Popular entertainment rarely deals with abortion. Often when characters on TV get pregnant “the A word” isn’t even spoken out loud – FOX won’t even let “abortion” be said by a character on their network. Abortion is rarely a real consideration. Then there are those Very Special Episodes about abortion – always trying to present two binary opposed sides to the issue.
I’ve been a fan of Friday Night Lights for a while, and I think the show’s handling of social issues is usually sensitive and realistic. But I was definitely worried when the show took up abortion in the last two episodes. The story line had flaws, but I was impressed by the overall approach to the topic.
Spoilers ahead (Friday Night Lights currently airs on DirecTV and episodes are later run on NBC – I have no idea if NBC will be airing the episodes that deal with abortion, but they haven’t yet signaled that they won’t).
Becky, the character who gets pregnant, is in 10th grade and doesn’t have a lot of money. From the beginning Becky signals that she will pursue an abortion, but almost every character she speaks with has to offer their own take on her decision. Ultimately, Becky receives support and guidance from Tami Taylor, often the show’s moral center.
The episode was not perfect. Abortion seems to always be depicted with sadness. Becky does end up having the procedure, but the episode ends with her crying. This is certainly one real and completely legitimate reaction to having an abortion. But I would like to see other reactions shown as well – abortion is not always about sadness, and I am concerned Becky may voice regret in future episodes, which is also not every woman’s truth but seems to be the only possibility for the few pop culture characters who have had abortions.
I was also somewhat disappointed in Tami’s reactions to Becky. Tami is a former high school guidance counselor and current high school principal – I think she should be a lot more comfortable with the topic of a 10th grader getting pregnant and considering abortion than she is. Tami initially hesitates to bring up abortion and acts like she’s rarely if ever supported a young person through this process before, which reinforces its strangeness. About 1 in 3 women in the U.S. have had abortions, but when it’s treated as such a shocking and rare subject the taboo around abortion is reinforced and the experiences of many women are silenced.
I thought the show did an excellent job of depicting two aspects of the lived experience of this decision, though: legal barriers faced by a young person and the pressure of other people’s opinions. Becky tells Luke, the man involved, that she needs half the money for an abortion from him – the procedure is expensive, especially for a high school student from a working poor background. Luke seems to try not to pressure Becky, but he is clearly anti-choice. Becky realizes he won’t be a resource or someone to help her through this process. Tami subtly and tactfully walks Becky through Texas’ parental consent requirement, making sure she can safely tell a parent about the abortion. Becky doesn’t want to tell her mother, but she has to. This increases the emotional pressure related to the procedure, as her mother has strong feelings and may even regret that she did not have an abortion when she was pregnant with Becky. Becky’s mother reacts angrily at the initial appointment when a doctor starts to walk Becky through state-mandated counseling and Texas’ 24-hour waiting period. Both are barriers that make having the procedure more difficult, but so is the added emotional pressure from a parent focused more on her feelings and opinions than her daughter’s needs.
Becky’s interactions with her mother and Luke present a number of barriers to access: cost, parental consent laws, state-mandated counseling and 24-hour waiting periods. But they also demonstrate an all too common aspect of the personal experience of abortion – pressure from others about what choice a woman should make, and why. Becky seems fairly clear from the beginning of the story line that she needs to have an abortion because of factors including age and class, though she is clearly upset by the decision. Reactions from her mother and the man involved complicate this, though, adding additional emotional weight to an already difficult process. What women considering abortion need is support in whatever decision they make, not someone else’s opinion about what they should do.
Tami Taylor’s interactions with Becky, while not perfect, represent a powerful counterbalance and model, to a degree, the kind of support and counsel that should be given to women considering abortion. Tami outlines Becky’s options and helps her find resources. But, possibly more important and certainly more significant to see on TV, Tami tells Becky the situation and decision are difficult but her own, that she should be supported in whatever decision she makes, and that Tami does not think having an abortion means Becky will go to hell. It’s become clear to me through talking with women trying to access abortions is that they hear far too many opinions about the right and wrong thing to do, or about what they must do. What these women often need is someone to validate their own process and decision, and to support them in whatever choice they make.
While the episode had flaws from my political perspective, I was glad to see abortion approached in a way that emphasized a young woman’s needs, barriers to access, and the sort of emotional pressure created by strong opinions about this medical procedure. Too often abortion is treated as a political issue rather than a part of women’s lived experience. This episode contained very little of the standard debate over abortion, even when it depicted Luke and his anti-choice parents. Instead it focused on the sorts of pressures put on a young woman because abortion is treated as such a controversial moral and political issue.