Last week, a milestone of sorts was reached for network television shows. For the first time in almost four decades, a primary character not only chose to have an abortion, but actually went through with the procedure.
Grey’s Anatomy has addressed a number of emotional and intense topics in its previous seven seasons, and as befits a medical soap opera, the situations and results have sometimes felt more far-fetched and nonsensical than organic and realistic. Yet the plot line involving whether surgeon Cristina Yang would continue a pregnancy that her husband very much wanted, or have the abortion that she desired played out in an even-handed manner that neither demonized Cristina for not wanting to be a mother or made light of her husband’s yearning to be a father.
TV shows have danced around the abortion issue plenty, of course. After all, what better way to inject some drama into a show than an unexpected pregnancy? It’s not unheard of for secondary characters to have abortions, as the late, great Friday Night Lights showed with its wonderful teen abortion storyline last year. Nor is it taboo for characters to have had abortions in “the past” – i.e., before the show takes place – as Sex and the City and Grey’s itself have demonstrated. In addition, main characters on cable shows like Rescue Me and Degrassi: The Next Generation have also had abortions.
So why is it such a big deal that Maude Findlay and her 1972 abortion now have some mainstream, prime-time company? After all, millions of women have abortions every year – not that you’d know it from the lack of vocal and visible support that abortion rights receive in this country.
It’s not as though one episode of one television show will reverse this problem, but when the media consistently portrays abortion as the choice that dare not speak its name, the validity and acceptability of this choice is diminished and relegated to the realm of “the other,” the option so foreign that it might as well not exist in TV-land. “It’s interesting because it’s true,” Shonda Rimes, the creator of Grey’s (and a board member of Planned Parenthood, Los Angeles), said recently about the rarity of a main character having an abortion. “I feel like it doesn’t happen often and they don’t talk about it and it feels ridiculous to me because it is a legal choice in our country.”
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.