To quote Gloria Feldt, “Media portrayals, real or fictional, don’t merely inform us — they form us.” In this series, I will be examining five films – classic, mainstream, independent, foreign, and pre-Roe – and five television shows – daytime soap, pre-Roe, drama, critically lauded, and teen-oriented – that address unexpected pregnancy, to examine how past portrayals can influence and reflect society’s view of abortion.
My parents didn’t let my sister and I watch a lot of television when we were kids, which might explain my pop-culture obsession as an adult. One of the few shows that we were allowed to see, however, was a Canadian teen drama called Degrassi Junior High. We lived close enough to the U.S.-Canadian border that the CBC was one of the few stations our TV antenna could pick up, and every Monday evening the entire family would settle in for a half-hour of the finest teen angst north of the border. Degrassi Junior High eventually morphed into Degrassi High, which spawned the current incarnation, Degrassi: The Next Generation, currently airing on TeenNick (formerly known as The N).
Degrassi distinguished itself by constantly exploring dramatic issues in a pretty realistic manner, and the handling of abortion is no exception. There have been two significant storylines involving abortion, one on Degrassi High in 1989 and the other on Next Generation in 2004. Both storylines generated controversy; when the 1989 episode was aired in the U.S., scenes of protestors were edited out and the character’s ultimate decision was left unclear. In 2005, TeenNick refused to air either the two-part abortion episode or the episode immediately following them. The previous year, the network had declined to air Next Generation’s abortion episodes, finally broadcasting them in 2006.
So what was in these episodes that caused such a uproar? Degrassi High’s storyline centered on Erica, a sixteen-year-old who becomes pregnant after a summer romance. Raised to believe that abortion is wrong, Erica decides that she is not ready to have a child and chooses abortion. She encounters fierce resistance from her twin sister, Heather, as well as very vocal protestors outside of the clinic. Erica turns to Spike, a classmate who had a baby when they were in junior high for advice; Heather also talks to Spike. Heather eventually decides to support Erica, and goes with her to the clinic for the abortion.
Degrassi: The Next Generation focused on ninth-grader Manny Santos, who finds herself pregnant after sleeping with a classmate she’s had a crush on for several years. Craig, her classmate, is initially enthusiastic about having a child, but Manny isn’t so sure. Manny’s best friend Emma is Spike’s daughter; because her mother chose to continue her unplanned pregnancy, Emma is stunned that Manny would consider abortion. But when Craig tries to talk Manny out of abortion, Emma defends her best friend. Manny choose to have an abortion, and her mother goes with her to the clinic.
It’s notable that both young women seek advice from several different sources. Erica isn’t able to talk with a parent about her pregnancy, but she does talk extensively with her sister and initiates a class discussion about the issue. She struggles with Heather’s knee-jerk reaction, who says that it’s “horrible to think of all those babies dying every day in the killing centers” and puts considerable thought into making her decision. For all that Erica’s dilemma is handled with sensitivity and care, my favorite part of the storyline comes when Heather, hoping to talk her twin out of abortion, goes to Spike for advice – she assumes that since Spike had a baby, she’s anti-abortion. Instead, Spike breaks it down in wonderfully simple language: “It’s great to have high ideals and stuff, but when you’re in that situation, right and wrong, they can get really complicated.” Fifteen years later, Spike is the first adult that Manny turns to after she becomes pregnant, and again, she does not disappoint. It’s also worth noting that while Erica and Manny both endure gossip and rumors after their abortions, they also both have full and engaging storylines in subsequent episodes, and don’t suffer any ill effects as a result of having abortions. Interestingly, Heather struggles the most after her sister’s abortion, leading Erica to suggest that she seek counseling for help in dealing with her emotions.
Degrassi: The Next Generation recently began its tenth season. As another high school student faces an unexpected pregnancy, it’ll be interesting to see how the groundbreaking show tackles the topic that so many American television shows and films still consider the last taboo.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.