It seems like once again, television has surpassed our draconian politics in its progressive projecting plotlines. The research group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, in collaboration with UC San Francisco, has conducted a study of the frequency and manner in which abortion, or the topic of abortion, has been portrayed on screen in 2016 and the results are hopeful — though our current political reality is not.
The group notes that, on TV< there was a “slight increase in choosing abortion over the past decades, (77% this year compared about 50% in [our] overall sample).”
The study adds, “One change we did observe was that 4 of the 10 characters who got abortions on TV this year were already mothers."
It is refreshing to see narratives that depart from the “young girl chooses abortion because she is helpless” trope we have seen time and again. Many abortions are chosen by grown women, who are mothers, who know the wonders and frustrations of having a kid, and they do not need a pro-life activist or a male member of Congress to counsel them on their decisions.
As the study notes, “if this trend continues, TV characters getting abortions will more closely resemble real women who get abortions.”
Here’s a look at shows that portrayed or discussed abortions in 2016:
Shameless portrayed two unplanned and unwanted pregnancies for the characters Fiona and Debbie. Fiona convinces her little sister to get an abortion, only to find out later that she too is expecting. As ANSRH points out, “Her decision was dealt with matter-of-factly, and her focus after the abortion seems to be on getting her hands on a milkshake, rather than agonizing over the choice she just made.” There was another abortion story on the show in 2012, where “the characters hosted a fundraiser to raise money for a friend’s abortion. Through this plotline, it is one of the only shows to have depicted cost as a barrier to abortion access.” Cost is really what the current fight is about. Republicans are trying to de-fund Planned Parenthood, the government has for a long time made sure that Title X money not be allocated towards ending pregnancies, and many women can simply not afford abortions. These fundraisers are happening, probably at an apartment near you, so it’s high time they are shown on TV.
Call the Midwife
Call The Midwife “has explored abortion in-depth twice before (Episodes 2.5 and 4.6), including a graphic illegal abortion that led to a uterine hemorrhage and hysterectomy for Nora, a mother of eight,” ANSRH writes. Again, we see another mother making this decision. “In the new plotline, Dorothy, an unmarried school teacher, becomes pregnant as the result of an affair with a married man. In rapid succession he abandons her, and she is evicted from her home and fired from her job when her pregnancy is discovered...Dorothy self-induces an abortion with a coat hanger. She ends up in the hospital after losing a dramatic amount of blood and any possibility of future children, only to be questioned by a police officer. Despite this, the ending is somewhat hopeful; the police decline to prosecute her for her own abortion.” Though she was not prosecuted it is important to show these interactions with authority figures who claim a moral high ground over people who actually suffer from unwanted pregnancies and the dangers of clandestine abortions.
Mercy Street is a period Civil War hospital drama in which Aurelia, “a contraband slave and hospital laundress discovers she is pregnant after being raped by a hospital steward.” She too attempts a life-threatening self-abortion and ends up alive but infertile.
After Martha discovers that Clark is really Phillip and that he is a KGB agent who is secretly married to the woman he pretends to be siblings with, it is revealed on her FBI file that she had an abortion in high school. It makes one wonder what personal parts of our past the FBI has on file as well.
This drama jumps through periods of time — a useful device to juxtapose different cultural-political climates and reveal the degree to which they have progressed, or digressed.
ANSHR writes, “Louise, an eighteenth-century married socialite, confides to Claire, a time-traveling twentieth-century trained nurse, that she is pregnant as the result of an affair with Prince Charles. Louise wants to continue the pregnancy, but cannot face the stigma of an illegitimate pregnancy, so she seeks Claire’s advice on inducing an abortion. Because Claire sees that Louise would prefer to remain pregnant, she convinces Louise that abortion would be too dangerous, and that the best solution is to sleep with her husband and pass the child off as his. This is one of the few 2016 plotlines in which abortion is considered but not chosen.”
One of my personal favorites, this show, like Shameless, features a large dysfunctional family, though set in early twentieth century England, with fewer resources at hand. The brazen females of this show enjoy sex, like the men they are surrounded by, but they have to deal with the consequences of the action while the men continue placing bets and chasing tail. Helen McCrory, who stands in as the wise yet flawed matriarch, Polly, advises her niece, Ada, to get an abortion while disclosing her own. Ada gets married and goes through with the pregnancy. In the most recent season, Polly’s son, Michael, impregnates Charlotte, who decides to get an abortion and “expects him to accompany her,” but after showing up late and paying, he “leaves to take care of family business.” I have friends who have experienced similar abandonments by the people they thought they could rely on the most.
ANSRH calls this “the year’s most infamous abortion story.” Diane, the celebrity social-media manager, “accidentally tweets that pop star Sextina Aquafina is getting an abortion. Sextina embraces the mistake, releasing a single entitled “Get That Fetus, Kill That Fetus”, and airs her staged abortion on pay-per-view.”
The series boldly goes where no series has gone before and navigates the treacherous waters of abortion humor. Not to mention it provides commentary on how celebrities and the “industry” fabricate and exploit personal experience in exchange for fame.
Jane the Virgin
The show is chock-full of pregnancy plots — it was even the series’ opening premise. But, ANSRH remarks that “this year the show actually had Xiomara, Jane’s mother get” an abortion. Though we don’t witness the abortion as an audience, we find out later, thus casting the abortion as a private moment we learn of in due time. “The plotline reveals the complex levels of support women face when getting an abortion: while Xo has her daughter’s acceptance and support, she struggles to disclose it to her own mother. The episode is further noteworthy for depicting the first Latina main character to get an abortion on network primetime television.”
Victoria, a patient, is pregnant and has pancreatic cancer. She is in a literal life or death scenario and though the doctors advise her to get an abortion to spare her life, she chooses to have the child and die shortly after.
You’re The Worst
It is no surprise that this delightfully “over-it” show portrays abortion matter-of-factly. ANSRH writes, “Lindsay get the ‘abobo’ after impregnating herself with her estranged husband’s sperm. Lindsay is stopped on the way into the clinic by an anti-abortion 'sidewalk counselor' to talk over her options. When Gretchen confronts the counselor, the woman agrees that, having heard the context, Lindsay should probably get the abortion. Afterward, Gretchen comments on how unconcerned Lindsay seems – she won’t let that day’s abortion interfere with her enjoyment of her pie.” This strikes me as women reclaiming abortions, turning it into a decision they own and embrace, a path deliberately taken, and what is more empowering than that. I’m all for calling abortion an "abobo" if it puts a spring in your step.
Good Girls Revolt
Set right in the middle of female consciousness raising and sexual freedom, the series would be remiss not to mention abortion. Though not a major plotline, it does show women “banding together to collect money for their colleague” who needs an abortion. The struggle is real and especially when women weren’t getting hired for well-remunerated positions, they had to use every resource to terminate their pregnancies, ironically, so that they could continue to fight for the right to get better-paying jobs.
This too is an after-the-fact abortion — moving it farther away from melodrama. ANSRH writes, "yet, we soon see Paula recuperating in bed while her husband waits on her, and when the doorbell rings, her teenaged son shouts, 'Mom, I’ll get it since you just had an abortion!'” Taboo deactivated just like that.
Hopefully our the officials who represent us can gain some insight and inspiration from these shows.
Top image: still from BoJack Horseman; all images from respective networks
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Jane The Virgin Just Showed The Best Abortion Episode On TV Jen Pitt, originally from Brazil, is a Brooklyn based writer and performer. She covers feminism, arts, and Brazilian culture.