Eliminating abortion requires a language of love

In one of the most compelling scenes of the 2006 movie “Bella,” a handsome and charismatic soccer player named Jose is driving through a New York City neighborhood with his manager, Eduardo, on his way to sign a multimillion-dollar professional soccer contract. The camera suddenly cuts away to a young woman filming her toddler daughter, Loochi, as they play hide-and-seek in their backyard nearby. Loochi looks for a place to hide while her mother closes her eyes and laughingly counts. Loochi runs away from her yard, through the gate and between two buildings, through which viewers can now see the street. The camera shots move more rapidly between Jose’s and Eduardo’s jovial banter in the car, and the tiny girl running toward the street, making viewers acutely aware of the tragedy that is imminent.

The collision is heard, not seen. As the reality of what has happened sinks in, Jose’s face crumples, and he dissolves into tears. His manager sees his bright future disappearing and yells at him to leave the scene, but Jose refuses. He gets out of the car to face what he has done, just as Loochi’s mother arrives at the street screaming, seeing her daughter’s lifeless body.

The agony of her loss — and Jose’s — is crushing.

But that is the backstory of “Bella”; the primary story is several years later. Jose has lost everything and is working as a cook in his brother’s restaurant. One of the waitresses, a young woman named Nina, is fired after having been late multiple times. In an impulsive moment of compassion, Jose follows her out the door and offers to help her. Jose and Nina spend the day together, and Nina reveals that she is pregnant, that she does not love the baby’s father, is broke and plans to have an abortion. This sets up a conversation and a friendship between Nina and Jose that is pursued throughout the rest of the film.

When I first saw “Bella,” I was struck by the dramatic incongruity between our reactions to the loss of these two children: Loochi and Nina’s unborn baby. When Loochi is killed, it is intended to be felt as a tragedy of staggering proportions. But the prospect of the death of Nina’s child is characterized in our society as a “choice” — something to be tolerated, embraced, even celebrated.

Why such a stark difference?

One explanation might be that it’s the difference between a child who is wanted and one who is not. But I don’t think it’s so much a matter of being wanted; I think it is a matter of being known. Loochi is on-screen for less than two minutes, and yet to see her playing hide-and-seek in the backyard with her mother humanizes her to us. We see who she is. We have a sense of her identity and her value. Even if we, as strangers, do not “love” her, we can put ourselves in the shoes of her mother, who does, and understand the unfathomable loss.

Nina’s baby, by contrast, is hidden and therefore unknown to her and to us. That child has every bit as much identity and value as Loochi — but we do not see it yet, nor does Nina. Human beings have great difficulty loving someone they don’t know and have never seen. But everything can change once we know someone.