Avoiding Abortion on the Small Screen

Sarah Seltzer

Friday Night Lights’ unplanned pregnancy plot ducks and dodges as expected, but does hold on to realism when it comes to the damage caused by conceptions of masculinity.

Hearing the actual word "abortion" come out of my TV set–when it's not dialed to HBO–would be enough to jolt even this most determined couch potato out of her seat. But during last week's finale of "Friday Night Lights" not only was the word mentioned flat-out, it was followed by a cogent, passionate speech from a woman standing up to the show's (suddenly unpleasant) hero and arguing for her freedom to choose. I actually stood up and cheered, and then immediately started dreading what was to come.

Abortions just don't happen on network TV. There would either be a miscarriage or a change of heart before the clock struck ten. Watching the rest of the episode was like waiting to be betrayed.

But before I get too depressed about the inevitable timidity of broadcasting networks, I'll start with the accolades. The critically beloved, ratings-challenged show really does an amazing job of scrutinizing at the American cult of masculinity and the often devastating effect it has on both women and men, and this episode was no exception.

Quadriplegic former quarterback and earnest Dillon, TX, hometown hero Jason Street finds out that his one night stand, a waitress named Erin, is pregnant. A friend chastises him for not using a condom–sadly, compared to other high school dramas, that earns FNL some points–and Jason explains that "this wasn't supposed to happen." After his accident, his doctors told him that he would be essentially sterile.

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Hyped up and convinced that it's a miracle, Jason stays up all night long researching his condition and arrives at Erin's restaurant. He wheels up to her with a manic grin, accosts her, and tells her that the pregnancy is God's gift, demanding that she see the significance in the fact that "my boys can swim" and this is "my only chance."

And then the unexpected happens. Erin, a hitherto very minor character, delivers some lines that reveal Jason's behavior for what it is.

"You need to stop," she says. "You do not get to put that on me. I'm not some experiment for you to prove your manhood, Jason. I am nineteen… This is my body. I am going to make the ultimate decision."

It's a great moment for a show that already offers the most honest depiction of teenagers (somewhere between children and adults, not mini-grownups) since "My So-Called Life." "Friday Night Lights" has taken care to portray gender and sexuality, if not totally realistically, then with a genuine attempt at fairness. Some teenagers on the show like having sex, a lot, and some confess that they aren't ready yet. When two kids have a scandalous relationship, the guy is punished one way by his peers, the girl in a much more insidious, damaging way, shamed by the entire community. The one storyline that involves sexual assault demonstrates that rape is about control and violence, not unbridled sexual desire.

Erin's speech fits in with this realism. In her few sentences, Erin pinpoints the way women's bodies are so often used as battlegrounds for men trying to advance an agenda, personal or political. Jason's injury has made him so desperate for a chance to be strong and important and yes, masculine again, that he loses any sense that she is a person, too. Jason can't control his own body, so he wants to control hers. For many men out there, some of them our lawmakers, it takes far less than a spinal cord injury to get that kind of notion.

Because Jason is so beloved in Dillon, and his paralysis is the crisis that begins the entire series and pervades its atmosphere, to depict him acting so awfully to this woman is necessarily painful for the audience.

Later in the episode, Jason gets set straight over dinner by his coach, who tells him, without giving direct advice, that he needs to rely on "trust and communication" if he wants Erin to understand him.

So Jason sits Erin down, apologizes profusely for his behavior, and then starts waxing sentimental about the "little baby" in her belly with hands and feet–a speech that's clearly there to counterbalance Erin's previous one. Pro-choice rhetoric? Check. Pro-life rhetoric? Check. NBC has its bases covered. That's the cynical view at least.

But Erin counters this again, asking him with a sad smile if he is the kind of person who, like, "blows up clinics." He assures her he doesn't, and says that he knows that the decision is ultimately hers. But, he adds, if she keeps the pregnancy he will more than be there for her. He lays the charm on so thick that she chokes up and seems to give in–and then the show goes to credits, potentially for the last time ever.

Is it possible that Jason could so easily overturn Erin's conviction, or is the show just copping out? What convinced me that her caving might be realistic on some level is that he is selling her a dream of a stable family with, most importantly, a loving, supportive father. In a town marked by absent dads–four or five main FNL characters and counting don't have fathers around–Erin watches Jason struggle to overcome his masculine aggression and humble himself, swearing that he dreams of being a family man. He offers to be her partner and her helper unconditionally, and she is clearly someone who is very much vulnerable, a lone woman in a patriarchal society.

Is it so surprising that in the face of Jason's new approach, Erin might momentarily be charmed into forgetting that neither of them has a college education? That any dreams of leaving Dillon and venturing into the wider world must be deferred by their decision to have the child?

Watching her waver is like watching a tragedy in the making. You can see these two in fifteen years, the parents of a sophomore on the Dillon football team, struggling with their finances, diminished hopes and mixed feelings about each other (think Bruce Springsteen's "The River"). They'll be perpetuating the kind of small-town life that has caused them both so much angst and sadness, victims of Jason's inability to accept his injury.

We may never know whether Erin goes through with the pregnancy or not. I hope that's not the case, the show gets picked up, and the plot arc comes to a more definitive conclusion. And we can also hope that if FNL ends up depicting young people having a child, it does so with the same unflinching perspective we're used to from the show's creators, network honchos be damned.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.


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