Commentary Abortion

Grey’s Anatomy: The Evolving Approach to Choice

Martha Kempner

After praising the writers for an episode in which one of the main characters a chooses to terminate an unintended pregnancy, I was a little disappointed with the ongoing storyline in which her marriage is now in trouble and her husband blames her for "killing my baby." But in the bigger picture, even this can make sense.

I don’t keep it much of a secret that I watch a lot of television—I frequently write about television’s portrayals of teen sex, abortion, STDs, and other issues related to sexuality.  I have written about Lifetime Movies, TLC Reality Shows, and soap operas but it seems that I keep coming back to Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, two shows created by Shonda Rhimes. It’s not just that I watch these night-time soaps religiously (in my defense lately I’ve been watching them while on the elliptical, I swear); it’s that these shows deal with sexual and reproductive health issues almost every week.

As medical dramas that combine patient-of-the week storylines with the life dramas of a cast of beautiful and horny regulars, there are ample opportunities to look at these issues.  Sex is played for drama, for laughs, for education, and some might say for political pontification. There was the first season outbreak of syphilis among the doctors and nurses who seem to sleep exclusively with each other, the chairman of the board with an odd river fish lodged in his penis, the woman who came into the ER having spontaneous orgasms, the divorced couple who were stuck together because his penis ring got caught on her IUD string (their daughter walked in on them during their MRI), and Dr. Mark Sloan’s broken penis. 

Then there was the episode in which the writers planted important health information into a story line so that the Kaiser Family Foundation could track whether viewer’s knowledge increased after watching.  In that episode, Dr. Izzie Stevens explained to an HIV-positive woman who thought she had to terminate a pregnancy that with the right drug treatment during pregnancy there was a 98 percent chance that her baby would not be born with HIV.  “The study found that the audience’s awareness of this information increased by 46 percentage points (from 15 percent to 61 percent), a four-fold increase among all viewers. This translates to more than eight million people learning correct information about mother-to-child HIV transmission rates from watching the episode.”

Both shows also deal with abortion on a regular basis whether it’s the fifteen year old who doesn’t want the same thing as her mother, the Down’s syndrome young woman who doesn’t understand termination, or the woman who had a late-term abortion after an earlier one failed.  And these shows are rare in the world of television dramas because some of their main characters have had abortions off-screen and on. 

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In fact, the last time I wrote about this topic it was to discuss this season’s premier of Grey’s Anatomy in which Dr. Christina Yang chose to terminate an unintended pregnancy because she knew that she did not want to become a mother, now or in the future.  In the piece, I applauded the writers for what I saw as a gutsy storyline.  Not only did they allow a main character (not a guest star who had just been introduced) to go through this, but they did not give her any extenuating circumstance that could “justify” her abortion to skeptics of reproductive choice.  She was employed, married, financially stable, and healthy.  She just didn’t want to be pregnant.  That episode ended with Christina having the abortion while her husband, Owen – who really wanted a child – held her hand in what I saw as a positive sign of his accepting both her right to decide and the decision she made.

After praising the show’s scribes for that episode, I have to admit that I was a little disheartened by where the storyline went next.  Christina and Owen are having marital problems this season. They’ve ignored each other, spent an episode in couple’s counseling, and it’s possible that he’s been cheating on her (I’m one episode behind so forgive me if this has already been cleared up).  Though they have other issues only suited to television (he had her operate on her mentor’s husband without telling her who it was), the big issue in their marriage appears to be the abortion.  As he said loudly in one recent episode: “You killed my baby.”  Whoa. That seems like a total 180-degree turn from the well-articulated, pro-choice arguments the writers have gone out of their way to make numerous times.  

I was tempted to be annoyed at this turn of events, the cynical part of me even started to wonder if they were trying to appease those viewers who felt the show had gotten too pro-choice or too political.  But I’ve decided to give them the benefit of the doubt for a couple of reasons. 

First, because they have such a good track record on sexual and reproductive health issues.  Just last week, the show’s spin-off, Private Practice, gave us a lovely portrayal of parent-child communication about sex.  New character, Dr. Jake Reilly is a fertility doctor who continues to raise his step-daughter even after her mother’s death.  This episode introduced us to Angela on her 18th birthday. A college freshman, Angela announces that she lost her virginity to a boy named Ethan, that she liked it, that she’s happy, and that she felt her step-father would want to know. Jake is initially taken aback, a fair reaction, but recovers and later in the episode shows up on campus with a supply of condoms and some encouraging words.

I also understand that while the writers are responsible enough occasionally to use their shows as educational and political platforms, in the end these are night-time soaps in the spirit of Dallas, Dynasty, or Knots Landing and as such they thrive on melodrama. While I don’t like Owen’s words (especially the use of the term baby to describe an early pregnancy), I choose to look at this less as a debate about reproductive rights and more about a couple grappling with the fundamental question of whether they can stay together if they disagree about something as important as having children. And, I do think there is room for a show like this to explore how a man would feel in Owen’s situation. Women have the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term but her decision does affect her partner and one cannot really blame the writers for milking that for some pretty tense and emotional scenes.

So instead of being annoyed or cynical, I will once again thank Shonda Rhimes and her team for these guilty pleasures that occasionally make viewers think.  And since I’m in a generous mood, I will even forgive them for the ridiculous storyline in which Izzie had mind-blowing sex with ghost.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.