“Who’s Going To Watch An Entire Show About Abortion?”

Yes, well, I think you know the answer to that – that would be me and anyone else overly interested in the way the media chooses to address this issue. But Boston Legal’s bizarre storyline, in which this question is asked by an overly anxious older lawyer, about parental consent laws was just unreal. Literally.

Let me just say that to root a story about abortion on the perspectives of two older males is, well, interesting. The women in the story seemed superfluous – their existence did not much more than cement the pro-choice vs. pro-life lines in the sand for the central characters – James Spader’s and William Shatner’s lawyer characters’ ("Alan Shore" and "Denny Crane") existential struggles with abortion. Boston Legal: Tackles Parental ConsentBoston Legal: Tackles Parental Consent

The storyline begins when a 15 year old Chinese-American pregnant teen comes in to Alan Shore’s office seeking representation for her judicial bypass to have an abortion – the only legal angle available to a young woman in states with parental consent laws when she feels she cannot ask for her guardian’s consent – either because she doesn’t think her parents will grant it, for fear of abuse at the hands of the parent, or because the male guardian has raped the young woman.

With Denny Crane in the office when the teen arrives, her request for representation immediately throws the two male lawyers into a hurricane of existenial emotion. Well, of course – it seems so likely that two male veteran lawyers would be caught so completely off guard by a teenager seeking an abortion, right?  Denny Crane launches into his anti-choice tirade almost immediately after Shore announces he’ll take the case ("She’s going to burn in hell!" Crane mutters to Shore with the young girl in the room, even after he announces that she "should just go down to Mexico like we used to!"). 

Shore decides to take the case but of course realizes he needs a female lawyer at the table with him (to lend credibility to his case, possibly?). I will stop here and say that maybe the writers of the show should have taken their own advice and added some women at the writer’s table to lend the storyline some credibility. 

Candice Bergen’s character – also a lawyer – promptly makes the entire legal case emotional by plunging into near despair and announcing she doesn’t think she can take part because she had an abortion once long ago: "From personal experience, I know, anyone who has an abortion never gets over it. " Really? Because that sounds oddly like a generalization to me and, well, there are many women who would say the exact opposite. In fact, as many women as there are who have had abortions is likely how many reactions and emotions there are.  But, okay, the show goes. on.

I kept watching. And hoping. And thinking that maybe since the producers and writers took the time to craft an entire program about abortion and parental consent issues they might want to, at the very least, root the show in reality. But it doesn’t happen.

The 15 year old pregnant teen? Well, as is so typical with judicial bypass cases (and, yes, I’m being sarcastic), she is actually an immigrant from China pregnant with a girl and decides, influenced by China’s one-child policy and the unspoken but widespread practice of aborting females, she is only having an abortion because the fetus growing inside her is female. Her mother (the "angel" in this morality play) is on the other side of the courtroom desperately trying to stop her daughter’s judical bypass because she knows what her daughter is going to do. I’m not saying that I look to television as a mirror of real life but it might be helpful to actually engage a story that has some context. 

There are lines and moments of clarity:

The young teen argues eloquently, before viewers are let in on why she really wants this abortion, for her right to "individual freedom" and that she should not be forced to carry a pregnancy to term by the government, even as Bergen’s lawyer character (displaying distinctly unlawyerly and unprofessional qualities in her turmoiled reaction to this case – ah, but what can we expect from professional women burdened by the memory of an abortion?!) implores the teen to think about her decision: "Whatever choice you make here will follow you the rest of your life." A motherly piece of advice, to be sure. And an honest display of an older woman imparting some real world advice – unfortunately, it may or may not be true. 

There is Alan’s Shore desperate attempts to rely on the letter of the law telling Crane that Roe v. Wade is being chipped away at and that "the wall is coming down" all while trying to get that darned female lawyer to tamp down those emotions resulting from the abortion she never got over and stick out the case with him in order to stand up for "a legal right we both believe in."

Shore tries to hang on to his thread of a pro-choice perspective while faced with gems from Denny Crane like, "You pro-choice people need Roe v. Wade because you cling to that ruling for moral validiation of a position you’re not entirely comfortable with." Shore certainly seems to be challenged by retaining his pro-choice position in the face of a young woman seeking an actual abortion and he is forced to come to terms with what the storyline implies are two abortions he went through with female partners.  

I will admit that the program portrays how emotional this issue – and each decision – can sometimes be while still, through the emotion and intensity, millions of women make this decision every year, choosing what they feel they need to and want to. But, I will ask, where are the stories of women for whom a choice isn’t overly emotional but a release and a relief? Simply put, not every woman is emotionally plagued by an abortion; even years later. If that were the case, it would be hard to imagine a pro-choice majority at all in this country. Why continue to fight for the right to something that so emotionally wrecks you?

I would not argue that abortion is not emotional for many women. I would not argue that it is not a difficult decision for many women. It is and it always will be, for some. To see a woman struggle, on screen, with the decision to have an abortion is certainly something to recognize and rally behind. We need more reflections in the media of womens’ personal stories, especially when it comes to reproductive health issues like abortion, miscarriage, pregnancy and childbirth. But to use women’s stories as a vehicle for the main characters – the men – to come to some simple-minded understanding of the abortion issue shortchanges and clips the depth of the actual experiences we as women share. Should women’s experiences continue to be relgated to the "wink, wink, nod, nod, we get it but those silly men don’t" display in the media?

The program wraps up neatly with everyone discovering that in fact this young teen is only aborting because the baby-to-be is female. The judge makes a senseless plea to keep abortion legal, even if women were going to use it to abort female fetuses, essentially because the government bureacracy required to implement a way to prevent such abortions would be too overwhelming. Not because it’s simply wrong for our government to control women’s bodies, mind you.

In the end, the male lawyers ponder their ideological positions in relative comfort, detached from the bodies in which life grows, is sustained, and can be severed. The "pro-choice" Shore ends by conceding that in fact his pro-choice position may be there solely to make himself feel okay with the abortions he’s been a part of:

"The two procedures weigh on me…I am very pro-choice but from a scientific and human perspecive it’s hard argue that life doesn’t begin at conception. Maybe I am desperate for Roe to remain law to reaffirm my moral position."

As to what happened with the young teen and her mother? It seems hardly to matter. Viewers are left not knowing whether or not she actually had an abortion, whether she and her mother decided to raise a baby together, whether the young teen was given access to birth control or at the very least education and information about her body and how to care for it. But of course we know that the two older men somehow got straight with themselves and their "moral" positions on abortion while the women around them were left only with the ongoing struggle and the options of begging for the men’s help, their understanding or at the very least their sympathy.

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  • invalid-0

    the show wraps up with the audience finding out the girl wanted to abort her fetus because it’s going to be a female? wha…the…fuh? what universe do the writers of that show live in?
    i worked for a juvenile court judge for several years. we did jane doe cases fairly regularly. and, i can tell you that the first mistake this show made was a story line where a pregnant teen even had the maturity and where with all to find and retain a private attorney. HA! HA, i say! i’d estimate, and this is merely from personal experience and not a statistic, that 93% of the jane doe cases were young women from extremely poor and/or abusive homes.
    i was lucky enough to work for an awesome judge who, though a republican and personally anti-choice, believed that he’d been voted into his position to uphold the law. so, when he put on his robes, he wasn’t john so-and-so, but JUDGE john so-and-so. i had an immense respect for that man. only 2 times in 3 years did he deny a jane doe her judicial bypass – and he felt horrible about it. he knew that both girl’s lives WOULD be best served if they could have the abortion. but, unfortunately, those 2 girl’s testimony did not fully show their maturity and comprehension. it was sad, but he was right. he even tried so hard to re-word his questions, but they just didn’t have the education/maturity to get what he was asking.
    okay…didn’t mean to babble on, but to this day those jane doe cases still have an emotional effect on me when i recall them. jane doe cases and adult bindovers…geez, if the average citizen knew how hard life is for so many young adults and children…hmmm, maybe they wouldn’t be used as ludicrous story lines for barely adequate t.v. shows.

  • amanda-marcotte

    Experiences common and uncommon on TV.  Murder, family fights, coffee drinking, sexual regrets, sexual joys, school, work, cancer, diabetes, break-ups, weddings, drug abuse, childbirth.  There are two taboos left: Showing people pausing during sex to get a condom and/or discuss contraception (in or out of bed) and showing the common abortion experience—unplanned and disruptive pregnancy aborted by a woman who feels relief afterwards.  98% of women have experienced the former, almost 40% the latter.  But it’s the biggest taboo.


    How is that not misogyny?

  • invalid-0

    to make a point I didn’t. There were so many elements to the storyline that were absurd, I didn’t have time to reference them all. But that was certainly one of them. First of all, studies show that between 61-70% of young women (and 90% of young women 16 years old and younger – this character’s age range) already talk to their parents before having an abortion; they talk to their parents about sexual health issues as well. When they don’t it’s because, as you write from your direct experience, it’s because there are abuse issues quite likely. 

    In fact, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, in Massachusetts (where they show takes place, obviously), a state with real parental consent laws, there has never been a judicial bypass denied by a judge – no matter what the personal or political position that judge holds, of course. Doesn’t that say something? Young women don’t  seek judicial bypasses easily or without significant barriers. Clearly there are real, significan reasons for doing so. 

    Yes, it’s television. And if we had a range of portrayals on this issue I’d be more forgiving. But the suspension of disbelief required to view this show with any clarity is more than I could bear.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Betty!


    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    What amazes me is Boston Legal is clearly a left leaning show, and while I am a conservative, I have always been extremely fond of it for it’s clever writing and “no topic is off limits” attitude.

    Suffice to say, I was shocked at the position the show took on the issue. The statement of Pro-Choice advocates needing Roe v Wade to justify their position and the clear moral conflicts all the lawyers felt even before they knew about the sex selection angle was amazing. Note that the sex selection angle was used to clearly make it easier for the show not to truly take sides…

    But that said, the fact that a show that leans clearly to the left took this stance really says something. One day people will finally realize how precious life truly is, no matter when it starts (as again, most people know, is at conception as even Alan concedes)…

    The times, they are a changing…

  • invalid-0

    I thought the episode dealt fairly with the issues on both sides and your review polarizingly unfair. Your review lends itself to disappointment that the issue wasn’t presented in a one-sided manner, and wrap it all up with smiles and hugs. As a long time Boston Legal watcher and supporter, I was surprised that wasn’t the way it was presented. It was presented as legally black/white but morally very gray. Applause to the writers.

    So the question ‘is abortion for sex selection ok’? Even the morally liberal Alan Shores had a look of “Oh, sh*t” when that motive was revealed. That was the essence of the show: conflicting morals.

  • http://huntressdomain.blogspot.com invalid-0

    You’d think this canard would be left out of a usually thoughtful show – especially one that is nominally supposed to be about the practice of law.

    The vagueness of the term ‘life’ as used here, the fact that both morally and legally the issue is personhood vs. bodily autonomy, and not biological life, and the fact that the commonly held understanding of “life at conception” means “life at fertilization”, you’d think they’d craft their dialogue a little more carefully. Then again, what do you expect from writers who obviously haven’t looked deeply into the issue they are writing about?

  • invalid-0

    I was somewhat disappointed in the show, with its emphasis on how someone “never gets over” an abortion–the implication being that if a woman doesn’t have an abortion she won’t have to suffer from this emotional weight. I submit that no matter what decision a woman makes, she will never get over it. The woman who has an abortion may look back in later years and think wistfully or guiltily of the child who never was. The woman who carries the child to term and gives it up for adoption may in later years agonize over what happened to the child or live in dread that the child may appear on her doorstep and tear apart her current family relationships. The woman who keeps the child and raises it herself will definitely never get over it. And if the “woman” is only a teenager, the child will be a significant barrier to her educational, social and financial progress and the child may suffer as a result. I’ve been married for 40 plus years and raised two wonderful children. I’ve never had an abortion and would hope that my children and grandchildren never have to face that terrible decision. But if they do, I would never counsel them against abortion on grounds that they would “never get over it”.

  • invalid-0

    I had a different take on the show. And for the record, I am someone pro-choice who thinks the government should stay out of the decision, but that abortion is not always necessarily the best choice. The subtle message came together at the end of the show. Alan Shore explains to Denny Crane that Roe vs. Wade in the 70s resulted in less crime in the 90s. He tells Denny, it turns out that the unwanted fetuses aborted tended to come from demographic groups more likely to grow up to become criminals. Since those babies were never born, there was less crime. Alan continues, all the worry about a Sarah Palin in office was unwarranted because even a conservative Supreme Court hated crime even more than abortion, so it will never get overturned. While a liberal feminist might be uneasy with abortion chosen because female fetuses are deemed inferior, it appears that even conservatives (at least in the court) are ok with reduction of crime due to “inferior fetuses” aborted. I think the message was provocative in that it highlighted some of the eugenic thinking that influences some abortion.

  • invalid-0

    This episode is just one of the latest in the current Hollywood fad of illuminating the abortion issue by examining some of the popular anti-abortion arguments out there. But this line from Shore about it being hard to argue that life begins at conception is just too much. First of all, what do we mean by life? Sperm are alive, yet nobody mourns after an ejaculation has occurred. Bacteria are alive, yet it’s not considered a holocaust every time somebody washes up for dinner. It is patently absurd to consider an embryo or fetus to be morally valuable in any real sense. Even a third trimester fetus a couple of days from birth does not yet have a mind, any real memories, or any self-awareness whatsoever. If it dies, there is no real tragedy there, beyond whatever emotional consequences there are for the mother and the family. The fetus itself, however, has lost absolutely nothing because it never had anything to begin with (it wasn’t even aware of its own life!). So, there’s no way that rights can be given to this non-entity in any way that does not implicitly devalue and demean the woman who carries it. That’s why I strongly believe that any restrictions on abortion at all, even in late pregnancy, are a total and direct insult to pregnant women and women in general. The only reason we still have to argue all of this is because so many people think that “life” equals personhood. It clearly does not and shows like this one are not helping matters at all on that score.

  • invalid-0

    John “spoken” or in this case “written’ like a typical male who likely won’t and hasn’t take responsibility for knocking up the women you slept with.

    If your twisted ‘rationale’ was in deed true, please explain to me why Scott Peterson was charged with and convicted of TWO counts of murder: that of his wife Laci AND that of her/his unborn child.

    Perhaps you’d like to lead the clarion call to have that second conviction overturned since you firmly believe that the Laci’s child, which was a third trimester “fetus” a couple of days from birth did not yet have a mind, any real memories, or any self-awareness whatsoever and as such because this “fetus” died, there is no real tragedy there ”

    Laci’s “fetus” died at the hands of Scott Peterson. How is that any different than Lacey’s ‘fetus’ dying at the hands of the man/woman that performs the abortion? The final result is the same!

    In both cases a ‘fetus’ that was not aware of its own existence DIED, and by your standards, its death was NO REAL TRAGEDY!

    What a sad, sick excuse for a human being you are.

    For the record: Laci Peterson’s parents, who were also the’ grandparents of the ‘fetus”, disagree wholeheartedly.
    They lost a daughter and a grandchild. Both deaths are equally tragic.

    While I am pro choice, I believe in limits being placed on abortions. NO ONE UNDER 18 should be allowed to have an abortion without parental consent. Hell, surgery of any kind cannot be performed on a minor without Parental consent, let alone a field trip during school hours.
    So why should abortions, which are deemed a medical procedure, be subject to different rules?

    I m tired of abortions being used as a method of birth control and I m tired of alleged pro choice women ragging on Sarah Palin whose personal beliefs have never interfered with her political decisions.NOT ONCE.

    As someone who is pro choice the rage shown by women towards a woman who chose NOT to KILL her Downs syndrome baby, who balances career and motherhood and who believes that life is precious and that children are NOT an inconvenience is disgusting, shameful, and vile from coming from those who belong to the party of tolerance!

    Sarah Palin should be applauded instead of vilified by those who pretend to be open minded, tolerant, and respectful of all peoples choices. It’s not okay to club baby seals, but it is okay to kill a human fetus.
    When does protecting the possibility of a human life outweigh protecting the life of an animal?

    “You pro-choice people need Roe v. Wade because you cling to that ruling for moral validiation of a position you’re not entirely comfortable with.”

    Perhaps Denny Crane is a lot closer to the truth than most pro choice men and women care to admit!

  • invalid-0

    and trying to understand the hyper-emotional argument you’re attempting to make. but, the fact that you began your comment by twisting the truth to suit your beliefs kept me from taking anything else you had to say seriously.
    scott peterson was charged with 2 murders because the baby was viable, therefore it was murder. i think you’re being the heartless one comparing the murder of a mom & baby days away from birth to aborting a zygote or blastocyst.

  • invalid-0

    TaraCarole, I never attacked Sarah Palin for the decision she made regarding her son. I believe she was entirely within her rights to have her down syndrome baby and I would never criticize her for that. I am glad that she had a choice, though. On the Scott Peterson matter, the state of California can prosecute him for the killing of the fetus if it so chooses, since doing so does not endanger a woman’s right to abortion. In fact, I’m pretty sure some states have laws that make it murder for a third party to kill even a first trimester embryo/fetus while committing an assault against the mother. As long as it doesn’t affect a woman’s rights over the use of her own body, I don’t really care if they make it a capital crime to smash a watermellon. But that doesn’t make it murder in any real moral sense. The tragedy for Laci’s parents and family was very real, or course, because they were looking forward to the birth of the baby and had already become emotionally bonded to it. That’s why I mentioned in my first post that the only real tragedy in the death of a fetus is experienced by the family, who may have already become emotionally attached to it. But how on earth can the fetus itself experience loss of any kind? It doesn’t yet have anything to lose.