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What It's Like to Have an Abortion in Texas: TV Shows Finally Grappling with Realities Women Face

As states pass record numbers of abortion restrictions, TV and film go to the abortion clinic, with varying results.

A young woman sits at her kitchen table, or maybe on her bed, head in her hands, circles under her eyes. The results of the pregnancy test discarded in the bathroom are positive. She reaches for the phone to find somewhere nearby to provide her the option of an abortion.

Hundreds of women face this reality each day, but on the big and small screens, that phone call is a rare occurrence. The call actually resulting in an abortion is a particularly notable taboo, one that has been broken so few times in mainstream pop culture it can be counted on two hands.

But this year, as public opinion toward abortion rights appears grudging at best, and state after state passes difficult restrictions putting roadblocks before women who want the procedure, we’ve seen more fictional characters make that phone call. Although not all of them have abortions, the era of Juno and Knocked Up -- films that strangely omitted abortion as a viable option -- seems to be over. Last fall, an online video short titled “ Obvious Child” got the attention of the feminist blogosphere by portraying a no-regrets abortion bringing a couple together. As if answering its call, abortions began taking place on bigger screens again.

This Friday, the critically beloved TV series “Friday Night Lights” made waves when 16-year-old character Becky went through with an abortion, saying “It was the right thing to do.” Earlier this year, the Ben Stiller big-screen vehicle Greenberg broke an even thornier barrier when one of its very three-dimensional characters had an abortion and the film actually mined humor from the situation. As they did with the “FNL” abortion, critics applauded writer/director Noah Baumbach for showing the procedure in a real context, without any moralizing or bullet-dodging.

Even “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” FNL’s opposite in terms of dramatic quality, politics and commitment to realism, took a character to an abortion clinic on Monday. Of course, she changed her mind. Still, by portraying the clinic workers as kind and Adrian’s friends as supportive of her decision, even that show appeared to be moving away from strident anti-choice propaganda to a more slippery “choice is good, but one choice is better” philosophy.

Interestingly, in the early 1980s, when Roe seemed under assault by the Reagan administration, films like Dirty Dancing and Fast Times at Ridgemont High tackled abortion fearlessly. Today once again, the dangerous climate seems to have pushed abortion through the gatekeepers and onto our screens, allowing viewers to explore various myths and realities for women in these characters’ difficult positions.

Friday Night Lights: Red-State Reality

“Friday Night Lights” the achingly realistic show about small town life in Texas, took pains to show every excruciating detail of the process for its character. The writers gave us the emotional gauntlet, particularly Becky’s discomfort knowing that her mother was a teen parent. Becky ponders what the fact that she herself was a “mistake" bodes for her own choice. But once she’s made that choice, with the firm words “I can’t,” we see the waiting period, the ultrasound requirements, the stepping stones that make it difficult for Becky, who was a virgin until mere weeks ago, to put the trauma of the pregnancy and the abortion behind her. We see her mother’s rage on her daughter’s behalf-- as a waitress and bartender, Becky’s mom can’t afford to keep heading back to the clinic to stand by her daughter.

Ultimately, as previews have hinted, while Becky feels she did the right thing, the adults who counseled her may not find the issue to be a fait accompli in an ultra-conservative town, particularly since Luke, the boy who got Becky pregnant, comes from a highly religious family that doesn't approve of choice. Becky, a sometimes seductive, sometimes whiny, often confused young woman, is a believable teenage girl. And her dilemma is equally real as Gloria Feldt’s personal reminiscence of living in Texas indicates.

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