Sunday, October 16, 2011

Abortion is back, but only on television

I was behind on my television watching – all those marches and blockading Wells Fargo (pictured here, my four and a half hours wedged into a revolving door) got in the way – so I just saw the episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” where Cristina has the abortion.  The whole way through, I was waiting for Owen to talk her out of it, or for her to suddenly realize, oh, I’m not too focused on my career to be a mother, I have always wanted a baby, Meredith’s right, let’s stay home and raise our kids together while our husbands save lives.  I expected her to get called in to help on some emergency surgery on a child, and see the mom stroking the baby’s head and burst into tears, maybe even go running out of the room in a very un-Cristina-like way.

Of course they kept us in suspense for the whole show; last five minutes, she’s there on the table with Owen standing next to her and the doctor says, “I have to ask you one more time, are you sure you want to do this.”  I thought, okay, this is it, she’s going to shake her head.  I had a tomato in my hand, all ready to throw at the screen (and a cloth ready to wipe it off).  She nodded.  The doctor said, “All right, let’s get started.”  The vacuum aspirator whirred to life along with the closing music and voiceover.

This was not the first television abortion I’ve seen recently.  In the penultimate season, Becky had one on “Friday Night Lights.”  That was even more surprising, because she was a teenager in Texas.  And she didn’t die or slide into depression.  She didn’t regret it.  She even got her boyfriend back.  Tami (the principal, who told her to talk to her mother and sent her to an options counselor) got fired over it, but that seemed pretty true to life and she got her old job as a guidance counselor back.

Is it possible that abortion is no longer “television’s most persistent taboo,” as Kate Aurthur wrote in 2004?  Aurthur was talking about a show I never watched, “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a Canadian teen drama where a character also had an abortion and did not regret it.  But “Degrassi” was a cable show, and Viacom, which owns the channel that shows it in the U.S., opted not to air the episode until three years later.  She referenced all the episodes where a strong, feminist character walks out of the clinic in the nick of time with her fetus intact – Andrea on “Beverly Hills 90210,” Miranda on “Sex in the City,” some others I never saw but I could add Susannah on “Thirtysomething.”

My personal favorite was “Party of Five,” where Julia miscarried just minutes before she’s supposed to leave for the clinic.  I was volunteering on a women’s health hotline at that time, and I groaned, imagining all the girls sitting around waiting for their miscarriage instead of scheduling their abortions.  Of course, I’m not a soap opera watcher, or my favorite would certainly be Erica’s reversed abortion on “All My Children.”  And people said “The X Files” was creepy.

“Is abortion no longer too taboo for TV?” wrote Entertainment Weekly's JenniferArmstrong after yet another character on ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” decided not to have the abortion.  It does seem like the fear of backlash that kept the networks from portraying abortion as a legitimate option for 30+ years has waned.  Observers have noted that the “Friday Night Lights” and “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes have drawn little fire from the right-wing.

So does the fact that the floodgates are now open mean that the political climate has shifted?  Yes, but not in the way we might think.

The networks have not exactly been silent on the abortion issue since Bea Arthur’s “Maude” took the plunge in 1972.  CBS did choose to air an implicitly anti-abortion ad during the 2010 Super Bowl, over the profuse objections of pro-choice activists.  Cop shows have done numerous shows dealing with clinic bombings.  Some have been pretty good, others ranged from stupid to offensive – often it turns out that the bombing was not politically motivated but was some desperate father’s way of preventing his wife or girlfriend from having an abortion – but all have been “balanced,” offering ample opportunity for the anti-choice people to expound.
One of the best, not surprisingly, was on “Cagney & Lacey” in 1985.  The episode challenged assumptions by having Mary Beth Lacey, who was Catholic and pregnant with her third child, talk about having had an abortion at 19 (in Puerto Rico, since it was still illegal in New York).  “Carol Altieri, CBS vice president for program practices, said her department took ‘special care’ to ‘flesh things out so that all points of view were prominent.’ Much of the right-to-life viewpoint is posed by actress Fionnula Flanagan, guest-starring as a pro-life activist,” reported the LA Times.  Even so, the producers were so worried about backlash that they enlisted feminist organizations to help in a preemptive publicity campaign.

Ten years later, even a show like that would have been unthinkable on major network television.
In the aftermath of the “Cagney & Lacey” episode, Chicago Tribune columnist Stephen Chapman complained, “his week, officers Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey let down their audience by enlisting in the campaign to preserve abortion rights.  The episode, revolving around the bombing of an abortion clinic, could have done justice to the opposing partisans and to the demands of television entertainment. Instead, it offered shrill propaganda….”

After a 2009 episode of “Law & Order” based on the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, the National Right to Life Committee’s website boasted, “In the end [the killer] is found guilty of the murder; but over the course of the episode a host of the arguments and issues surrounding abortion are covered in a manner unusually sympathetic to the pro-life cause... virtually every pro-life argument you knew you would never hear on a network program is a part of ‘Dignity’ [the episode’s title].

The fact is that by now the anti-choice battle has been nearly won.  When “Maude” aired its controversial episode in 1972, abortion was legal in New York but not in most of the rest of the country; Roe v. Wade was about to be decided.  In 2010 Gallup published a piece entitled, “The New Normal on Abortion: Americans More "Pro-Life.”  For two years in a row, they reported, more respondents considered themselves “pro-life” than “pro-choice,” after decades of the reverse.

But it’s not only, and not most importantly, in matters of public opinion that the anti-choice movement is secure.  88% of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, and a whopping 97% of non-metropolitan areas.  More than two-thirds of states do not allow public funding to be used for abortion, and the rising cost and economic crisis puts it out of reach for most women who need it.  Frivolous lawsuits and even criminal prosecutions set up byanti-abortion activists discourage new doctors from becoming abortion providers.  Most states have parental notification laws for women or girls under 18, and many require parental consent (in some states, parents must be notified but do not need to consent - it's unclear, however, how many girls are able to access abortion over their parents' objections).  Some states, including Texas, require the woman to see the fetal heartbeat on a sonogram before getting an abortion.

The anti-choice movement doesn't need to worry that teenagers who see "Friday Night Lights" will decide to end their pregnancies.  If Becky were a real teenager in a small Texas town like Dillon, it's far more likely she would end up getting a sonogram at a fake abortion clinic (a clinic run by an anti-abortion group masquerading as an abortion provider) than that she would have actually gotten the abortion so easily.

No wonder there hasn’t been a big outcry over Cristina’s or Becky’s abortions.  Television characters can get abortions now, but most real women cannot.

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