Dare Not Speak Its Name

Since the 1990s (roughly), television has regularly portrayed being gay in a much more positive light. Forty years later, however, abortion has not made the same leap toward acceptability on television.
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Last night, on a primetime television show, a character had an abortion. Does this shock you? It might, if only for the fact that such a plotline is so incredibly rare on American television. In less than two weeks, the Supreme Court decision in the landmark Roe v. Wade case will be 40 years old. Four decades later, the debate over abortion still rages. But it is a debate that is largely silent on the small screen. Even last night, abortion did not really dare to speak its name.

The show I refer to is the NBC series Parenthood. Like many shows, when it first started, it was fairly brilliant and fresh and well-written, but it has faded a bit over time. The first year was edgy and realistic, with characters caught up in all sorts of life's problems -- but with (as the title suggests) strong family ties to fall back on in times of trouble. From this launching point, it has deteriorated to the point where either every plotline is resolved with rainbows and sweetness, or blows up in spectacular fashion (only to be resolved later, with unicorns and fields of flowers).

I say this not as a television critic (which I fully admit I am not) but to set the stage to discuss last night's show for those who have never seen an episode. Parenthood started out breaking some ground on television with (for example) a child with Asperger's Syndrome as a major character. In one of the first episodes, responsible adults (parents, even!) smoked some marijuana, and (gasp!) the entire world did not come to an end -- instead, they just got high for a while, and life went on afterwards. Recently, however, the plotlines have mostly devolved into "what can we think up next" sorts of episodes, and the main characters seem to have won several lotteries (must have missed that episode...) because no main characters ever have any money issues at all anymore. Even having said all of that, their decision to take on the subject of abortion was a brave one indeed, simply for the fact that so few other primetime broadcast television shows have ever done so.

But this braveness was a bit tempered. Now, I have no idea whether this was the idea of the show's creators or the influence of network executives (or censors), but it was ham-handedly notable that the word (or any factual discussion of) "abortion" was avoided.

The storyline surrounded two teenagers who had been having sex. The young woman gets pregnant as a result. The young man (believably or not) seems to really want the woman to have the baby. The young woman makes up her mind not to. They both go to Planned Parenthood, twice. Once for a consultation, and once for the woman to receive an abortion. The episode ended with the young man sobbing in his mother's arms, assumably because things didn't work out the way he hoped they would.

I say "assumably" because much of this was not actually discussed or laid out in the program, but left for us to infer. The two times the conversation did seriously discuss the possibilities were where the censorship crept in. In the first such scene, the two teens are sitting in a car, and the young man bluntly asks the young woman if she means to have an abortion. Or (as I heard it, at least) "an aborsh..." -- the young woman talks loudly over what he's saying, and his word is almost swallowed up (or the two-and-a-half syllables of the three syllables that I actually heard, at any rate). You can almost see the meetings with the "standards and practices" folks from the network over the script: "Well, we can't allow you to say the whole word, what if he just trails off at the end instead of finishing it, while she loudly talks over him?"

The second instance is even more blatant, which is why I am assuming that someone other than the show's creators had something to say about what got aired. Planned Parenthood was actually on board with the episode, as evidenced by the frequent references to them by name, and the clinic clearly being labeled with the Planned Parenthood logo. But when the two teens are alone with a professional for their consultation, we get to hear the professional speak of the possible choices they face. Help, they are told, is available if they decide to have the baby. Help is also available if they decide to put the baby up for adoption. Then the dialog volume is quickly dialed down to nothing, while cheesy music swells instead. We see the two teens listening, we see the professional's mouth moving, but we do not hear a word said (after clearly hearing the other two options laid out). This musical interlude abruptly ends, and conversation returns to normal immediately after.

By being so blatant, I infer that the show's creators are making a mini-statement about how the network obviously censored whatever dialog was supposed to happen there. Of course, I could be completely wrong about that, but that's the way I read it, at any rate.

What surprised me, though, was that the young woman actually went through with the abortion before the end of the show. I was fully expecting her to change her mind and decide to get married to the young man and raise the baby. This is the way Parenthood has been resolving its storylines for a while now, which is why I was really expecting it as an outcome.

One television show aside, though, there's a larger point worth making here. The title of this article is from a poem written by Lord Alfred Douglas in 1894, which ends with the line: "the Love that dare not speak its name," which then became a euphemism for homosexuality.

Homosexuality was once so unspeakable a concept (in polite society) that such a euphemism was necessary to avoid (as the euphemism points out) saying a certain word. This was true on American television for a long time, too. Liberace was allowed to perform, and gayness was allowed to be caricatured and made fun of (see: Three's Company), but serious portrayal of gay characters were few and far between. At least until Will And Grace and Ellen DeGeneres, that is. Since the 1990s (roughly), television has regularly portrayed being gay in a much more positive light.

Forty years later, however, abortion has not made the same leap toward acceptability on television. Even in a show whose plot focuses on abortion, the word itself is not (or only barely, or partially) even heard. Abortion is referenced less often than even birth control (another subject still mostly in television's taboo closet). There was no mention even on last night's Parenthood, for instance, of how the young woman got pregnant or what protection the teens had (or had not) been using.

In all the countless shows about doctors and hospitals (which I admit I don't watch much these days), I don't recall any sympathetic portrayals of abortion, whether from the point of view of doctors or patients. Cable shows aside, on broadcast television the subject just never seems to come up. Every pregnancy is greeted with joy and welcome, and any other options are either not discussed at all, or obliquely referred to quite briefly, before moving on to a pregnancy story arc.

There's a reason for this timidity: money. Television networks are terrified that advertisers will go elsewhere, and the advertisers themselves are even more terrified of boycotts from the anti-abortion folks. Nobody wants to cause any offense to the audience which will affect the bottom line, in other words.

However, this silencing of any straightforward mention on television of a medical procedure that millions of American women have had over the past 40 years has had an effect. Since being gay started to appear on television in a serious and realistic way, the public's attitudes have changed drastically. There are adults today who have always seen sympathetic gay characters on television, because they have been there their entire lives. The shift in public opinion over the past two decades on gay rights has been dramatic and long-lasting. Younger Americans really don't even understand why political battles over gay marriage are still taking place, because for the most part they consider it a settled issue: gay people are just like everyone else.

Not so with abortion. In the past 40 years, American women have not had to resort to back-alley butchers, and they know that if they choose to have an abortion it will happen with the same high medical standards and safety as any other medical procedure in this country. While conservatives have passed law after law whose only purpose is to shame and humiliate women who want an abortion (or, even worse, to just flat-out restrict availability), the procedure itself is still legal and safe.

I was impressed to see that Parenthood not only took on the subject, but also that Planned Parenthood got on board. Planned Parenthood is currently under attack in many states, and it needs all the good press it can get at the moment. The future accessibility of women to abortion clinics also needs more debate in our society than it has been getting. I encourage television writers and producers to consider storylines that portray reproductive decisions with depth, empathy, and realism -- no matter what the characters ultimately decide. Pretending that all American women never even contemplate terminating a pregnancy (when they first realize they are pregnant) is not very realistic, to put this another way. I would welcome an honest, open, and forthright discussion on television about abortion, in the hopes that it starts a bigger discussion among the public at large on the nuances of abortion laws currently in place or being contemplated. Perhaps eventually the network executives and advertisers will relent and abortion can move out of the category of a medical procedure which dare not speak its name. At least on television.

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