A Long Way from “The Very Special Episode,” A Main Character Has an Abortion on Prime Time Television


Last season, I wrote about how well I felt Private Practice handled abortion when one of its main characters agreed to perform the procedure on a patient who found out that she was still pregnant (19 weeks along) after an earlier abortion failed.  That show deals with abortion quite often and I give the writers a lot of credit for the way they have portrayed the debate. They touch on different aspects of the issue by weaving a variety of stories into the medical drama; in addition to the woman requesting a second-trimester abortion, they’ve written about couples who disagree on termination, teens and their parents, as well as a young pregnant woman with Down’s Syndrome who didn’t quite understand the situation.  The dialogue is often predictable and melodramatic, but the writers let characters express both sides of the issue. In the end, though, it’s clear that they use the show as a platform to illustrate why the right to safe, legal abortions, without judgment is so important.

For premier night, however, it was Private Practice’s sister show Grey’s Anatomy, also created by Shonda Rhimes, that dealt with abortion.  When we left our characters last season, Dr. Christina Yang, a hard-edged surgeon in her fifth year of residency, found out she was accidentally pregnant.  She and her husband Owen, also a surgeon, argued bitterly because he wanted a child and she did not.  When we picked up this season, the two were living apart and not speaking. Though she still intended to have an abortion, she had not done so yet. 

What I thought was so bold about this story line was that there were no extenuating circumstances. There was no suggestion that there was anything wrong with the fetus.  There was no suggestion of any medical reason she could not or should not carry to term. Moreover, she is well educated, employed, and in a (relatively) stable relationship. She clearly has the resources to raise a child.  Her only reason behind this decision was that she does not want to be a mother. 

And the writers did good job, in my opinion, making the argument that every baby should be a wanted baby.  In one scene Christina’s best friend, Meredith, says this to Owen:

“Do you know what will happen to Christina if she has a kid that she doesn’t want?  It will almost kill her.  Trying to pretend that she loves the kid as much as she loves surgery will almost kill her.  And it will kill your kid….My mother was a Christina. And as the child she didn’t want, I am telling you don’t do this to her because she’s kind and she cares and she won’t make it.  The guilt of resenting her own kid will eat her alive.”

It is certainly not the most sympathetic of stories. The woman who doesn’t have the urge to be a mother is not a character you are automatically meant to like.  The steely woman who doesn’t want children specifically because they will get in the way of her career is often the villain in movies and television.  When that character gets pregnant she is almost always expected to soften at the thought a baby and change her mind.  Not doing so is only proof of her cold heart or villainous ways.

Not Christina Yang; she knew what she wanted and an accidental pregnancy did not change her mind. But it also did not make us, the viewer, stop liking her.  In the end, Owen came back in a scene of understanding and tears and took her to her appointment.  

We’ve come a long way from the days when these issues were only dealt with in “a very special episode;” this story actually took a back seat to someone elses’ marital problems and a giant sinkhole in downtown Seattle.  We’ve come a long way from when only secondary characters could have an abortion and it was handled off-screen; the story ends with Christina on the table and Owen holding her hand.  We’ve come a long way from the days when any main character who accidentally got pregnant had a convenient miscarriage before her clinic appointment; think Julia on Party of Five.  And, we’ve come a long way from the days when all abortions needed to be clearly “justified.”

Popular media is a reflection of current attitudes; the fact that the producers of the show and the executives at ABC were comfortable with this storyline suggests that they realize that a majority of their viewers think abortion should be safe, legal, and available. Media is also a vehicle for moving attitudes forward. I’ve always felt that shows like Will & Grace are at least partially responsible for some of the state laws that allow same-sex marriage as viewers who grew up around gay characters are more open to such relationships. 

So even though she’s fictional, who knows how many women Christina Yang just helped acknowledge and perhaps act on their right to choose. 

Now if only we could get Dr. Yang—who got accidentally pregnant in the first season as well—to start taking birth control more seriously…

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  • knight

    Owen needs to man up and get snipped.

  • kirsten-sherk

    I really liked this post right up until the last para:

    Now if only we could get Dr. Yang—who got accidentally pregnant in the first season as well—to start taking birth control more seriously…

    Two accidental pregnancies in — what, six, seven years? — does not an idiot make. Even the best (non-permanent) birth control fails.

  • jodi-jacobson

    And as someone who suffered contraceptive failure, an important one.

     

    Jodi

  • annagirl

    “trying to love a kid as much as she loves surgery will kill her… will kill her kid” 

    1- better to abort a child then the chance of loving your child less than your career… how would trying to love her own child “kill” her… and if this in fact valid, then her life is more important than that of her offspring?

    2- threaten that her not being able to love her kid as much as work would KILL her kid, defeats the whole point… either way she “kills” her kid – either for real or possibly emoitionally in the future.

    “accidentally pregnant”

    1 – really?  like did she slip and fall on some sperm while getting out of the shower?  is that how your accidentally get pregnant… or is there another way?

    2- by accident you mean, they had sex… the act of procreation.  weird.

     

    Just playing devil’s advocate and trying to get people to think outside the regurgitated pro-choice justifications for abortion.  Yes, all abortions need to be justified to those having or performing or being okay with abortions – it is the direct interruption of human life at it’s most vunerable moment of formation.

  • annagirl

    look up 180 documentary film… answer his questions and be honest with yourself.

  • jennifer-starr

    I really have better things to do than listen to Mr. Banana talk about a choice he himself will never be faced with.  I think we all do.   And I’m actually embarrassed that I used to like Kirk Cameron as a teen. 

  • ahimsa

    AnnaGirl wrote:

    “accidentally pregnant”

    1 – really?  like did she slip and fall on some sperm while getting out of the shower?  is that how your accidentally get pregnant… or is there another way?

    2- by accident you mean, they had sex… the act of procreation.  weird.

    1. First, accidental pregancy can happen from rape, not just consensual sex, so there’s that situation to consider. But many accidental pregancies happen even when the couple is using birth control because there is no 100% effective method. Not even a tubal ligation is 100% effective. When I had my own tubal ligation I was shocked to see a statistic that 1 in 400 woman get pregnant after this procedure (these odds may be different now but that’s what I was told in 1990). I told my doctor that I was hoping for something closer to “lottery odds” (e.g., at least 1 in a million) and was a little scared by these numbers. Fortunately, it was effective for me.

    2. You may see sex as having only one function (“act of procreation”) but many people in this world see sex in a different way. You are entitled to believe that the only reason to have sex is to conceive children but it’s a bit naive to think that everyone else has the same view of sex.

  • jennifer-starr
    Okay, flippancy aside, the thing that really annoys me about films like this (and the people who make films like this) is they really believe that, like the Holy Grail, there exists some perfect logical argument against abortion that will fit all situations and change everyone’s mind. You can’t contest this–it’s foolproof, it’s so logical, blah,blah blah.  They seem to forget that they aren’t dealing with robots and ivory tower philosophy, but with people, and with different situations where everything is not completely black and white. Because the world doesn’t work that way and human beings don’t work that way.  I’ve heard lots of arguments and I watched this movie online. And there isn’t one thing in it that convinces me that the choice of what to do with a pregnancy should ever be in anyone else’s hands except those of the woman who’s actually pregnant. 
  • prochoiceferret

    1- better to abort a child then the chance of loving your child less than your career… how would trying to love her own child “kill” her… and if this in fact valid, then her life is more important than that of her offspring?

     

    I’m sorry, were you somehow under the impression that she should martyr herself?

     

    2- threaten that her not being able to love her kid as much as work would KILL her kid, defeats the whole point… either way she “kills” her kid – either for real or possibly emoitionally in the future.

     

    Are you trying to argue that raising a kid without love is better than terminating a pregnancy and never getting to that horrible situation in the first place?

     

    1 – really?  like did she slip and fall on some sperm while getting out of the shower?  is that how your accidentally get pregnant… or is there another way?

     

    Contraceptive failure of one form or another is usually what happens.

     

    2- by accident you mean, they had sex… the act of procreation.  weird.

     

    No, she had sex, not an “act of procreation.” Getting pregnant was never the point.

     

    Just playing devil’s advocate and trying to get people to think outside the regurgitated pro-choice justifications for abortion.

     

    You’re not going to do that by regurgitating brainless anti-choice arguments that have been smacked down so many times we can debate them in our sleep. Frankly, Mr. Devil could use better advocates than you.

     

    Yes, all abortions need to be justified to those having or performing or being okay with abortions

     

    Sure, abortions need to be justified to those having the abortions, and no one else. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be having those abortions, wouldn’t they? It works out quite nicely like that.

     

    it is the direct interruption of human life at it’s most vunerable moment of formation.

     

    When that “human life” is making use of the body of another “human life” for life support, and the latter doesn’t want to continue providing same, them’s the breaks.

  • colleen

    Just playing devil’s advocate and trying to get people to think outside the regurgitated pro-choice justifications for abortion.

    Hate to break it to you but other women don’t have to justify their abortions, their sex lives, their contraceptive use or their career choices to folks like you.

     

     

  • crowepps

    Just playing devil’s advocate

    Interesting that you just come right out and admit on whose behalf you’re working.  Most people would be ashamed to do so.

  • elburto

    The poor anti-choicebots have a point. Women are doing what they want with their bodies and lives, and nobody is stopping that!

    How dare a fictional surgical genius abstain from saving thousands of lives and being genuinely happy and fulfilled, when she could be carrying and birthing a kid she will hate? That child is a LIFE!
    /sarc

    LOL that hurt to type. Sorry!

    I don’t know why people get so bloody upset and angsty about what other people do with their bodies, who they sleep with, how many kids they don’t have, or what ebil Big Pharma meds they use.

    Not being an American I am equal parts amused and horrified by the apparently fairly large section of society (spanning all of those JudeoChristian sects involved) that seem to be pushing for a return to the 1850s, where men laboured in the fields and factories, and women were permapregnant and acquiescent to their masters. It truly is baffling. I can’t understand how these beliefs have taken such a hold.