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July 17, 2010

Abortion on Television

So Adrian on The Secret Life of the American Teenager decided NOT to have an abortion on Monday. We are shocked. Only not really.

Of course she didn't have the abortion. Even though she is 17 years old... and in high school... and not at all religious... and regretted having a revenge one-night-stand with Ben... who she isn't in a relationship with... because he's in love with Amy... she obviously wanted to keep the baby. Because only a horrible person would have an abortion, right?

Oh no! Not the A-word!

This is the show that the One Million Moms have claimed supports abortion (obviously not) and is a brutally realistic portrayal of sex. Really? This is brutally realistic?

This show is more melodramatic and unrealistic than a soap opera. Adrian is pregnant with Ben's baby, who she slept with to get back at Ricky, who had a baby with Amy, who Ben is in love with. It's like the most ridiculous love triangle square since Beverly Hills, 90210's Brenda-Dylan-Kelly-Brandon craziness... only PLUS BABIES! (It rivals only the brothers/vampire/doppelganger mix-and-match that's brewing on The Vampire Diaries but at least that show doesn't have to worry about being called too realistic).

I'm sorry, but when I was in high school (and college for that matter) most of the girls who got pregnant unexpectedly had abortions. They just did. I'm not saying it's the right decision for everyone or that it's necessarily an easy decision (and while I'm definitely pro-choice, I'm not by any means "pro-abortion"). It's just that if you want to be "realistic" you have to acknowledge that abortion does exist as a choice and not just as the no-one-would-actually-do-that choice.

For three seasons, Adrian has been the What Not To Do character on the show, (which also made her the only character I could even remotely relate to). But now suddenly she is redeemed... by choosing life. And I feel somehow betrayed. Adrian is smarter than this. There's no way that she would want to be a mom at 17. I don't believe that she would look at Amy's life as a teen mom - juggling school, work, a baby, a baby-daddy, a boyfriend, and a crazy family - and think that that was the right decision for her as well.

There's no way for me to perfectly articulate what I'm feeling about this without sort of coming off like I don't approve of people who "choose life" when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Of course I do (hell, I was one of them) and I definitely don't want to imply that I think every pregnant teenager should necessarily have an abortion. I just think that this decision is uncharacteristic of the character Adrian.

Twenty seven percent of pregnancies among 15–19-year-olds ended in abortion in 2006 (according to the Guttmacher Institute). That means, there were over 200,000 abortions among that age group. I think that if The Secret Life was a real high school, at least one of the unplanned pregnancies on that show would've resulted in termination. So I think that this show gives an unrealistic portrayal of teens and sex.

Abortion is NOT the right choice for everyone, but The Secret Life sends the message that it's not the right choice for anyone. (Remind me again why the One Million Moms don't like this show?)

Two other shows recently (earlier this year) took on the abortion issue... Private Practice (ABC) and Friday Night Lights (NBC). Private Practice did the usual she's-already-just-about-to-get-it-done-when-she-has-a-change-of-heart type switcheroo. In this case, the (normally anti-abortion, except when it comes to her daughter) mom was pushing for the abortion and the pregnant teen was sort of just going along with it out of fear. But then she sees a newborn baby and magically it's "Oh my miracle-of-life, I want one of those cute little things!" Meh.

But Friday Night Lights took a different approach. [SPOILER ALERT: The entire season has already aired on DirecTV, but the NBC airings are still going on right now, so if you haven't seen the last few episodes of the season yet, stop reading now.]

The main difference about FNL was that that an abortion actually happened!!! The OMM must not have seen it or their heads would have literally exploded. (If we see an OMM action alert about this show pop up sometime soon then that will definitely be the official proof that they read our blog because so far this show has totally been off their radar for some reason. Probably because the network isn't called "NBC Family" so they don't care what happens on it.)

Not only does the pregnant teen, Becky, actually go through with terminating the pregnancy, but when she goes to the principal of the school for advice, she actually gives her all the options. (Becky asks her "do you think this means I'm going to hell?" and she tells her no. So simple, yet so rare in network television.) Even more surprising than the fact that the Becky actually has an abortion, is that it didn't ruin her life afterward! Not to say that there weren't any negative consequences... but they weren't on Becky.

Rather, the high school principal, Tami Taylor, was attacked by some anti-choice locals for counseling Becky and giving her all the legal options. The school board and the community went crazy and tried to get her fired if she didn't make a public apology. But here's the best part... she actually prepares an apology, but when she gets in front of the crowd she can't bring herself to say it. Instead she tells them that she acted in the best interest of the student and so that's what she will always do because that's her job. Love it.

We felt like taking a little stroll down memory lane by looking at how some other TV shows have handled the issue in the past. (This is obviously far from a comprehensive list, but rather, just some of the ESC's own memorable abortion-on-TV moments.)
  • Maude. Even though we were too young to actually see this episode when it originally aired in 1972, any list on this subject has to begin with Maude, because it was one of the only early TV abortions that didn't result in any instant negative consequences.
  • Another World.Of course, many mistake Maude for network TV's first abortion, but really it was just the first legal abortion. TV's first illegal abortion took place way back in 1964 on this NBC soap. The character Pat almost dies from complications, finds out she may be sterile, and murders the boyfriend who pressured her to have it. (Of course, she ends up being acquitted of murder, marrying her lawyer, and having twins.)
  • All My Children. Erica Kane had daytime TV's first legal abortion (and the first abortion to be shown on TV after Roe v. Wade) in a controversial storyline in 1973. She choose abortion simply because she isn't ready and doesn't want to have a child at that time (and well, she doesn't want to get fat). This storyline became controversial again decades later when the writers decide to rewrite history (and science!) by claiming that the doctor who was supposed to have performed the abortion actually stole Erica's embryo and implanted it into his own wife. The character previously thought to be an aborted fetus, Josh, was a regular on the show for a few years, until he was conveniently killed right around the same time that his half-sister needed a heart transplant. Only on soaps.
  • Degrassi High. Possibly my earliest personal memories of abortion on television were of the Canadian show Degrassi High. In an episode that originally aired in 1989, Erica has an abortion and her twin sister Heather - despite thinking it's murder - supports her and goes with her to the clinic. Some other girl finds out about it and starts plastering her locker with pro-life fliers until they end up having a huge fight in the hallway. Heather later ends up needing counseling to deal with the fact that she helped "end a life", but Erica seems relatively well adjusted afterward, although she does mention that she never wants to have to go through that again.
  • Degrassi: The Next Generation. Apparently there was also an abortion episode in the new Degrassi series in 2004, although I'm not sure if it ever aired in the U.S. From what I've read, Manny gets pregnant by Craig and then Spike - who had a baby in high school back in the original series (who happens to have grown up into Emma, Manny's best friend) - advises her to have an abortion and she does. No wonder they didn't want to show that episode in the U.S.
  • The Real World. This may have been "reality" TV, but when Tami from season 2 of The Real World talked openly about her pregnancy and abortion on the show in 1993 it felt really brave. And even though some of her roommates clearly disagreed with her decision, they supported her, which was pretty cool.
  • Dawson's Creek. Dawson's mom gets pregnant and is wondering if she should have an abortion. Dawson, of course, being the douche that he is, is totally against it. He talks it over with Pacey's older sister (who I think he was dating at the time?) and she admits that she had an unplanned pregnancy in the past. She made "a decision" (we don't learn what it was) and then a week later she conveniently has a miscarriage, letting her "get off easy". Then Dawson's mom decides not to have an abortion anyway.
  • Felicity. When Ruby got pregnant, she goes to get info about abortion and a doctor assures her that abortion doesn't hurt much and is safer than child birth. Not bad. But then when she finally decides to get an abortion, she changes her mind in the clinic, after seeing a woman carrying a baby. Then she realizes that having a baby will solve all her unhappiness, because that's totally how it works.
  • Six Feet Under. Claire has an abortion in season 3 and then goes on with her life seemingly without guilt or sadness. Of course, later, in a dream/hallucination/trip-to-heaven-with-dead-Dad she sees all her dead loved ones hanging out together in the park including her dead sister-in-law Lisa who is holding Claire's abortion fetus - which somehow moved on into the after life as a fully developed infant. Lisa tells her "You take care of Maya [Lisa's daughter] and I'll take care of her." Okay.
  • Jack and Bobby. A character crosses state lines to have an abortion. And then before we can tell if she's going to have some post-abortion consequences or not, SHE DIES (in a car accident). Come on....
  • One Tree Hill. Peyton gets pregnant unexpectedly, but she and fiance Lucas are thrilled. Several months later, complications arise and they learn that it's a high risk pregnancy and Peyton may die if she carries the pregnancy to term. Lucas would rather she have an abortion than risk losing her but Peyton refuses. They both agree on continuing the pregnancy after a convenient "sign" in the form of the baby kicking at just the right moment. Peyton ends up going into labor on her wedding night (typical OTH melodrama), having an emergency c-section and a healthy baby, almost dying, but pulling through. And they all live happily ever after. They do get credit for actually using the word "abortion" and showing a very messy and emotional argument about what to do that represented both sides fairly well, rather than dancing around the issue and using vague euphemisms like "take care of it" like many shows do.
  • Beverly Hills, 90210.When good-girl Andrea got pregnant, she considered abortion (which her boyfriend broke up with her for!) but then not only did she have the baby but she married the guy. Later in season 7, bad-girl Valerie pretends to be pregnant and has a fake abortion for attention or money or ratings or something.
  • 90210. On the "new" 90210, Adriana undoubtedly has the most dramatic life any teenager has ever had. So far, she has gone from from actress to drug addict to pregnant teen to cheating girlfriend back to drug addict to temporary lesbian to pop sensation to maybe high school drop out (we'll find out soon enough). When Adriana found out she was pregnant, she couldn't have an abortion because she was too far along and therefore it was "illegal". (Of course, that doesn't make much sense seeing as she wasn't even showing yet and abortion is legal in California until about 6 months.)
What are some of your favorite and least favorite ways that television shows (or movies) have handled the topic of abortion?

7 comments:

tooimpurenangel said...

Party of Five went with the "convenient miscarriage" trope, on the day Julia was supposed to get her abortion.

IIRC, the miscarriage was kinda glossed over, because THANK GOD Julia didn't have to get an icky, icky ABORSHUN!!!ELEVENTY-ONE

The worst thing is that Sarah had told Julia she couldn't POSSIBLY support her because she(Sarah)had been adopted and if she had been aborted she wouldn't exist.

UGH!

Chris R. said...

I remember the episode of Scrubs where JD got his girlfriend pregnant and they ended up not going through with the abortion when they saw Turk and Carla's baby and how happy they all were. Barf. Because all babies make everyone happy, all the time.

'Course on the other hand, that episode also had Jordan discussing her own abortion with JD and his girlfriend (really wish I could remember her name, it's been a while) pretty frankly, and she said something along the lines of "a baby wasn't right for me, it was what was best for me." So I guess that's a plus.

D said...

I agree 100%, it's totally out of character for Adrian. And even worse, no one talked about adoption in that episode. If she's having pangs of conscience about termination, her next logical option is adoption. I felt pretty certain that if she kept the baby, that would be her choice. But it's as though the option doesn't exist, it's binary. Keep it, abort it. (I should have been warned, look how well Amy's attempts at adoption went.)

I also LOVED Adrian's father essentially blackmailing her with his love. "If you don't have the baby, I'm going to break up our family." NO ONE talked about that, either. "Oh, you're keeping it? Yay, I totally love and support you both, even when we don't disagree! Look what an even-tempered, modern man I am!"

I've been reviewing each episode over at Subterfuge, but I don't know how much longer I can keep going. There were elements I enjoyed initially, but they're being overridden by crap. (Should've seen that coming, too.)
http://subterfusex.wordpress.com/tag/secret-life-of-the-american-teenager/

elfinragdoll said...

By far one of the most mindblowing (considering it was prime time television) things I've seen on cable was the episode of House M.D. where a 12 yr old competitive swimmer ends up almost dying due to complications from her unexpected pregnancy, conceived on the road while she was competing. House simply told her that in that state, it was her decision alone and he wouldn't tell her parents. She went through with the termination, and was pretty torn up afterward, although the poor thing was 12, so it's understandable. She later told her parents of her own accord and they 'forgave' her or whatever they did. They were just glad she was going to be healthy.

I just thought to myself "I have just watched a dramatization of a 12 year old getting an abortion on prime time television. THE FUTURE IS NOW!" It's not the first time the show had dealt with abortion, but it was one of the most extreme situations considering the age of the girl.

FooFoo said...

"Fast Times at Ridgemont High" - Jennifer Jason Leigh's character has an abortion without any dramatic BS. Wasn't the best day of her life, but her brother (Judge Reinhold) showed up to take her home & she was fine.

Esme said...

Sex and the City.

When Miranda finds out that she's pregnant by her ex (despite her having only one ovary and him one testicle), she considers abortion. In the end she decides to keep it, in part because her friend Charlotte has been unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant.

Carrie, meanwhile, recalls her own abortion, after a one night stand with a guy she met on the club scene, in her 20s. She goes to see the guy she slept with, who is a waiter at a restaurant, and he doesn't remember her. Though she has a little difficulty telling her fiance about her abortion, it's made very clear that she made the choice that was right for her at the time, and she doesn't really regret her choice.

I think Carrie's abortion is one of the best ways I've seen the issue handled on a tv show. And Miranda's is just so overwhelmingly common.

AJ said...

ER: "If Not Now". The abortion episode where Abby was going to have one, but didn't. The pregnant teen patient of the week had an induced miscarriage, which is pretty close. Shame she had to be date raped to legitimize it, but I appreciated that the Abby storyline was clearly about personal choice.

Also ER, one of the main characters whose name I forget, talks about being pregnant as a teenager and how she wanted an abortion but didn't have enough money. She now struggles with her teenage son, is adamant that she doesn't want another child ever... and eventually is raped by the guy who knocked her up the first time around.
While she didn't actually have an abortion, at least it showed a pretty crap flow on effect from not having one.