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

Amie Newman

Last night the television show Boston Legal attempted to address parental consent laws for abortion. Let me just say that to root a story about abortion on the perspectives of two older men is, well, interesting.

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!"). 

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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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