As a long-time advocate for showing abortion on television and a devoted Grey’s Anatomy fan (seriously, I even stuck with it through the ill-advised supernatural turn), I was thrilled about what happened on last week’s season premiere. It was one of those rare television events: a character actually got an abortion.
She didn’t just consider it. She didn’t have a miscarriage at the last minute. She didn’t talk about it in hushed euphemisms. She said the word. Other people said it. She didn’t even do it off-screen. They showed her in the stirrups and the doctor even talked about numbing her cervix. And although all that happens every day to real women across the country, it has hardly ever happened on prime-time, network television.
It’s refreshing to say the least. And if there were ever a character that would believably choose abortion it’s Christina Yang, the ambitious heart surgeon who has said repeatedly over the years that she doesn’t want children. That’s why it was so maddening that when she had another unintended pregnancy in season 2, they avoided the abortion by having an ectopic pregnancy take the decision out of her hands. So it was especially satisfying to see her do now what she clearly would have done then.
I was also impressed by the way the show dealt with the emotional complexity of her decision. Of course, for some women, there isn’t any sense of sadness or conflict about getting an abortion at all, and someday I’d love to see that kind of abortion story on TV. But on a show like Grey’s Anatomy, it’s probably inevitable that the abortion story, just like every other storyline, would be drama-filled. At the end of last season, Christina and her husband Owen had a terrible fight because he wants kids and won’t support her decision to have an abortion. They aren’t speaking and Christina, although still 100% sure that she wants the abortion, is struggling to do it without his blessing.
Yet, even though in some ways, this decision is incredibly difficult for Christina, she never doubts–and the viewer never doubts–that abortion is absolutely the choice that is right for her. At one point, she gives a great speech to Meredith explaining that she really wishes that she wanted to be mother, but she just “really really really” doesn’t.
In the end, [spoiler alert!] Owen comes around, because he really isn’t a bad guy, and they go to her abortion appointment together. And it’s sad–because Christina really feels the loss of not being able to share in Owen’s desire for a family. And it’s also an enormous relief. Because it’s so clear that this is exactly what she needs to do–that doing anything else would be sacrificing a part of who she is. And those two emotions–sadness and relief–can exist at the same time, because that is called emotional complexity and Grey’s Anatomy is actually a really good show, you guys! While different people experience a whole range of feelings about getting an abortion, I thought that this portrayal was honest and accurate and true to who these particular characters are.
Now, according to rules for depicting abortion in Hollywood, Christina will pay for the price for her abortion down the road. So I’ll be tuning in this Thursday and hoping Shonda Rhimes is brave enough to buck that tradition too. Who knows? Between Christina’s abortion and Becky’s on Friday Night Lights, maybe it’s the dawn of a realistic new era when it comes to unintended pregnancies on TV.