On Friday, NBC aired an episode of Friday Night Lights in which a main character has an abortion. This is incredibly rare in pop culture: we see a lot of stories about accidental pregnancy where the character decides to have the baby and in which abortion is rarely even addressed. I’m happy to see a show on a major network actually address abortion, and do so well.
This episode originally aired in January on DirecTV and I wrote about it at the time:
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.
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.
In the original post I was critical of the writers having Tami Taylor hesitate to give Becky information about accessing abortion. Having seen the rest of this season, I will say that the reason Tami was so careful is addressed very well in subsequent episodes. The plot turns to an examination of what happens when we let a personal medical decision become an impersonal debate of moral absolutes, and how a good person can be hurt by the crusade of extremist anti-choicers. It’s a story the show continues to handle excellently throughout the season.
Many of the responses to the episode that I’ve read express how rare and positive it is to see abortion actually addressed in pop entertainment, and approached as a personal experience instead of just a divisive political issue. The episode has been called one of the show’s “finest hours,” which is saying a lot for a consistently great program. The New York Times considers Friday Night Lights’ approach to abortion to be taking political sides, since it represents Becky’s personal experience and doesn’t give much respect to antis. I actually disagree – I think stories about abortion that treat it like an issue with two equally valid positions ignore the reality that abortion is something real people experience, not just a topic of abstract debate. It is a political choice in this particular moment to approach abortion the way Friday Night Lights does, but I think it’s a far better take than attempts at neutrality from some other shows.
When this episode originally aired on DirecTV myself and others questioned if it would actually air on NBC. Watching the rest of the season, I wondered if NBC would try to back out of airing subsequent episodes as well. There seems to be a rule in TV and movies in recent years that the anti-choice position must receive a lot of weight and respect if abortion is addressed at all, which in itself is usually avoided. I’m very happy to see such a personal, compassionate, and wise approach to abortion shown on major network television. I think it’s important that this episode aired, and I hope it represents the beginning of a shift in how abortion is addressed in pop culture.
I’m rooting for an abortion this Friday night