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Choosing Choice: A TV Dilemma

My roommate is a TV writer. We watch a lot of TV. We talk about TV a lot. Consequently, I think about TV a lot. And I can usually separate what storylines would be most emotionally appealing from those that make the most sense for the show. But in last Thursday’s Grey’s Anatomy season finale, Cristina’s storyline complicated things.

In the show’s first and second seasons, Cristina found herself pregnant as a result of a developing fling with Dr.Burke. Without hesitation, she scheduled an abortion. She was clear and unapologetic about her decision; she was focused on her career and refused to be “˜mommy-tracked.’ Moreover, she just didn’t ever want to be a mother. Before her scheduled abortion could be performed, however, Cristina suffered from an ectopic pregnancy and had emergency surgery.

Miscarriage is an oft-used device on television for dealing with unwanted pregnancies. It’s an easy way to avoid the implications of writing babies or parenthood into a show without any threat of moral outrage from viewers, advertisers, or the network. The choice to have Cristina lose her pregnancy this way was a safe choice but also an interesting one for her character. Viewers got to see her vulnerable side as she was laid up in bed, and the event was a catalyst that forced her relationship with Burke to grow.

In the latest episode, we find Cristina at a very different place in her life. She is no longer an intern but rather a well-respected resident and is married. Yet she finds herself in a similar situation: once again facing an unplanned pregnancy. This time she informs her partner, but her decision remains the same. She does not want to be a mother, full stop. Having a stable career and being married does not change that. She is unapologetic once again. Her husband, on the other hand, wants children. But as Cristina argues, children can’t be a compromise; you can’t sort of be a mother. She admits that she doesn’t hate children; she respects them and believes they deserve parents who want them.

I was shocked by this storyline in the best way possible. Too often abortions only come up in television on very special episodes of teen shows. It was refreshing to see a woman on TV exercise her right to choose so directly. Because of this, I am hoping she follows through with this choice. It would be fulfilling to see a woman get an abortion without some kind of token punishment in order for it to be palatable for American network television.

But I can recognize that this might not be the best choice for the writers to make. It always makes for more compelling television for characters to be challenged and to grow because of it. Terminating her pregnancy would be a stagnant action for her character and would be over quickly. When considering longevity, having Cristina face the challenge of motherhood makes more sense. It is a long-term storyline that would force her character to adapt, grow, and develop to this new role.

And there is the complication. As an unapologetic pro-choice feminist, I want to see a positive reflection of reproductive choices. But I recognize that this may not be the best storytelling choice. So, then, where should my loyalty lay? And is it necessary for the two to be mutually exclusive?

This post originally appeared on filmschooled’s tumblr, and you can find it in its original context here.

9 replies on “Choosing Choice: A TV Dilemma”

I don’t follow this show, but it reminds me of two other programs that featured a pregnancy storyline, secondary though they were. One was the Jane Tennison “Prime Suspect” series starring Helen Mirren. She’d had a brief relationship with one of her detectives and through out the storyline you didn’t know what was bothering her, but noted that she stopped smoking, wasn’t drinking, was cutting back on coffee. She tried to make a few secret phone calls, but it wasn’t until the end of an episode that you heard her call the doctor about scheduling an abortion. This is an English show, though.

The other show was “Spenser for Hire” of all shows. Spenser’s girlfriend was pregnant and thought about the consequences to their relationship. The couple discussed it in an open and equal way, as I recall. In the end she went to the hospital to have the procedure and Spenser came to visit her afterwards. It was a very emotional episode, but maturely done, but it was one of those special episodes, like the “Maude” two parter.

This is what I remember about abortion in primetime TV of the 90’s and 80’s.

After reading your comment I tried to come up with more abortion storylines on tv and realized I have very few. Degrassi (a Canadian tv show) has had multiple abortion stories. In the original series, one of a pair of twins gets pregnant at 15 and has an abortion. They show both girls going to the clinic where they run into protesters. The twin that doesn’thave the procedure is traumatized by the run in and becomes pro-life, while the one who has the abortion is more-or-less fine after the fact.

In the recent reboot, another teenage girl becomes pregnant and has an abortion. US stations refused to carry this episode, which leaves this massive gap in the continuity of the show.

Last season’s True Blood had a character who discovered she was pregnant by her ex-fiance, who had been revealed to be a murderer in a previous season. She wantsan abortion but can’t bring herself to either say it or go through with it, so she tries instead to induce miscarriages. Its an interesting thing (and something I think is accurate to real life) that trying to intentionally miscarry, with all its attendant complications, is preferable to a safe and legal procedure.

Everwood, an under-rated CB show, did a great storyline involving abortion. A non-regular character had an affair with her piano teacher and got pregnant, and decided to terminate the pregnancy. The more liberal of the two town doctors was going to perform the procedure, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. The extremely conservative doctor ended up doing it, after hearing that his father had quietly helped many Everwood women terminate their pregnancies (even before Roe v. Wade) during his tenure as town doctor, in spite of his own beliefs. It had a lot of nuance, which I always respect, and like the rest of the show, nothing was black and white.

I can rattle off lots of examples of shows where women considered terminating, but changed their minds at the last minute. I think that’s the default on TV.

And there’s BSG! I had forgotten about that storyline until your comment. The fleet is all that’s left of the human race and a girl wishes to have an abortion. What do you do when you need to repopulate an entire species? Roslin (the president, for the non-BSG fans) outlaws abortion fleet-wide, but quietly arranges for the girl to have one in private.

And you’re right of course, as is filmschooled — ‘thinking about having an abortion’ is a common trope, usually followed up with ‘not needing to make the decision because of timely miscarriage’.

I haven’t been watching Grey’s since the musical episode (holy hell) so this is interesting.
I also wonder how much her relationship with Meredith and her desire to have a baby may influence Cristina.
I agree with bettyeff that having the abortion would be a big issue in her relationship with Eoin: plenty of room for conflict and growth there.

(also, I find it bizarre that married people don’t discuss this issue before they get married. As you summarise ” children can’t be a compromise; you can’t sort of be a mother.”).

It was actually brought up mid-season that they did talk about it. She said something along the lines of ‘you knew before you married me that I never wanted kids’ and he responded ‘Yeah, but I thought you would change your mind,’ which is terrible. Don’t assume your wife is going to just change her mind out of the blue like some petulant child choosing a flavour of ice cream!

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