Analysis Abortion

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

Martha Kempner

In the season premier of Grey's Anatomy, a main character has an abortion because she does not want to become a mother.  This is good news for reproductive rights when we think of television as both a reflection of current attitudes and means of moving them forward.

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:

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“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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