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Turning abortion into an online game show

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By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, January 31, 2010

At first glance, bump-the-show sounds like a reasonable response to "Bump," the show -- a new, faux-reality Web-based docudrama featuring actors trying to decide whether to have an abortion.

Think Jerry Springer meets Oprah meets "American Idol" meets Dr. Oz meets . . . America's conscience. For the decision to abort or not to abort is up to you, dear audience.

Has the shark just jumped the shark?

The idea for the "show," which launches Monday, was inspired, of all things, by Barack Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame University last year. When the president said he wanted "to find ways to communicate about a workable solution to the problem of unintended pregnancies," executive producer Dominic Iocco conceived "Bump."

He and co-executive producer Christopher Riley want to see whether stories can succeed where four decades of rhetoric and politics have failed. They fashioned their experiment in a way that would be most appealing to the wired, reality-show generation.

Beginning Feb. 1, episodes will appear each week on Mondays and Thursdays, both on the Web site (BumptheShow.com) and on YouTube, and spectators are invited to comment. A pilot, which appeared on the eve of the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, already had drawn 147 comments by Friday, ranging from criticism of the acting and the doctor's make-up to heartfelt accounts of personal experiences with abortion.

Comments are being carefully monitored to ensure civility, Iocco told me in a telephone interview. The fear is that the conversation could devolve into the usual rants. He worries that once foot soldiers on each side of the debate get wind of "Bump," they'll mobilize their troops and try to firebomb the theater, as it were. A few of the most vitriolic posts already have been removed.

There are so many unappealing facets wrapped into this one package, it's difficult to identify the core offense. That's not so much the fault of the producers -- who get some credit for seeking creative ways to advance rational debate -- as it is a function of the culture. Media critic Marshall McLuhan was surely right when he declared that the medium is the message and that our media eventually form us. Thus, we find ourselves sitting before computers, inputting opinions about whether fictional characters should terminate a developing human life.

Although the idea is to humanize the debate, none of the characters is especially sympathetic. Each of the three women ostensibly selected from a "pool" of 300 is pregnant under varying circumstances with which viewers are expected to relate. To be clear, no one is really pregnant. The actors are all young and white, despite the fact that blacks have abortions at five times the rate of whites. The doctor, however, is African American -- a man who combines the reassuring manner of Marcus Welby with the ethereal wisdom of Bagger Vance.

Katie, who is married, is the most appealing by virtue of what seems to be a genuine moral conflict. "Once I make it, I can't go back," she says. Her dilemma is further complicated by the fact that her pregnancy is more recent than her husband's departure for Iraq.

Denise is a ditzy child-woman who loves red candies and picks all the red Starbursts from the bowl at the doctor's office. Already the mother of two, she is also a victim of domestic violence. A "whatever" kind of gal, she's mostly interested in the financial help promised by the show.

Finally, the loathsome Hailey and her icky boyfriend, Jason, just want to get on the reality show. They're the party crashers at the abortion clinic. Yippee.

We're not supposed to judge anyone, of course, but to feel their pain and offer thoughts. Regardless of one's position on abortion, one thought is inescapable: The babies deserve better. Perhaps there will be an adoption sequel?

At this point, the stories are only partly sketched and will be fleshed out based on what Internet denizens proffer. In the end, self-selecting strangers will become as a thousand Caesars, offering a thumbs up or down on the unborn. That some might struggle with their decision on behalf of the voiceless is some consolation. Otherwise, even in the faux world of a not-quite reality show, presenting such a profoundly personal and literally life-altering conflict as interactive entertainment is disturbing and slightly creepy.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is the moral of the story. You can't get there from here.

kathleenparker@washpost.com


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