'Degrassi: The Next Generation' Moved The Needle On Abortion Nearly 20 Years Ago

Screenwriter Shelley Scarrow, who wrote “Accidents Will Happen,” talks about why it’s important to portray teens navigating abortion.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Getty/Degrassi/WildBrain

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During its third season in 2004, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” spotlighted abortion, with 14-year-old burgeoning gymnast Manny Santos (Cassie Steele) as the focal point of the two-part episode titled “Accidents Will Happen.”

In Part 1, ahead of a gymnastics meet, Manny is dealing with bouts of nausea and thinks she’s caught a stomach flu. When Manny lends her tampons to teammate Hazel (Andrea Lewis), she says, “Here — I haven’t used mine in forever.” Manny assumes that because she’s been through strenuous training lately, her period is just delayed. But her best friend, Emma (Miriam McDonald), is taken aback and says, “Really?” and ultimately suggests that it could be something else. Annoyed by her nosy friend, Manny walks off.

However, the thought of a skipped period being attributed to something else follows her. She later asks Emma’s mother, Spike, who birthed her own daughter as a teen, for a pregnancy test. Her worst nightmare is confirmed: She’s pregnant. Worried about being sent off to a convent in the Philippines, like her cousin, Manny begins weighing her options. The two-part episode ends with her getting an abortion.

In "Degrassi: The Next Generation," a 2004 story follows the journey from Manny Santos' (Cassie Steele, right) discovery of an unwanted pregnancy to an abortion. Marie V. Cruz (left) portrayed Manny's mother, Julietta.
In "Degrassi: The Next Generation," a 2004 story follows the journey from Manny Santos' (Cassie Steele, right) discovery of an unwanted pregnancy to an abortion. Marie V. Cruz (left) portrayed Manny's mother, Julietta.
Degrassi/WildBrain

Since it aired, the episode has been heralded as a progressive catalyst for representation surrounding abortion storylines onscreen. However, then — and now — teen abortions were rarely shown on television. Screenwriter Shelley Scarrow had been a fan of Linda Schuyler’s original teen series from the ’80s, “The Kids of Degrassi Street,” and knew that the series always touched on hot-button topics.

Its revived iteration followed a new class of youth at Degrassi Community School and was widely popular in the United States, airing on Nickelodeon’s Teen Nick (previously known as The N and Nick Gas). (In January, it was announced that a new “Degrassi” reboot has been greenlit and is expected to launch in the U.S. exclusively on HBO Max in 2023.)

The series touched on ultra-heavy and high-stakes issues: sexuality, sexual assault, penis pumps, disordered eating, school shootings, Islamophobia and other big topics.

“If your argument is that you want to teach kids to be safer about sex, then you have to have the episode where someone fucks up and goes through this, to deal with it. Because when kids watch TV, they’re fantasizing themselves in situations,” Scarrow said.

In the "Degrassi" two-part episode, Manny consults Emma's mother, Spike (Amanda Stepto, left) for a pregnancy test.
In the "Degrassi" two-part episode, Manny consults Emma's mother, Spike (Amanda Stepto, left) for a pregnancy test.
Degrassi/WildBrain

“We all do,” she continued. “You have to be able to see yourself as a young woman, as a young woman of color, as a young woman with reproductive freedom. You have to be able to see it. I just think we’re cutting out an enormous and important part of young pregnant people’s lives.”

The few abortion narratives on TV do not mirror our society; young people, people of color and other marginalized groups often don’t see their experiences with abortion shown on screen. Instead, audiences often see youth navigating pregnancy, from MTV’s reality television franchise “Teen Mom” to ABC Family’s drama-soap “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” And it’s rare to see a balanced dialogue between characters about the options available to them upon discovering they’re pregnant.

Despite airing other controversial topics, “Accidents Will Happen” was initially banned in the United States and didn’t air until a few years later. Scarrow was a staff writer for the first four seasons of “Degrassi: The Next Generation” and the architect of the two-part episode. She talked to HuffPost about her inspiration for Manny’s storyline, the state of how abortion is addressed on screen today and what it was like having her episode banned in the U.S.

HuffPost: “Degrassi: The Next Generation” has never shied away from any topic — ever. Did you know that abortion was something you wanted the series to address?

Shelley Scarrow: “The Next Generation” is based on an even older show that was out in the ’80s. One of the hallmarks of that show, one of the things that people remembered, is that they did discuss abortion, and one of the twins on the old show went through an abortion. So when I was a kid, I remembered seeing that, and I remember discussing that with my friends on the playground. It wasn’t even just me. It was just sort of baked into the show; it was something that the show had already talked about, and we knew we wanted to speak about it in a new and different way with different characters.

Every year at the beginning of the writing room in “Degrassi,” we would put up the list of issues that we wanted to talk about that year. It was very much the framework of the show that we were like, ‘Here’s hot shit we want to talk about,’ and abortion was always on there. It was just a matter of waiting until it was the right character and the right moment and what felt right for that person. Manny was just the obvious choice. I related the most strongly to her. If anyone ever asks me what character was the easiest, I felt like I could absolutely write Manny in my sleep. She just was this raw, beautiful nerve that I responded to.

Manny gets advice from Spike, who had a baby when she was teen at Degrassi Junior High, in the original series. That episode had aired in 1987. The 2004 episode in "Next Generation" was balanced out with Spike’s point of view from her experience as a teenager.
Manny gets advice from Spike, who had a baby when she was teen at Degrassi Junior High, in the original series. That episode had aired in 1987. The 2004 episode in "Next Generation" was balanced out with Spike’s point of view from her experience as a teenager.
Degrassi/WildBrain

In pop culture, we don’t tend to see many depictions of young adolescents of color grappling with abortion. Cassie Steele’s portrayal of Manny Santos was groundbreaking in that she was this young Filipina dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, managing her parents’ expectations, navigating fear and other issues. Did you realize at that moment that her narrative would have such a profound impact?

I don’t think that I viewed it at that lens, which might be a deficiency of me as a writer in 2003. I just thought a lot about who Manny was. I loved Manny’s background and Manny’s family. We did a lot of research and had conversations with Filipino friends about the culture. But I don’t think we came at it that way at all. One of the great things about writing “Degrassi” was that it’s an anthology show, and I think it’s, like, one of the secrets that nobody realizes is that each episode is about somebody entirely new. There aren’t that many shows that do that, and so whenever you get a chance to write a character, you sort of jump into their life. And I loved jumping into that aspect of her.

In the episode, we see Manny meander through the process of figuring out her options. She consults her best friend, Emma, who is staunchly pro-life, and Emma’s mother, Spike, who carried out her teen pregnancy. That episode marks one of the few times I’ve seen a dialogue between characters about abortion as opposed to assuming the fate of the embryo. As a writer, was it important to you to show that thought process and how a 13- or 14-year-old would rationalize their decisions?

I think so. It was one of the writing rules of the show that an adult was never allowed to come in and tell a kid what to do. That was one of the things that we felt very strongly about, and that was imparted by Linda [Schuyler] from the original series. An adult wasn’t allowed to fly in and be the fairy godmother and make the choice for the kid; all the choices had to come at the kid level. So speaking to her friends about it and reflecting it through dialogue with her friends was really important.

Spike was in a unique situation because she was on the old show, and people had seen her go through it back in the ’80s. She was a little bit of an exception to the rule, but she didn’t express an opinion to Manny or tell her what to do. (A) because that’s not who Spike is as a human being but (B) because that was one of the mandates of the show.

I even read a couple of years ago some people had written more up-to-date pieces on abortion choice and some people expressed frustration with Emma doing that, and saying that she was kind of a lousy friend. To me, that was sort of the core of depicting abortion. The reality of it is that people aren’t going to have the same opinions as you, and I think that that’s maybe a little bit of what’s lacking in depictions and in the real world. Part of the truth of that story is the friendship of someone who doesn’t agree with you still supporting you — and that might not be everyone’s version of friendship, but it’s my version of friendship, and I think that it’s also important in the abortion discussion.

In consulting her loved ones, Manny goes back to Craig, who she had sex with. Viewers see Manny trying to retrace their steps, asking, “You used a condom, right?” Manny was clearly worried about the prospect of building a future with him. Apart from advancing Craig’s storyline, why was it important to you to depict them going back and forth?

I don’t want to say the most political thing possible, but I’m going to say the most political thing possible. I think that ultimately the actual decision rests on the woman and should rest on the woman. I just believe that very fully as a human being. I’m not going to say it was immaterial what Craig’s response was, but I wanted Manny to find her way. That was because, to me, that was the ultimate message of the show: This is your decision. This is your choice. You make it and you decide who you talk to about it. You decide.

The two-part episode ends with Manny and her mother at the clinic and a nurse walking Manny into a room for her procedure. We don’t see her take a pill, lie on a gurney or any chilling, cold, preoperative protocol. Rather, she’s taken under the nurse’s wing ― and the screen fades to black. Why is that?

I actually had a friend who worked in an abortion clinic at the time, and I talked to her a lot. I did a lot of research on that episode with her. I talked to some of her friends who were nurses. That kind of moment in your life is huge, and skipping it in any way was just not on the table. It was really important for me to see that she’s OK. There’s so much rhetoric around abortion — so much angry rhetoric — but in my experience with friends who’ve gone through abortions, it’s a decision that you make just like if you went to the dentist. Now, it’s not the same as going to the dentist, but what I’m trying to say is the reality of going through the clinic and the procedure. It’s not hellfire and horror; it’s a medical procedure. It’s something you go to a doctor’s office for, and you do, and showing that was important.

What was your reaction upon realizing that Part 2 of the episode had been banned in the U.S.? (The N, the U.S. distributor of “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” refused to air the second part of the episode for years.)

I was like, ‘I am hardcore! I’m banned in America!’ Like, if nothing else, put this on my gravestone. It was the only episode that was banned — and we did crazy shit! James [Hurst] wrote a penis pump episode that they showed, and they talked about a penis pump. And I was like, ‘We can talk about that, but we can’t deal with this very real issue that your viewers are going through?’ I will say Nickelodeon was very supportive the entire way through the process, and they tried really hard internally — and I will never take that away from them.

I went on a journey with Manny in writing those episodes. I was a 30-year-old woman when I wrote those episodes, and I think that I had always been pro-choice. There is something about the act of sitting down and going through it very directly from a character’s point of view — and having to think through Emma’s point of view, which was 100% not the same as mine — that made me question abortion in a rigorous manner. I still came back around to my same decision, but I was like, ‘This is what art does. This is what art is supposed to do.’ That’s the reality for a lot of young women, and I applaud it. But I just think it’s important to show all the choices and to be rigorous about them so that it’s informed on all levels and all sides because otherwise you just end up in this binary.

​​We’re still in this era where television storylines that address abortion are perceived as taboo. Even the ways in which it is depicted are very narrow, often centering a cis-het white female lead. What does it mean to you now that this is still a topic of contention on screen? Why is it important to continue to show these thorough storylines, with all options front and center?

I’m aware that I am a white woman saying this, but I think representation matters. And I think that representation on everything matters. And so I think that if we’re cutting out representation of what the thousands of women and pregnant people are actually doing, and the choice that they’re making, then we’re not letting them see themselves on TV. And we’re also not preparing people mentally. If your argument is that you want to teach kids to be safer about sex, then you have to have the episode where someone fucks up and goes through this, to deal with it. Because when kids watch TV, they’re fantasizing themselves in situations. We all do. You have to be able to see yourself as a young woman, as a young woman of color, as a young woman with reproductive freedom. You have to be able to see it. I just think we’re cutting out an enormous and important part of young pregnant people’s lives.

What is your hope for the evolution of how screenwriters portray youth navigating abortion on television and in movies? What would you like to see from the next generation of writers?

To me, it’s truth and honesty and rigor, and I think that’s the job of storyteller, and I think that’s the job of story. I would love to see more representation, period, including women making the choice to keep a child, including women making the choice to put them up for adoption. I feel like the balance has never been equal. We have never, ever seen enough representations of this choice that a lot of young people make — including trans people, pregnant people of all stripes. That’s what I would like to see: rigor, honesty, and a little bit more balance.

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