A character on Grey’s Anatomy had an abortion

*spoiler alert*

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.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/awoo/ Amy

    *Spoiler*, but it’s been years since Six Feet Under has been on, so not really.

    While it’s not network tv, Six Feet Under’s Claire had an abortion, and I thought the writers (and actors) did a really good job with it. The kind of everyday, practical aspects lent a degree of “real life”ness to the storyline, like “oh, I need to find someone to drive me to the clinic and back.” For Claire, there wasn’t really any choice, and even the later references to it weren’t framed as regret. I appreciated that.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mangopanda/ Carrie

    I also found myself pleasantly surprised by Meredith’s speech to Owen about the bad implications of having/being a child that is unwanted. I thought her saying, “My mother was a Christina…” and all that bit was pretty powerful, and perhaps not something that is discussed in exactly that way all that often.

  • http://feministing.com/members/quadmoniker/ quadmoniker

    In general, I agree that it’s nice to see a network show acknowledge that women have abortions. But I disagree with this assessment: “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.” While I appreciate her characters consistency and that it’s true to life, I hate how this is a stereotype of the women who have abortions. They play into stereotypes by having Owen seem warm and familial and Christina seem cold and power-hungry.

    • http://feministing.com/members/nonny/ Nonny Morgan

      I didn’t actually see it that way. Cristina has never wanted kids, throughout the show. It’s not that she hates kids, because, hello, she became Sofia’s godmother, but she just doesn’t want any of her own. Being much like Cristina (like kids, don’t want ‘em), it was really nice to see a show that portrayed someone like me, rather than someone who doesn’t want kids that becomes babies-babies-babies the moment she gets pregnant.

    • http://feministing.com/members/grrleconomist/ Chloe H.

      I hear you on this one, quadmoniker.

      I really enjoyed the episode, especially the plotline of Christina’s decision to have an abortion, but something else struck me as well. Why is she the only one who is *allowed* on the show to consider an abortion? I wonder if there is some racism going on here. Even though her sexual relationships mostly seem to happen within committed, long term partnerships, it feels a little to me like only hot, sexualized Asians have that bad kind of sex that results in bad ladies having bad abortions.

      This was not the explicit text of the show and maybe I should appreciate that it happened, Christina was the character who made the most SENSE for, etc. etc. And, also knowing that Dr. Yang was supposed to be the token driven male doctor and Shonda Rhimes just showed up and ruled the scene sort of comforts me, but this thought is still whispering at me.

      • http://feministing.com/members/nonny/ Nonny Morgan

        Hm, well, if it were racism, I’d think that it would’ve been Callie’s storyline? Callie has been portrayed much more sexually than Cristina, IMO. It’s not that Cristina doesn’t have a sex life, but her work has always seemed more important to her, whereas a lot of Callie’s storylines have revolved around sex.

      • http://feministing.com/members/limelightqueen/ Zoe

        However, we do know that white, rich Addison Montgomery Forbes Shepherd had an abortion as well. Sure, she was a lying adultress, but at least it isn’t race motivated.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nonny/ Nonny Morgan

    There’s an interview with Shonda Rimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, who said that she wanted to have Cristina have an abortion in that season (which I think was actually season 1), and they came up with an alternative because TV was not as open to it then, plus it was her first TV show. http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2011/09/shonda_rhimes_talks_about_grey.html

    I’m really curious about how they’re going to handle it, because both Grey’s and Private Practice are pretty good about not handling things in the usual way. (Look at the Callie/Arizona storyline. I was sure that they were going to break up and Callie was going to stick with Mark but they have this poly-like thing going on now.)

  • http://feministing.com/members/ruthi1729/ Ruthi

    I’d like to point out that this week’s episode continued to do well, in my opinion. There was a lot of awkwardness between Owen and Christina throughout the episode because neither of them really knew how to relate to each other. But by the end of the episode, they were comfortable with each other again, not because of some Deep Meaningful Conversation, but because of a little food poisoning. They end up laughing and joking on the floor of the bathroom together.

    • http://feministing.com/members/ruthi1729/ Ruthi

      Oops, that should’ve said spoiler alert, I guess.

  • http://feministing.com/members/limelightqueen/ Zoe

    I have long since had my issues with Grey’s, but I too can’t seem to stop watching. I was very surprised by how very well Cristina’s abortion was handled. At least, until I found out that Shonda Rhimes is on the board of directors of Planned Parenthood. As someone who while fiercely, politically pro-choice but personally could never go through with an abortion, I can’t say I understood Cristina’s dilemma completely. But perhaps that was the point: while I didn’t completely understand where she came from, I did understand why she came from there, why she felt that this was the right thing for her to do and why she did it. I spent the entire hiatus saying that Cristina’s abortion would be a defining moment for the show, at least for me. Because, as you said, there was no in-character way that Cristina would choose not to have it, I felt that if Shonda caved to network pressure and either had Cristina choose not to have the abortion and if that happened or they had her have another convenient miscarriage, I’d be done.

    But what I liked the most about it was that it was not construed as a political point, at least no more than any politically debated topic will inevitably be. While Owen opposed her getting an abortion, no one questioned the legality of it. While online I saw a lot of people blaming Cristina for getting pregnant (but not Owen, because birth control is always on the woman), on the show itself no one said “hey, you had sex without protection, you need to suffer the consequences” as though having and raising a baby is equitable to going to being told you can’t borrow the car after you skipped curfew. So I commend Shonda for showing abortion as a safe, legal option for women who do not want to have a baby, not because they are cruel and heartless, but because they have never wanted babies and never will want babies.

    On a note towards online reactions, if it weren’t so very infuriating I’d find humor at those people who said more or less “Cristina clearly wants to be a mother because she changed Zola’s diaper!” As if babysitting a friend’s child is the same as being a parent (as a kindergarten teacher, I know that that is very much not true). There are many reasons why women choose to have abortions, while I’m sure out there there are those who have had them because they detest children in all ways shapes and forms and can’t be around them for even three seconds, probably about 99% of the time, that is not it.