Abortion on Television: Whose Choice?

37 years ago, Roe versus Wade made waves in the United States, and, last week, Bones and Private Practice both explored pregnancy and abortion1. Coincidence? I think not.

There were some interesting thematic elements in both shows which I think are worth exploring.

On Bones, we initially had Cam thinking that her foster daughter is pregnant, because she finds a pregnancy test in the bathroom trash. We see Cam really struggling with this; the show hasn’t really shown Cam’s daughter very much, except as a source of frustration for Cam, which I think is really disappointing, and I was initially not very pleased with the way the storyline was going. It seemed to be heading into “irresponsible damaged Black foster child gets knocked up, ruins foster mother’s life” territory. Angela confesses that it’s really her that’s pregnant2, and because the gang is trapped in the lab, everyone but the presumed father finds out before he does.

The dynamic between Angela and Hodgins was especially fascinating. She said that she wasn’t really sure about what she wanted to do yet, and expressed a feeling of being in shock. Hodgins responded, confidently and pompously, that “of course” she would be keeping the baby, because she’d always wanted lots of kids.

It bugged me. It bugged me that Hodgins assumed he knew better than Angela, and that he took advantage of the situation to try and horn in, to set himself up in the father role and displace Wendell. Keep in mind that Wendell had no idea that Angela was even pregnant, and already Hodgins was dismissing his ability to be a father. Angela, meanwhile, was struggling with what she wanted to do and thinking things over, even with Hodgins breathing down her neck.

As it turns out, the big reveal at the end of the episode was that Angela wasn’t pregnant at all; the test was a false positive. We see Angela being wistful about what could have been, which makes me think that we may see her, in the relatively near future, actively trying to have a child.

On Private Practice, we continued the story from the previous week; Maya confesses to her parents that she is pregnant, with Addison’s encouragement.

And here’s where things got interesting: Sam took the right stance, which is that it’s Maya’s body and her decision. In private, he expressed a hope that she would get an abortion, but he didn’t force it on her. His one mistake, I think, was when he said “I’m a man, so it’s not my decision.” More properly, that should be “I’m not her, so it’s not my decision.” It’s not about whether you are a man, it’s about whether you are the person living the experience.

Naomi, on the other hand, ran up against her fiercely anti-abortion stance. It’s been clearly established in multiple episodes that she thinks life begins at conception, and here she was, dragging Maya down the hall and demanding that Addison perform an abortion. Maya eventually consents, and we have a scene in which Naomi states that she’s going to hell for forcing an abortion on her daughter.

It would not surprise me to learn that many fundies end up in this position at some point. It’s easy to preach in the abstract, and even to say that your views should be forced on others, until it’s your own family. Then, suddenly, you are experiencing what you’ve talked about, and you learn that the situation is more complicated than you realized. Yet, because you’ve absorbed these hard line beliefs, you’re convinced that you are a horrible person for suddenly seeing shades of grey.

Naomi’s belief that life begins at conception isn’t wrong (although I disagree with it). What was wrong was that she tried to force an abortion on her daughter “for her own good.” And the show didn’t touch upon the fact that this happens in hardline anti-abortion families; parents really do force abortions on their daughters against their will, and in direct conflict with their beliefs, and it is horrific.

In the end, when Maya and Addison go into the exam room to perform the abortion, Addison recognizes that Maya is feeling conflicted, and she does what is in my opinion absolutely the right thing: She reminds Maya that this is her choice and she doesn’t try to force her opinion on Maya. The one mistake she made, which was kinda big, was slut shaming Maya with the “well, you’re 15, you shouldn’t have been having sex” comment. I am thinking that there might be more to the story here, which is going to unfold over time, like maybe Maya wasn’t a fully consensual partner, but she’s so afraid of being judged by her mother3  that she hasn’t talked about it.

Private Practice went the opposite of Bones, stressing that, in the end, it comes down to the decision of the individual, and that ultimately the decision isn’t about what the people around you think, it’s about what you think and believe and know is right for you. Maya was empowered to assert herself, and she did, and I liked that. I’m curious to see how the fallout shakes down. Private Practice often depicts pregnancy, motherhood, and the abortion issue in ways I really don’t like, so I’m hoping that this episode is a turning point and that the show’s handling of these issues improves.

Melissa Silverstein at Women & Hollywood also wrote about this in her post, “Roe v. Wade Anniversary: Friday Night Lights and Private Practice Tackle Abortion‘”.

  1. Apparently Friday Night Lights did as well, but I don’t watch that show, so I didn’t want to suddenly start writing about it since I know nothing about the show’s history and the characters.
  2. Which brought up some interesting issues about disclosure of pregnancy in the workplace. I think that Angela probably felt pretty violated that Cam was snooping around in the trash, and wasn’t ready to come forward about her pregnancy because she was still processing it, and she only told Cam because she didn’t want Cam confronting her daughter over a nonexistent pregnancy. There are very real reasons why women hesitate to reveal a pregnancy at work, and I’m disappointed that these weren’t explored in more detail.
  3. We’ve definitely seen Naomi judging Maya in the past and behaving pretty extremely, so I can understand Maya’s fear of her mother.

6 Comments on Abortion on Television: Whose Choice?

  1. I saw the Bones episode and the whole pregnancy-scare plot was, I agree, appalling. From the stupendous violations of privacy to the oh phew she doesn’t have to get an abortion! ending the whole thing was handled in just about the worst possible ways.

  2. Can we have ONE episode where the woman actually GETS the abortion? Just so we can see that women who choose an abortion are not three-headed monsters who are going to burst into flames on their way straight to Hell the second they walk out of the doctor’s office.

    I don’t watch Private Practice (was this the same show that mocked a woman’s birth plan and wanting to have a natural birth with no drugs?), but if they already had the anti-abortion mom, why couldn’t they have the mom force the girl to not abort, then the aunt comes in and says it’s the girl’s choice, and she terminates the pregnancy?

    Why do these story lines always end up as either A) Whew! It was just a scare! I don’t have to have a scary, evil abortion now! or B) teen pregnancy is totally cool and like not a problem at all! Check it out, it worked out fine for this upper-middle-class white girl who lives with both her parents!!

    *sigh*

  3. Just read Melissa Silverstein’s post, so I have to come back here and correct myself — (spoiler) FINALLY a TV show dared have the girl choose an abortion. I’m going to have to start watching Friday Night Lights now.

    Also, I didn’t know the Private Practice daughter was Black. It’s nice to see more women of color on TV; I just felt I needed to come back here and edit the last line of my previous comment (she’s not white, but she is rich, so the rest of the statement stands).

  4. meloukhia // 26 January, 2010 at 4:09 am //

    She’s also not living with both parents!

  5. I agree that there should be more story lines that end in abortion (I don’t watch Friday Night Lights either, so I don’t want to try to speak to it), but I don’t think that the Private Practice episode was trying to say that abortion is evil or bad or that people that get abortions are going to hell. That’s certainly what Naomi (the mother of the teen in question) said, that she (Naomi) was going to hell for making Maya get an abortion. But as an episode overall, I think they did a pretty good job at saying that abortion is the choice of the woman and that choosing to get an abortion or not to is a personal decision that has to be made. Yes, the girl ended up not getting an abortion, but I think that has more to do with creating an ongoing dramatic story line (you know how Private Practice loves those!) than trying to say that abortion is bad.

  6. In the mid-1990s, the television medical drama Chicago Hope had a clinic doctor in an emergency situation perform an abortion to save the life of the mother which lead to the bombing of his clinic by anti-abortion activists. I seem to recall that show having a lot of really powerful stuff going on and would highly recommend it.

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