Abortion in Pop Culture: Orange is the New Black

Netflix recently released the entire first season of the drama Orange is the New Black, based on the memoir of the same name. I haven’t read the memoir yet, but I watched all thirteen episodes in short order, drawn into the complex and unflinching look at life in a women’s prison. While the show explores many compelling and thought-provoking issues, from racism to sexuality to gender identify, I was (not surprisingly) most interested what the show has to say about abortion and reproductive rights. (Also not surprisingly, this post contains spoilers from the first season.)

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Abortion in Pop Culture: “A Soft Place to Land” and “The Best of Us”

Usually when I talk about abortion in pop culture, I mean film and television. But a few years ago I looked at a handful of novels that included either primary or secondary plots about abortion, and in the past week I read two novels that fit into this category as well.

Susan Rebecca White’s A Soft Place to Land and Sarah Pekkanen’s The Best of Us both included characters that had chosen abortion. This was more of a subplot in Pekkanen’s book, as seemed to mainly affect a relatively minor character. This woman had had an abortion while in college and never told her husband; at the time the story takes place, she is grappling with his desire to have a family and her somewhat vague reluctance to do so.

A Soft Place to Land, on the other hand, put its abortion plotline front and center in the second half of the book. After one of the main characters becomes pregnant as a teenager, she chooses to terminate. Years later, she begins dating a man that is very anti-choice–much to the disappointment of his equally pro-choice mother. White’s characters have several interesting and realistic conversations about choice and religion, as well as autonomy. Her treatment of the subject was definitely more nuanced and thoughtful than Pekkanen’s, who seemed to include the abortion detail as a way to place yet another obstacle on a couple that didn’t really need it.

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Ross Douthat’s European Vacation

Earlier this week, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat wrote an op-ed about the “Texas abortion experiment.” While the conservative columnist acknowledged that Texas’s new law could make “first-trimester abortions harder to obtain,” he spent much of the piece downplaying the very real threats this law poses to women’s health and talking up similarly restrictive laws in Europe.

Douthat looks to the example of a number of European countries, including Ireland, for how the Texas law could play out. Yet he rejects comparisons between the United States and other certain countries that enact restrictive abortion laws. According to Douthat, concerns that “Women’s lives will be endangered, their health threatened, their economic opportunities substantially foreclosed” in America stem from similar outcomes in poorer and more conservative areas of the world and therefore are not appropriate sources to examine. He also adds that it is difficult to determine if “those bans actually hold back progress and development.”

Actually, it’s not that difficult. Studies have shown that when abortion is illegal, women still terminate their pregnancies—they just do so in unhygienic and dangerous conditions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank whose work Douthat also links to in his column:

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Ireland’s Push to Legalize Abortion Continues

As Texas and North Carolina move towards sharply restricting abortion access, a country infamous for its own restrictive abortion laws is inching towards liberalization. Last week, Irish lawmakers passed a bill that would allow abortions to be performed to save a woman’s life. This vote moves the government closer to following a 1992 Supreme Court decision, which found that abortion should be legal if doctors feel it is necessary to protect a woman’s health, including if she threatens to commit suicide; however, six previous governments refused to pass a law in support of this ruling.

The latest push to liberalize Ireland’s law comes in the wake of Savita Halappanavar’s death last October, in a hospital in Galway. The 31-year-old Halappanavar was 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted into the hospital with back pain; after being told that she was miscarrying, both Halappanavar and her husband requested that the pregnancy be terminated, but the hospital refused, saying that since the fetus still had a heartbeat they couldn’t provide an abortion. By the time the fetal heartbeat could no longer be detected, Halappanavar’s condition had worsened, and she died a week after entering the hospital.

While Catholic leaders wasted no time in denouncing last week’s vote, a June survey by the Irish Times found widespread support for legal abortion. Eighty-nine percent were in favor of abortions when the woman’s life is in danger, and almost as many—83%–support abortions when the fetus is unable to survive at birth. Eighty-one percent support abortion when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, and 78% are in favor when the pregnancy puts a woman’s health, as opposed to just her life, in danger.  (The survey had an error margin of three percentage points.) The current bill would only legalize abortion in cases where a woman’s life is in danger—including if she is at risk for suicide.

The bill goes to a final vote this week.

Abortion in Popular Culture: Soap Operas

Soap operas may be the most maligned genre in popular entertainment. Even at the height of their popularity, these long-running television shows were frequently derided as simply “women’s entertainment” and therefore undeserving of more serious consideration.

As a longtime soap watcher, I readily admit that the plotlines tend towards the outrageous and the dialogue towards the tedious, to say nothing of these shows’ tendency to make one day unfold over the course of several weeks. Yet soap operas have also been a training ground of sorts for generations of respected actors, and the very longevity of the shows themselves is admirable.

What is also admirable is the willingness with which a number of shows have addressed controversial social issues. Long before mainstream television shows were tackling sexual orientation, interracial dating, and substance abuse, soap operas were crafting plotlines around these and other provocative topics.

When it comes to abortion, soaps have been both ahead of their time and behind the curve. According to a 2004 article in Soap Opera Digest, there have only been six abortions in the genre. But the first one of these, and the only illegal abortion depicted, occurred in 1964—far earlier than any other television genre addressed the issue. As Julie Poll, a former writer for As The World Turns, explains in the article,“[Another World] did a quite an amazing, for that time, abortion story with Pat Matthews … a core character. They gave [Co-Creator/Head Writer] Irna Phillips carte blanche, more or less, to do the story she wanted to do.”

The freedom that Phillips experienced at NBC, the network that aired Another World, stands in sharp contrast to the environment other writers experienced in later decades. Poll helped write an abortion storyline in the early 1990s and, she recalls, “It was a very, very big deal. There was a lot of talk about how they were going to do this, meetings with the network, etcetera, and at that point something still had to be wrong with the child to justify having this story on air.” In that case, the fetus was deformed; the expectant mother wanted to have an abortion, even as her husband wanted her to continue her pregnancy. Following the abortion, the husband wants to try for another pregnancy even though his wife does not, and their marriage eventually ends.

Indeed, five of the six abortions depicted on daytime television include some sort of trauma for the woman, either involving how she became pregnant or what happens following her abortion. Another World’s Pat Matthews kills the man that got her pregnant (although she was later acquitted); a character on The Young and the Restless has a mental breakdown following her 1986 abortion; in 1995, a character on All My Children chooses abortion after becoming pregnant through rape; and in 2004, a character on Days of Our Lives becomes infertile after having an abortion.

Even the most famous daytime character to choose abortion, All My Children’s Erica Kane, was not immune to this rule. The choice of Erica to have an abortion was a deliberate one; she was considered a “bad girl” as opposed to a heroine, and the show would not be seen as condoning her decision. Yet Erica does develop a serious infection following her abortion, and also mentally blocks out the termination, instead believing for a while that she miscarried the pregnancy.

Erica’s abortion storyline resonated with viewers, and she came to be viewed as a symbol of “free choice.” When All My Children addressed the topic again over twenty years later, the show’s head writer, Megan McTavish, says, “I think it was more controversial in 1995, when we did Julia’s than when Agnes [Nixon, AMC's creator] did Erica’s … By the time we approached Julia’s, the political and religious ramifications of the act had [become so divisive]. I think [ABC] handled it very smartly — in other words, they didn’t try to slip it on anybody. We warned everybody first. We told the advertisers that this would be the content and we left it up to them whether or not they chose to advertise.” While some sponsors did decide not to, McTavish adds, “in those days, we certainly had no lack of people who were willing to advertise.” As for the plotline itself, the show received letters of support from both pro- and anti-choice viewers, who felt AMC had told a balanced story.

Interestingly, AMC effectively negated Erica’s groundbreaking abortion several years ago by rewriting the story and revealing that the doctor that performed the termination had actually transplanted the fetus into his infertile wife. The pregnancy was carried to term and the doctor and his wife raised the child as their own, though the story of his actual origins eventually came out. While this twist is in some ways par for the course for a soap opera, fans reacted negatively to the rewrite, feeling that it undid the significance of Erica’s choice.

But even this reaction speaks to what McTavish says is the writers’ goal. “We’re never going to convert anyone to any other side, and that’s not the issue … The issue is to say, ‘This is the character and this is her situation.’”

Abortion in Pop Culture: Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice

Since its premiere in 2005, the ABC show Grey’s Anatomy has had multiple plotlines involving pregnancy and women’s reproductive health. This isn’t a surprise; Grey’s is a medical drama that frequently veers into soap opera territory, so stories involving sex, relationships, and babies are par for the course. Private Practice, a spin-off that aired from 2007-2013, mines this territory even more directly; its lead character, Addison Montgomery, is an OB/GYN with extensive knowledge of both maternal-fetal medicine and medical genetics.

Created by Shonda Rhimes, who is on the board of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles, Grey’s and Practice are notable for the frequency and directness with which both shows address unplanned parenthood and abortion. In 2005 and 2011, a lead character on Grey’s, Dr. Cristina Yang, experienced unplanned pregnancies; in both cases, she decided to have an abortion. The first pregnancy was ectopic and she required emergency surgery, but in the 2011 storyline, Cristina did have an abortion even though her husband strongly objected to her choice. While he appeared to eventually support her decision, standing by her side during the procedure, it became clear over subsequent episodes that he resented her choice. When the couple seeks counseling, Cristina summarize their past disagreements and concludes, “But now we’re fine.” “Except for the part where you aborted the child that I wanted,” her husband says. “Except for the part where you held my hand while I exercised my right to choose, and then four months later you screamed I killed your baby in front of all our friends,” Cristina replies, just as calmly.

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Clothing, Sexuality, and Personal Responsibility

When I was ten or eleven, my father took me clothes shopping. I fell in love with a dark green and black skirt and sweater set, but when I modeled it for my father he shook his head. “That’s way too much black for you,” he grumbled. “You’re too young.” I begged and pleaded, but to no avail; the skirt and sweater went back on the rack.

After reading Bruce Feiler’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, I’m tempted to call my dad and tell him how lucky he was that the sweater covered my chest and arms and the skirt reached my knees. Feiler, and the various experts he quotes, discuss what to do when daughters decide that they want to dress in a more provocative manner than their parents think they should. I’m already anticipating having many clothing arguments with my daughter in about a decade, so I was glad that several common-sense tactics were suggested.

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Live Action Proves Its Irrelevancy Once Again

The anti-choice group Live Action has been making quite a stink over the past few weeks, releasing heavily edited videos that purport to catch abortion clinic employees and abortion providers making inflammatory statements about abortion. In their latest video, two pregnant women took hidden cameras into appointments with Dr. LeRoy Carhart and asked him about the recent death of a woman who was seen at the Maryland clinic where Dr. Carhart practices.

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Abortion in Popular Culture: Dirty Dancing

Abortion in Popular Culture: Dirty Dancing


This is the resurrection of a short series I did in 2010 for Feminists for Choice. I’ll occasionally examine how abortion is portrayed in film, television, books, and music. Feel free to offer suggestions via Facebook or Twitter.

 The first time I saw Dirty Dancing was at Space Camp. All of us campers were in a large room while the staffers attended to various administrative duties, and someone had the bright idea to fire up the VCR and distract us from the general boredom and disorganization with Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. This plan worked pretty well, until a counselor decided to hold a piece of paper over the television during the racy scenes. That was when a room full of pre-adolescents, most of whom had been half-watching the film, decided that we really, really wanted to see what was going on behind that lined notebook paper. There were catcalls and complaints and then the movie was swiftly turned off.

Johnny and Baby in bed may have been deemed too adult for a group of middle school kids, but it is a testament to the creative team behind Dirty Dancing that a movie whose plot point hinges on illegal abortion was so skillfully done, most people forget that abortion is even an element of the film. Yet Penny’s illegal abortion is the very reason that Baby and Johnny were thrown together in the first place.

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My Letter in the New York Times

As a long-time New York Times reader, I was thrilled that a letter I sent to the opinion page editor was chosen for publication!

On Sunday, April 14 the Times published “Courage in Kansas,” an op-ed in support of Julie Burkhart and the South Wind Women’s Center. My response, which can be found online and in the April 17 print edition, read:

To the Editor:

Courage in Kansas” (editorial, April 14) presents a compelling picture of reproductive rights in this country. It is to be hoped that law enforcement officials will take the threats against Julie Burkhart and her clinic seriously and provide any necessary protection.

That those who provide a legal medical service may require federal protection speaks volumes about how stigmatized abortion is in our society.

One in three women will terminate a pregnancy by 45, and many of these women express gratitude for their ability to obtain safe abortion care. Yet too often they remain silent about the importance of ensuring that others have the same access.

A different but no less potent form of silence is found in many abortion rights organizations, which continually allow the opposition to dictate the terms of the debate and discussion.

As long as such silence persists, abortion will remain stigmatized and politicized. Julie Burkhart and those committed to protecting reproductive choice deserve better. It’s time to break the silence.

Washington, April 14, 2013
The writer is the author of “Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement.”