Television and Abortion: Two Shows, Two Different Paths

By Guest Contributor Aymar Jean Christian, originally published at Televisual

Two broadcast television series the week of January 22nd featured prominent narratives on teenage pregnancy and abortion. A rare coincidence, indeed — or perhaps not, giving January 22 is the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. In Private Practice (“Best Laid Plans“), a rich black family’s 15-year-old daughter, Maya, gets pregnant and grapples with having the procedure. In Friday Night Lights (“I Can’t“), Becky, a minor but regular character, is a working class sophomore in high school also dealing with the same issue, albeit with much less parental guidance (her single mother).

Both shows, in my opinion, feature good storytelling and try to do justice to this difficult issue, in ways that suggest networks are finally moving forward on an issue still most famously explored in 1972 in an episode of Maude (later again on Roseanne).

Television (film too) is infamous for its silence on abortion. If a character gets pregnant, it’s an easy bet she’ll have it. So ironclad is the pregnancy rule it ruins all the drama from the plot point. Pregnancy = baby. Major characters rarely even discuss it (Sex and the City, season 4 did); “abortion women” leave shows quickly. Even adoption is rarely broached. So both Friday Night Lights and Private Practice deserve credit for even using the “A” word, several times, and actually dealing with the issue head-on.

The shows take two different paths. Yes, unbelievably, on broadcast television, a character actually goes through with the procedure.

Friday Night Lights Goes There

I should first be clear: I don’t think television needs to show more abortions. I do think, however, their near complete silence on the issue betrays the fact that this happens, everyday, right or wrong.

When Becky, who attends East Dillon high school and lives next to former Dillon star Tim Riggins (he’s her mom’s tenant and former one-night-stand), said she was pregnant last week, I wasn’t sure where Friday Night Lights would take it on. But the show privileges its sense of realism, reinforced by its documentary/hand-held camera aesthetic, so I thought if any show would “go there,” it would.

I had my doubts when, the moment she finds out she rushes to the father — a player on the school’s team — and asks for money for an abortion. Television drama often pulls this narrative trick: broach one plot line early on, only to reverse it in the end (a character says they’ll break up with someone in the first fifteen minutes, and by the end they want to get married, for example). It’s convention.

The father is supportive. So it’s up to Becky, and we’re left with a cliffhanger. Now I was sure she would have the baby. By this week’s episode, Becky seeks Tami (West Dillon school principal and lead character Coach Taylor’s wife) for advice. Tami gives her options, but doesn’t mention abortion until Becky does. Becky says she doesn’t want the baby. I thought: okay, they’ll reverse course and she’ll have it.

She goes to the doctor with her mother, and he says what the state apparently mandates him to say. Becky’s mom takes umbrage at what she perceives is a “right-wing” doctor. “You are going to do this, and you are going to live your life….You’re going to be fine,” the mother tells Becky. The mother wants her to have it.

But Becky, later on eyeing a photo of her mother holding her as a newborn, isn’t so sure. She seeks out Tami again, and then gives a brilliant monologue, pouring out her feelings and her family situation:

We don’t have any money. I’m in the 10th grade, and it’s my first time. And I threw it way, and I don’t want to throw my life away. It’s just really obvious that my mom wants me to have this abortion. Because I was her mistake and she has just struggled and hurt everyday, and she wanted better and I knew better. And then I was just thinking, you know, forget what she wants, like, what do I want? And maybe I could take care of this baby, and maybe I would be good at it, and I could love it and I would be there for it. And then I was just thinking how awful it would be if I had the baby and then I spent the rest of my life resenting it, or her.

This part is really important. First of all, allowing characters to explain their emotional state and justify their actions is key, especially for the issue of abortion. Nuance is key. Becky is displaying what Anthony Giddens calls “life politics” or what Kenneth Plummer calls “intimate citizenship,” the process of personal decision-making over complex modern social issues. It’s something we don’t often see in television. (Also, Tami reassures Becky that she won’t go to hell if she has an abortion).

I’m very happy Friday Night Lights did not disappoint and take the easy way out. It probably helps that DirectTV, and not NBC, is producing the show now, and that this episode is only available to DirectTV subscribers. Still, FNL is in top form in season four, delving head first into issues of race, gender, institutions and structure (state services or lack thereof), community, crime, policy and, with hope, sexuality. Some episodes are even feeling Wire-esque, only confirming its place as one of the best shows of the decade.

Private Practice Doesn’t Go There, Because They’re Rich

The parallels between FNL and Private Practice are interesting, because both narratives have a lot in common. The big difference is Maya’s family in PP are rich and Becky is working class. But both girls are in their early high school years. In both episodes, characters grapple with whether or not they will go to hell. And both start out with characters declaring they will have the abortion.

In PP, the voice calling for the abortion is, ironically, Naomi Bennett, Maya’s mother. Naomi is against abortion; PP thoroughly explored her disapproval of the procedure in a prior episode. (Addison (Kate Walsh) is pro-choice). Naomi is portrayed as nearly crazy for demanding her daughter have the procedure. Audra MacDonald, a great actress, can pull it off and make it look real, but the writers clearly want the audience to know the abortion is not the best idea.

Why? The decision seems forced on Maya. Only after seeing another woman in the office in labor (another patient), does the daughter say: “I’ll do it. I’ll have the abortion.” It comes more from fear than from the heart. Later, when Addison, who is supposed to perform the procedure, asks Naomi “is everybody sure about this?” Mom Naomi replies: “Just….do it.”

So PP sets you up to be skeptical, but the show doesn’t want it to sound like abortion’s off-the-table or not a viable option. Mindful, I’m sure, the bulk of its audience are women, and mostly liberal urban and suburban women, the writers include a conversation meant to show how aware they are of the complexity of the issue:

Maya says to Addison right before the procedure: “All my life, my mother told me that she would never do this. That from the a second their conceived, a baby is life, a gift from God, and that abortion is wrong. And that it’s murder.” Pro-life argument? Check.

Addison, asked of her opinion, states: “I believe that until a fetus can survive on its own, outside the mother’s body that it is not a life. I believe that life begins at birth.” Pro-choice argument? Check.

After giving her pro-choice perspective, Addison “senses” Maya is hesitant, so she states that she has until the 24th week to make up her mind: “A lot of fine women fought a long time to give you the right to do what you think is best, your body, your choice.” Pro-choice option reiterated? Check.

This gives PP an out. They’ve given the pro-choice side a good defense. Sure enough, when Naomi tries to scare Maya out of the pregnancy by showing her a woman in pain giving birth, Maya only needs to see the baby (which just pops out, conveniently, at the exact right moment!) to know she wants a child: “Look at that,” she says with a bright smile. Babies are cute; she wants one.

Who Does It Better?

The Private Practice story is fine, but problematic. The way it ends, despite its defense of the pro-choice perspective from Addison, it seems to give credence that no one could ever want an abortion after seeing a newborn. Yes, birth is a magical thing, but not everyone need be so entranced by its magic. The lesson could be read as: consider the procedure, but, in truth, pregnancy is a miracle all women must enjoy.

That’s a harsh reading. In truth, the problem with the episode is it plays out the politics too neatly. It seems written to satisfy both NARAL and Focus on the Family, instead of give meat to its characters. The characters become embodiment of debates (though Audra MacDonald’s strong performance almost transcends it), not lives lived.

FNL, meanwhile, gets into the messiness of life. Becky talks about her class position. She talks about how it was her first time having sex and how her mother, too, gave birth too early — Becky herself was a “mistake” — and how it made her life very difficult. Yet Becky says she still could love a child, because babies are lovable. Becky considers her whole life, both what it is and what she wants it to be.

We don’t hear anything from PP’s Maya: she doesn’t talk about the father (her boyfriend), nor about her parent’s wealth (their ability to afford childcare), her religious stance, her youth, her career aspirations. Instead, Maya is a blank canvas on which the show paints a debate with broad strokes.

This is fine, in the end. As said previously, both shows, in the end, are brave. Both give women real choices — choices, by the way, made independent of their parents’ wishes. After the debate, that is what women have: a choice. Let’s hope it stays that way, and kudos to any film or TV series honest enough to show it.