by Cayt Mirra
I can’t believe I have never noticed it before. But I was recently at a special-event cinema screening of Terminator 2: Judgement Day when it suddenly hit me. It seems obvious now. I mean, the villain in the first film is actually called the Terminator. The TERMINATOR, you guys! And he is trying to stop a baby from being born. This mission is even described in the film as a “retroactive abortion”. This is an entirely anti-choice franchise. Still not convinced? Stay with me.
Imagery of life and pregnancy pervades the first film. The Terminator opens with the appearance of both Reece and the Terminator, naked and crouched in fetal position. Later, Reece even confesses that the experience of travelling through time was “like being born”. When we meet Sarah, her very first words of dialogue are “I’m late”, possibly foreshadowing her impending pregnancy. The film sets pregnancy up from the beginning as one of its key motifs.
The pressure placed on Sarah Connor to have a baby is an exaggerated version of the pressure placed on real-life women to continue with their pregnancies. Consider why Sarah is told she must live to have her baby: he is literally going to save the world. The world will end if he is not born. This puts Sarah in the position of having to have a child, whether she wants to or not, because of a greater good. Here, the film promotes the idea that having a child is about a contribution to society that is greater than ourselves, and asks us to question what our hypothetical child could grow up to become. Even the future version of her son tells her what to do — “You must survive or I will never exist”. Sarah is not asked if she actually wants to have a child. She is told that she must. She speaks very little of her feelings about this, other than to say “I didn’t ask for this honor and I don’t want it. Any of it.”
It is fitting that Sarah begins Terminator 2: Judgement Day in a mental institution. There is a long history of women being told they are hysterical or unstable as a way to silence them. Sarah has had her choices taken away, because men have decided that she is not capable of making them. This might lead you to think that the sequel presents a woman fighting for agency over her own life — and in ways it does, although Sarah never really fights for her own life, but for her son’s — but this message is eclipsed by the constant barrage of pro-life messages.
The one that permeates the entire film is John teaching the Terminator about the value of human life. The constant message to the Terminator is that you do not end human life, no matter what. No exceptions. John is, of course, trying to prevent the murder of innocent people; but if we remember that this is the Terminator who tried to stop John from being born, the context doesn’t feel so far removed from abortion discourse. It is this same rhetoric about the protection of human life that allows pro-life campaigners to overlook the dangers posed to women when they are denied abortions. The reprogrammed Terminator is prepared to let Sarah die rather than risk John, because she is “not a priority”. The Terminator is one of the good guys now, as he is programmed to protect John, but apparently this new programming does not require him to care at all for the mother. Like those who fight against abortion rights but also fight against welfare for single mothers, this robot is not acting out of logical reasoning or compassion, but from stubborn adherence to a single mission, making this valuing of human life arbitrary. The film never truly challenges the ethical complications that surround the idea of protecting a human life at all costs. In fact, this message is reiterated at the film’s conclusion. Let’s consider the final line:
“Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.”
So basically, this evil monster who once wanted to terminate an unborn baby now believes in protecting (certain) life at all costs. You, too, can be saved!
The film distributes its most explicit propaganda through Sarah herself, in her speech to Dyson:
“Fucking men like you built the hydrogen bomb. Men like you thought it up. You think you’re so creative. You don’t know what it’s like to really create something; to create a life; to feel it growing inside you.”
This seems like some pretty straight-up feminism. But the worth and superiority that Sarah places on women is entirely dependent on their ability to have children. And, somewhat ironically, in her specific case, her ability to have a child who will go on to be a leader in a war. But it is in this speech that the allegory breaks for a second and we see that the valuing of human life that the film endorses is not about valuing humanity over technology, but about valuing the life of unborn children as something inherently sacred, as something more important than a woman’s autonomy and agency over her own body.
The title of the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, has religious connotations, implying that the human race will be judged for its disregard of human life. In its biblical sense, this phrase would suggest the day when sinners will be punished by God. Judgement Day in the film acts as a looming threat: protect unborn children or be punished as a sinner.
Sarah Conner is widely viewed as a feminist icon; it is true that there is much to love about her, including her strength and her love for her son. It is refreshing, also, to see a mother in a role like this. But impressive as she might be, she operates within a film that promotes the protection of some lives over others, and that holds pregnancy and childbirth up as some kind of ideal that all women should aspire to as their one and only achievement. The messages of the film, while seeming simply to promote a valuing of humanity over the advancement of technology, have an insidious subtext that the life of an unborn child should be preserved at the expense of a woman having control of her own body.