The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion On TV, abortion is the road less traveled. Life’s not like that.

A scene from the 2014 film "Obvious Child," starring Jenny Slate, right, and Jake Lacy. (Courtesy Everett Collection)
Placeholder while article actions load

After the sixth episode of “Atypical,” I stormed into my daughter’s room.

“Please tell me the therapist is not going to have that baby.”

She paused to remember which show she had told me to watch, and then she shrugged sympathetically. “Sorry, Mom.”

Dammit! I was hoping that the young, professional woman, upon learning she was pregnant right after her jerky boyfriend left her, might decide to have an abortion. Instead, it turns out, she doesn’t even consider it.

I’m so tired of this.

Over and over again in TV shows and movies, female characters discover they are unintentionally pregnant and then make the choice that most women in that situation don’t make. Or worse: They don’t seem to remember that they even have a choice.

These on-screen pregnancies are not “unintended” in the sense of, “I wasn’t planning on a baby now, but close enough.” They are unwanted pregnancies, disruptive pregnancies, take-a-dozen-tests-hoping-one-is-negative pregnancies. From “Knocked Up” to “Waitress” to “Juno,” from “Friends” to “Modern Family” to “Girls” to “Glee” to “Gilmore Girls (Rory, implied). And they happen to women who (1) could be using contraception and (2) have access to abortions. In “The Mindy Project,” the accidentally pregnant character who proceeds to have a baby is . . . an obstetrician. In New York City.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these stories. Going through with a pregnancy you didn’t plan is a choice that actual people — not just TV characters — do make. I know that. If the script doesn’t give me a plausible reason why a given character wouldn’t seek an abortion, well, sometimes life doesn’t either. Any particular choosing-to-have-a-baby storyline could make sense. It’s all of them together that make me crazy.

Follow Kate Cohen's opinionsFollow

Are writers, directors and producers responsible for the pregnancy plots of their predecessors and their contemporaries? Well, yes, they are. I’m sorry.

It’s the same with white savior movies. There were absolutely White heroes of the abolitionist and the civil rights movements and White teachers who made a difference in Black children’s lives, and I’m sure there are plenty of true, inspirational stories to tell about them. But White historical figures have had more than enough screen time; White audiences in 21st-century America don’t need to be flattered and reassured.

Those who contribute to the cultural space have a responsibility to consider the historical and political context into which their work will land.

Here’s our context: Abortion is not just a legal choice in America, it’s a legitimate one. And it’s common: Nearly 1 in 4 American women has an abortion at some point during her reproductive years. It’s at least health care, but it’s not only health care. The ability to put a stop to an unwanted pregnancy is part of a kit of tools women have that allow us to determine the course of our own lives. It’s freedom care.

And yet, the makeup of the current Supreme Court threatens to overturn or undermine the case that protects abortion as a constitutional right, while in some states, restrictions have all but taken that right away.

On the federal level, the Hyde Amendment prevents government-subsidized health care from paying for an abortion, which means poor women suffer disproportionately from the cultural conclusion that getting an abortion is a bad thing to do.

If that’s what you believe — that getting an abortion is wrong — then, by all means, continue to concoct plots in which women decide to have the babies they didn’t want. But if it’s not, please tell us different stories. Stories in which characters are happy with their decision to end a pregnancy, as most women who choose to do so are in real life.

Director Gillian Robespierre depicted a “safe, judgment-free abortion” as she described it, in her film “Obvious Child,” one of several recent independent movies to do so. On TV, a few premium-channel shows (“GLOW,” “Sex Education,” “Shrill”) but also a few network ones (“Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Jane the Virgin”) have featured women choosing to end their pregnancies.

My personal favorite is “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” in which we find out what Paula decided to do about the pregnancy that threatened her law school plans when the doorbell rings and her son calls out, “Mom, I’ll get it, since you just had an abortion.”

We need much more of this, and much less being told that what women do when faced with an unintended pregnancy is shrug and go through with it. More often than not, they don’t. And they shouldn’t have to.

correction

An earlier version of this column incorrectly described a character on "Atypical" as a young Californian. The Netflix series is set in Connecticut. This version has been updated.

Read more:

Read a letter responding to this column: TV shows may be getting it right on abortion

Ramesh Ponnuru and Robert P. George: Biden’s stance on abortion contradicts his Catholicism

Herminia Palacio and Daniel Grossman: How the Biden administration should stand up for abortion rights

Rachel Rebouché: The Supreme Court’s next abortion decision may come sooner than you think

Henry Olsen: Why those who oppose abortion continue to fight

Loading...