Where Are My Children
R: Lois Weber / Phillips Smalley. B: Lucy Payton, Franklyn Hall. K: Stephen S. Norton, Allen G. Siegler. D: Tyrone Power Sr., Mrs. Tyrone Power, Marie Walcamp, Cora Drew, Rena Rogers, Alva D. Blake, Juan de la Cruz, William J. Hope. P: Lois Weber Productions / Universal Film Manufacturing Company. USA 1916
“In 1915 the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., denied motion pictures protection as free speech under the First Amendment, allowing for laws to enforce censorship regulations on motion pictures. The Supreme Court later overturned that ruling as well as the Comstock Act*. During that time, many films were not allowed to show scenes of graphic nature, especially scenes of a surgical or sexual nature. According to historian Louise Heck-Rabi, Weber depicted concepts, which could have been interpreted as obscene, in the film Where Are My Children? through religious, allegorical references, influenced by her religious upbringing as a child. By constructing abortion and contraception as moral abstract actions, instead of physical actions, Weber worked around most of the censorship regulations. Universal released Where Are My Children? in 1916 for a limited audience at New York’s Globe Theater in New York, New York. The film was well-received, and the National Board of Review reconsidered the release of the film, allowing for the film to be shown for a wider audience. Despite the controversial bans, Where Are My Children? grossed three million dollars and was widely viewed in the United States.”
Grace Kim: “Where Are My Children? (1916)”
Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2017-05-26)
* “The Comstock Laws were a set of federal acts passed by the United States Congress under the Grant administration along with related state laws. The ‘parent’ act (Sect. 211) was passed on March 3, 1873, as the Act for the ‘Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use’.”
Symbol of Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice
“The film is in the first place defending eugenics, i.e. the fact that the reproduction of people with desired traits should be encouraged and reproduction of people with undesired traits should be reduced. The enthusiastic adoption of this theory by nazi Germany demonstrated how pernicious it was. The film postulates that there are three categories of babies waiting to be born, the ‘chance’ children, going forth to earth in vast numbers, the ‘unwanted’ souls, that were constantly ‘sent back’ and bore the sign of the serpent (devil?), and those souls fine and strong, sent forth only on prayer and marked with the approval of the Almighty. This explains the position taken by the main protagonist, District Attorney Walton: he thinks that there is no reason to prosecute somebody defending birth control, as he is working with poor people producing children who from a eugenics point of view are deemed undesirable. On the other hand he is deeply shocked when he discovers that his wife and her friends, who from the same eugenics point of view would produce perfect children, are getting abortions because motherhood would interfere with their leisurely life. It is therefore not an anti-abortion film, as it is now regarded by some people, but a film about the wrong people undertaking abortion. The unwanted children are just ‘sent back’ to heaven. What is also striking, given the fact that the film was made by a female director, Lois Weber, together with her husband Phillips Smalley, is the very negative depiction of women. They are liberated enough to drive their own cars but the only thing in their life seems to be having drinks or tea together and refusing motherhood out of pure selfishness. This is all the more surprising that the person who inspired the scene of the man prosecuted for publishing a book about birth control was actually a woman, Margaret Sanger. Why did Lois Weber turn this positive female character into a man? Note also the patriarcal approach, Walton doesn’t ask ‘Where are our children?’ but ‘Where are my children?’).
A Cinema History
“Where Are My Children? (…) makes a eugenicist argument in favor of birth control for working-class and immigrant families, while lambasting privileged white women for not ‘bettering’ the race, vilifying them further through their association with abortion, rather than contraception. As several reviewers pointed out at the time, this dichotomy inverted family planning practices of the day, for it was impoverished women, less likely to have access to adequate contraception, who were often forced to rely on unsafe abortions, while their wealthier counterparts practiced safe and effective family planning with tacit help from the medical establishment. Interweaving these multiple story lines through patterns of cross-cutting, the film makes clear that while men legislate reproductive issues in public courtrooms, women, excluded from these debates, carry on clandestine conversations in private.
The film’s message about sexuality, reproduction and contraception is further clouded by a subplot in-volving the housekeeper’s daughter Lillian (Rena Rogers). A naïve young woman, she is lured into a liaison with Edith’s lothario brother Roger (A.D. Blake). Lillian becomes pregnant – ‘the wages of sin,’ a title informs us – and ultimately dies from an unsafe abortion she procures with Edith’s help. Lillian’s narrative adds another dimension to the film’s portrayal of unplanned pregnancy and complicates its overlay of abortion and contraception. If Where Are My Children? seems to advocate birth control for impoverished women, while simultaneously denouncing Edith’s wealthy circle for their reliance on abortion, in Lillian’s case the message is less clear. Would Lillian’s life have been spared if she had access to reliable contraception? The film does not go so far as to promote reproductive freedom for consenting, unmarried adults, a case Margaret Sanger was indeed making in the 1910s, but Lillian’s subplot introduces the topic of sexuality outside reproduction, albeit with a rather clichéd tale of a male predator and his gullible victim.”
Shelley Stamp: Where Are My Children?