It seems like everyone in TV land is pregnant these days. All of those plot-pushing hookups that keep us tuned in week after week have resulted in positive pregnancy tests for Housewives and high schoolers on every channel. This is often an unwelcome surprise, but none of these fictional characters, unlike their real-world counterparts who might agonize over the choice to have a baby, will choose to end their pregnancies. In fact, we might as well be living in an era before Roe v. Wade as far as TV is concerned. Characters these days rarely even say the word abortion when confronted with an unplanned pregnancy—let alone have one.
Given the current political climate, it’s not surprising that a medium so dependent on advertisers would shy away from depicting one of the most fraught life choices a woman can make. But even as once taboo gay characters permeate not only fuzzily liberal shows like Will & Grace, but also the more red-state-centric world of soap operas (three years after coming out as a lesbian, All My Children’s Bianca shared the first girl-girl kiss on a daytime drama in 2003), abortion is the last topic that network television won’t explore.
Tube pregnancies: Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) of Grey’s Anatomy
photo: Craig Sjodin
This year on TV, we’ve seen Desperate Housewives‘ selfish trophy wife Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) get accidentally knocked up and decide to keep the baby (despite not knowing whether her incarcerated husband or her underage gardener is the father) and Cristina (Sandra Oh), the driven, cutthroat intern on Grey’s Anatomy, suffer what was essentially a convenient miscarriage. (She actually had an extrauterine pregnancy that wasn’t viable.) These characters are perfect examples of women who, in the real world, might not carry their fetuses to term. The staunchly anti-motherhood Gabrielle only got pregnant because her husband tampered with her birth control pills, and Cristina obsesses so much about getting ahead at her job that a pregnancy (by her boss—who dumped her, no less) would have been a monumental inconvenience at best and a life-changing setback at worst. While surgeon-to-be Cristina did originally intend to terminate her pregnancy (changing her mind after treating a miraculous patient), there was not so much as a “very special” episode of Desperate Housewives in which Gaby weighed her options. (Interestingly, last week’s episode intimated that she, too, would miscarry after a clichéd tumble down some stairs—but not before realizing just how much she really wants to have a baby.)
It’s not just these programs on notoriously family-friendly, Disney-owned ABC where abortion is conspicuously absent. Fox, that bastion of taste and family values that brought us the Bundys of Married With Children and shows like The Littlest Groom (a/k/a I Want to Marry a Midget), might be more experienced with raunch and sleaze, but they’re still clueless about what to do with the moral quagmire of abortion. The O.C. may be one of the most popular teen dramas in years because of its racy story lines (Julie sleeps with her daughter’s boyfriend and later a low-budget porno from her youth surfaces!) and hip musical guest stars, but it’s as conservative as the preacher’s-family drama 7th Heaven when it comes to the topic of abortion. The show’s website trumpets that last year, when Ryan’s ex Theresa (Navi Rawat) got pregnant, he “did the right thing and moved back to Chino to help raise [the baby].” Since when is dropping out of high school to work construction and raise a child while you are still basically a child yourself considered doing the right thing for anyone? Then, rather that carry on responsibly with this teen-parenting plotline and exploring the repercussions of the couple’s choices, the writers scripted an easy out for its angsty hero. Theresa, sensing Ryan’s unhappiness with their shared life, lied about a miscarriage. Thus Ryan was absolved of his parental duty and free to return to his glossy, indie-band-scored life in Newport Beach.
Elsewhere on the same network, the new drama Reunion covers the territory of teen pregnancy to a similarly conservative effect. Samantha (Alexa Davalos), a supposedly brilliant girl with a scholarship to an unnamed British university, discovers upon graduating high school that she’s pregnant by her boyfriend’s best friend. Now perhaps Sam didn’t go to her unnamed “appointment” (there is always a euphemism—God forbid any girl actually say the A-word!) because the writers or the network thought that the plotline—which involves her having the baby, giving it up for adoption, and then stalking the child—would make for great drama. Sadly it doesn’t. But worse than being bad television, it is just irresponsible.
Regardless of your personal feelings about abortion, the fact is that millions of women have them. The Alan Guttmacher Institute estimates that in 2001 (the last year for which statistics are available) more than 1.3 million pregnancies were terminated in the United States. But where are these women’s stories on television? Where is their voice? The answer is: on premium cable.
The only abortion on TV in recent memory (where the woman didn’t go crazy or die or meet some other hokey morality-tale end) was Claire’s on Six Feet Under. When the pragmatic teenager (Lauren Ambrose) got pregnant by her ambiguously gay boyfriend while still in school, she nonchalantly had an abortion. It was the right thing to do for her; she wasn’t prepared to be a parent. (She had spent much of the previous season experimenting with drugs, making bad choices, and trying to find an outlet for her artistic voice.) She isn’t punished for this, though. Like millions of other women in the country, she makes a choice and her life simply goes on. Of course, this is HBO: There are no advertisers to offend and subscribers know the kind of content that they are paying to watch. Though the majority of people in this country are pro-choice, the networks that are free and available to everyone make it seem like a silent majority.
Not surprisingly, the only time abortion makes a regular appearance on the major networks is when it is discussed as an “idea.” The fictional political candidates on shows like The West Wing freely discuss their views (though their recent live presidential debate eschewed the topic altogether since both candidates on this liberal fantasy show are pro-choice). You will be hard-pressed, however, to find an episode where C.J. or one of the president’s daughters admits to actually having an abortion herself. In this way, writers can feel brave for delving into a taboo subject without having to stand behind their political convictions. The implication is that talking about and debating over abortion is OK, having one is not.
The most shocking thing about television’s self-imposed censorship on the issue of abortion—especially in this anything-goes age where networks gleefully broadcast programming in which people eat bugs for money or undergo graphic surgeries—is that the industry actually used to be braver. Exactly 33 years ago this week on Norman Lear’s Maude, Bea Arthur’s title character, a married woman in her forties with a grown daughter, had an abortion. The episode aired three months before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal nationwide, but Hollywood (and in particular, the button-pushing Lear) wasn’t afraid of the controversial topic. Strangely, now that the policies affected by Roe are 32 years old and should be considered the status quo, a character (let alone a married adult) would never have an abortion on a network show. That conservative sway in the culture, the one that found evangelical Harriet Miers not pro-life enough for the high court, has left trailblazing Maude with no one following her.
Real women have had decades of hard-won reproductive freedom in this country, but their televised doppelg do not have the same options. Why aren’t our real-world choices reflected in our pop culture landscape? If the networks can show violence against women and teen sex and rape (shows like Law and Order: SVU are propagated entirely on those topics), why can’t we see the outcomes of those actions? Abortion is not a dirty word, nor is it simply a political topic. It deserves a place on TV, and not just on C-SPAN.
Rebecca Raber is a freelance writer. She watches too much TV.
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