Television's Most Persistent Taboo

Television’s Most Persistent Taboo

Published: July 18, 2004

WOW 14-year-old girls are talking. One, named Manny, says to the other: “I’m just trying to do the right thing here. For me. For everyone, I guess.”

The speaker is a character on “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a popular Canadian soap opera for kids, who is telling her best friend why she’s decided to have an abortion. The two-part episode was shown on CTV in Canada in January. But the N, the Viacom-owned cable channel that shows “Degrassi” in the United States, has decided not to schedule the episodes.

Unlike such once-taboo issues as date rape, gay relationships and teenage sex, abortion on television remains an aberration. Manny is the very rare character who actually has one; what’s even more rare is that she doesn’t regret it afterward.

Pregnancy as a consequence of casual sex has been a favorite TV plot predicament since “Peyton Place” in the 60’s. But now young, unwed mothers, once the subjects of afterschool specials, are portrayed as stylish thirtysomething moms who can relate especially well to their teenage children (“Gilmore Girls,” “One Tree Hill”). The premise of a new ABC series, “The Days,” which has its premiere tonight at 10, is that an upper-middle-class high schooler and her mother find out they are pregnant on the same day.

On TV, most women and girls who contemplate an abortion make up their minds, often at the last minute, that they’re keeping their babies (“Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “The O.C.”), even if they happen to get as far as a clinic or doctor’s office (“Felicity,” “Sex and the City”). It was this trend that inspired Greg Berlanti, the creator of “Everwood,” to depict someone who goes through with an abortion it was one of the stories he pitched to WB before it bought the show. The episode, broadcast in May 2003, made “Everwood” one of the few shows on network television to portray a character’s decision to have an abortion since “Maude” in 1972 (abortion was legal in New York state, where “Maude” took place, before Roe v. Wade was decided in January 1973). “I just thought, `Why aren’t people talking about this on TV?’ pretending like it doesn’t exist until, frankly, the rights are taken away again?” Mr. Berlanti said in a recent interview. “Let’s get families and young girls and boys to see what it’s like to go through this. Let’s put some kind of human face on this issue.”

The episode ended with the doctor who performed the abortion going to church: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he confesses to a priest. About his choice to end the episode that way, Mr. Berlanti said, “For me it wasn’t the punctuation mark of the show.” And “Everwood” might revisit the topic soon the past season’s finale revolved around another unwanted pregnancy.

“Six Feet Under” has also featured an abortion and like “Everwood,” it did so in a highly ambivalent context. In the show’s third season, Claire (Lauren Ambrose) realized she was pregnant by her most-likely-gay ex-boyfriend. A freshman at an art college, she was matter-of-fact about her decision: “Do you think you could give me a ride?” she asked Brenda (Rachel Griffiths). “I have to get an abortion.”

But in the next episode, Claire hallucinated that she saw her father and other dead characters one of whom was her fetus, who appeared as an apple-cheeked infant. That was the show’s second aborted-fetus-as-person reverie; in the previous season, the promiscuous Nate (Peter Krause) was faced with the children he might have had, including a 7-year-old girl who said to him: “Hi. You killed me.” And then: “I don’t harbor any bad feelings or anything. I’m pro-choice. Well, at least I would be, if I were alive.”

Josh Schwartz, creator of “The O.C.,” is pro-choice, too, he said recently on the phone. In May, Mr. Schwartz’s show ended its highly rated first season on Fox with a teenage character, Theresa, deciding to have an abortion and then changing her mind. At first she said to the show’s main character, Ryan, who was one of two potential fathers: “You’re not ready for this. I’m not ready for this. I can’t do this.” Later, she asserted: “I make $11 a day in tips. Not having this baby makes the most sense.” But then, after speaking to an older character who was melancholy about her own, long-ago abortion, Theresa retracted her decision. “As hard as it is to imagine having the baby,” she explained to Ryan, “I can’t really imagine not having it.”

Mr. Schwartz said that Theresa had to continue the pregnancy for the sake of the series, since he needed Ryan to leave his cushy life in Newport Beach to care for Theresa during her pregnancy. He said he would not shy away from a character having an abortion if it fit in with the story. But Mr. Schwartz added: “It’s complicated, it’s messy, it’s a scary topic. Dramatically, I don’t know that it has much value compared to the reaction of the audience. It’s a topic where everyone watching has a strong opinion.”

Mr. Schwartz chose not to use the word “abortion” in the season finale. Characters spoke about “an appointment at Planned Parenthood” and trailed off at the ends of sentences. “There’s something about the word `abortion,’ ” Mr. Schwartz said. “That the show would sink under the weight of it.”

In explaining the genesis of their abortion episodes, the “Degrassi” writers said they felt a responsibility to speak directly to young viewers. Linda Schuyler, a creator of both the current version of “Degrassi” and of its 80’s cult-favorite incarnation, “Degrassi Junior High,” said: “If they’re talking about it in the schoolyard, we should be able to talk about it on television.” Aaron Martin, the show’s head writer, described the character’s choice. “She was presented with a lot of options, and she chose something that’s the right and legal decision for her,” he said.

Whether these two episodes will ever be shown on the N is unclear. The channel has postponed scheduling provocative “Degrassi” programs before, only to put them on later. Its official statement says it is an “editorial decision” that is “unrelated to any policy position regarding abortion.” But Ms. Schuyler remains optimistic: “We’re very hopeful that the N will show it when and if it’s appropriate for them.”


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