootopia content, and the reaction to it was highly polarized.
Now typically something unusual and obscure like this makes a splash in its own fandom and then gradually fades to memory, but in a surprising turn of events, the internet at large discovered the comic and turned it into a series of absurd memes. So the comic was suddenly relevant again and drew the ire of many more readers. So why does this comic seem to get so many people upset?
Well, for some, it’s just the fact that they don’t think animated characters from a Disney film should be talking about abortion. To them, that’s just too weird, and admittedly, it’s not hard to see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Then again, the original film contains three jokes about the rabbit libido, a canon-confirmed gay couple, a clear allusion to drug manufacturing, a plot focused upon a government conspiracy to dehumanize and imprison a minority population, and a central theme about the pervasiveness and perpetuation of prejudice. It’s not a film devoid of mature subject matter, and most fans of the film recognize this fact. So people’s dislike of IWS doesn’t just boil down to its focus on a mature subject. Rather, it’s the way that subject is presented and discussed.
I’ve been teaching about the ethics of abortion in undergraduate ethics courses for eight years, and I have engaged with a lot of thoughtful students on both ends of the spectrum on this subject. (It is an especially popular topic for term papers.) Two consistent themes emerge from seriously discussing this issue. First, it’s just very tough to figure out. After all, it is one of the most persistent and challenging disagreements in both the academic field of applied ethics and society more generally. Second, for many students, abortion is a deeply personal subject and one they often feel uncomfortable talking about in ordinary contexts. They may see content related to sex and procreation frequently in the media, but there’s a strong social taboo in many parts of the U.S. about discussing such things candidly in conversation. Given these facts, serious discussion of abortion has to be done carefully and respectfully, or else it risks oversimplifying the issue and alienating many of the participants in the conversation. This is where IWS runs into some problems in its presentation.
First, it’s worth noting that a comic is just not a great format for discussing a complex moral issue. Comics are a dominantly visual medium and do not lend themselves well to dialogue-heavy exchanges. Yet complex moral issues generally don’t have simple solutions and require a lot of discussion for any resolution to be possible. With abortion, this problem is even more pronounced because there are so many different positions on the subject, a fact that is sometimes obscured by the common usage of the pro-choice and pro-life labels. Certainly, there are those who believe abortion is always wrong and those who think women should have unrestricted access to abortion, but a lot of intermediary positions exist between these extremes. For instance, many who believe abortion is generally wrong still acknowledge certain circumstances where they think it is permissible. Additionally, some who would never get an abortion themselves still believe that women should have the right to get one, and some people see no problem with early-term abortions but are greatly disturbed by late-term abortions. For many people, the details matter a lot to whether abortion is a morally acceptable option in a given case.
Part of the problem is that the comic doesn’t delve too far into those details. Nick and Judy seem to represent the extreme ends of each side of the spectrum, and likely in part because of the medium of the presentation, there’s not a ton of depth to their discussion about what ought to be done.
Judy offers four reasons in support of her pro-choice stance. First, she claims that the fetus does not yet have the moral status of a baby because she is only in the first month of pregnancy. Second, she worries that their offspring might have genetic defects of some sort. Third, she fears that their offspring might pose a risk to her health by being too big for her to carry to term. Fourth, she worries about the way that the pregnancy could affect her career. Judy spends by far the most time defending this fourth reason.
Nick is not as explicit about his reasoning. He dismisses Judy’s second and third reasons for favoring abortion as mere speculation and accuses her prioritization of her career as selfish, going so far as to say she would be willing to kill their baby to advance her career. (This seems to imply that he rejects Judy’s claim that the fetus is not yet a baby.) The best gloss I can give to his main argument against abortion (which comes near the end of the comic) is that he thinks, regardless of whether Judy has a right to abort the child, that someone committed to making a positive difference in the world would not get an abortion in these circumstances. Just as Judy was able to make a big difference in the world around her, she should be willing to grant their offspring the same opportunity. Whether Judy’s own personal values are really consistent with her getting an abortion could be an interesting argument to consider, but this idea is overshadowed by language and symbolism that suggests Nick’s views are primarily rooted in religious commitments. The most telling of these are his description of abortion as a “premeditated sin” and various visual allusions to Christianity.
Now, given that the comic is glossing over a lot of thorny philosophical territory in a very short time, it’s bound to rub some people the wrong way, but the problem runs much deeper than that. Nick and Judy are just profoundly unfair to one another in the context of the conversation. After fearfully taking a home pregnancy test, Judy shares the news with Nick that she is pregnant, then immediately shares her plans to get an abortion, and shortly thereafter makes clear that she is not open to reconsidering her position. This dialectical progression makes Judy seem thoroughly insensitive to Nick’s feelings. Similarly, Nick dismisses Judy’s concerns about genetic disease and her own health far too quickly and misrepresents her position as that of a person willing to commit murder for the sake of her career – a rather cold-blooded remark, to say the least. This prompts Judy to strike Nick, and in the aftermath, he packs up and departs.
For people who have gone through this decision-making process or know someone who has, the dialogue between Nick and Judy can be downright painful to read. A decision this significant is usually not made hastily or unilaterally. What would typically happen, assuming that a couple disagreed about whether to keep a child in similar circumstances, is that they would have a series of conversations spanning several days (perhaps even week) trying to make a collective decision about the matter. It’s possible that they could not reach a resolution, but there would be a genuine effort to do so and to understand the perspective of the other person in the exchange. In this comic, Judy and Nick are not making that effort, and so both of them come across as callous and unreasonable. In comments elsewhere, borba has indicated that some of this is intentional – many features of the conversation and situation were exaggerated to enhance the drama – but with this particular issue, it’s not surprising that a lot of people do not view that as a good narrative choice.
A further source of people’s ire is that the comic does not come across as even-handed in its treatment of each side. It reads as being much more favorable to Nick’s pro-life position. Notably, borba has denied that the comic was meant to promote a pro-life viewpoint, and the final page does suggest that the intended focus is on how differences in personal values can fracture even very strong relationships. The problem is that the comic as a whole just doesn’t generate the same message.
So with all this in mind, does IWS deserve the criticism it has received? Given its content, it’s certainly fair for readers to voice their disagreements with the comic’s perceived message and the ways in which the abortion issue is discussed. Unfortunately, a lot of that criticism soon escalates personal attacks and deliberately incendiary remarks. Such responses aren’t universal, of course, but they are common. Too common.
Disagreements about matters in ethics, politics, and religion are an enduring feature of our world, but we still have to find ways to coexist with one another. At a minimum, this requires treating those around us with respect and making an effort to understand their points of view. That’s not always easy to do, but it’s something we should all aspire to. As Judy remarks in her speech at the end of the film, “The more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try.”
The problem is that when it comes to discussing abortion, many people don’t try. They don’t make an effort to understand alternative points of view on the subject. This frequently causes civil discussion to degenerate into personal attacks, name-calling, and other exchanges of insults.
No matter how much you may have disliked IWS, that kind of conduct must be avoided. You will virtually never change someone’s mind by insulting them, and you won’t learn anything about the issue under discussion either. Instead, such exchanges just waste time and make people angry or upset. So the next time you discuss IWS (or abortion more generally), keep it civil, and give your opposition a fair hearing. You might not change your mind on the issue, but you may learn something new and will probably feel better after the conversation ends than you otherwise would.
All that said, it’s probably time to move on from IWS. If you’re on this site, you’re probably here to get the latest news about Zootopia and about fan-created content tied to the film. If some of that content helps us learn a little more about complex moral issues, that’s great, but this particular comic has run its course – in fact, for those who frequent this site, it’s now run its course twice. I hope this post provides a summary of why the comic proved so divisive, but I also hope that things around here will now get back to normal.