By Sarah Flint Erdreich
Abortion has long been the third rail of American pop culture. Maude may have chosen to have an abortion in 1972, but in the decades since, few female characters on mainstream television shows have made the same choice. (Interestingly, this is an area where soap operas have been much more progressive in 1964, a character on Another World had an abortion; nine years later, All My Children featured a storyline that followed Erica Kane’s legal abortion.) While unexpected pregnancies continue to be a staple of dramas and comedies alike, this plot device is usually resolved one of two ways: continuing the pregnancy or choosing abortion, only to have a conveniently timed miscarriage instead.
Yet this past year has seen a shift in how abortion is depicted on TV. On the glossy medical soap Private Practice, several successful physicians shared their personal abortion experiences when a teenager chose to continue her unplanned pregnancy, despite her anti-choice mother’s objections. The critically acclaimed drama Friday Night Lights went even further, featuring a refreshingly progressive storyline in which a 16-year-old high school student, herself the child of a teenage mother, opted to have an abortion.
The popular MTV series 16 & Pregnant, which recently completed its second high-rated season, proudly proclaims that it shows teen pregnancy in all its complicated, relationship-destroying, education-derailing glory. Yet not one episode has included a substantial conversation about choice until now. A special program on December 28, 2010 called No Easy Decision followed the stories of three young women who had chosen abortion.
Hosted by Dr. Drew Pinsky, the show examined the issue of abortion through the experiences of Markai, who was on the most recent season of “16 and Pregnant”; Katie, who had an abortion before her senior year of college; and Natalia, who became pregnant when she was 17. The half-hour show, which aired without commercials, spent about fifteen minutes on Markai’s unplanned pregnancy. Filmed footage of Markai discussing the situation with her partner, James; spending time with her and James’ infant daughter; and talking to her mother and best friend about what to do made it clear that Markai was struggling with her decision. She and James both wanted to give their daughter a better life than they had had, but as Markai made clear throughout her segment, she wouldn’t choose abortion as a first option for anybody.
Katie and Natalia were not given as much airtime; they came on towards the end of the show, to join Markai in an interview segment with Dr. Pinsky. Because Natalia lived in a parental consent state at the time she became pregnant, she had to get a judicial bypass in order to have her abortion. She was the only one who mentioned how costly an abortion can be hers was $750, some of which was covered by her supportive ex-boyfriend. Katie got pregnant right before her younger sister had a baby; like Natalia, Katie said she thought about adoption, but didn’t feel it was the right choice for her.
“No Easy Decision” was filled with informative facts about both abortion and contraception, including the prevalence and safety of abortion in the U.S. and the need for both women and men to be knowledgeable about birth control and diligent about finding the method that works best for them. Through Markai, Katie, and Natalia’s stories, it was also clear that there is no one “right” way to feel about abortion, which is an important point. Choice opponents insist that women who feel relief after their abortion are monsters, and those who feel sadness are doomed to a life of regret yet these three young women, and Dr. Pinsky, made it clear that it was all right to feel both sadness and relief, both regret and pride. As Markai, the most obviously ambivalent of the three, pointed out, it’s okay to “feel the emotions you’re going to feel.”
For too long, television and film have consistently portrayed abortion the option that dare not speak its name, diminishing the validity and acceptability of this choice. It’s hard not to wonder if the popular media’s lack of diversity when it comes to pregnancy options is a reflection of the secrecy and shame that surrounds abortion. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I began watching “No Easy Decision,” only to be pleasantly surprised and impressed by the program. MTV took an important step towards combating all the stigma and stereotypes associated with abortion by sharing stories that were immensely common and relatable and therefore extremely powerful. Markai, Natalia, and Katie may not have intended to be advocates for choice, but their experiences make it clear just how important reproductive freedom is for women and men. “No Easy Decision” did a brilliant job of humanizing a contentious issue, and perhaps even more important, it achieves the participants’ shared goal: to remind women and girls who have had abortions that they are not alone.
December 30, 2010