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.

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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.

This is abortion in a red state--not easy to come by, not easy for people to accept or advocate, not easy to figure out in an economically depressed climate where teen parenting can be seen as a normal way of life.

Secret Life of the American Teenager: Myth

Adrian is the young woman Becky’s age, who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” Like Becky, Adrian has supportive adults around her, and also adults who want to push her in the direction of keeping the baby. In fact the back and forth between everyone around poor Adrian's choices hinges on creepy. It adheres to a political, or journalistic, playbook rather than the gentle, emotional touch provided by FNL. Phrases like “I want her to have the baby” and “But it’s her decision” are bandied about at least 50 times each, or so it feels, in the episodes leading up to Adrian’s appointment, until they almost lose meaning. Finally we came to the episode, just one prime-time night after Becky’s abortion, in which Adrian, sitting in the clinic, begins crying and decides “she couldn’t go through with it” thanks to a kind worker who talks her through her feelings.

It’s meant to be a feel-good moment, I suppose. But the show's creator, Brenda Hampton, neglected to portray the realism of getting an abortion in a small town. She made the mistake of assuming that every town just has a women’s health clinic right down the road, and that the freedom of choice Adrian enjoys is given to any woman who wants it, so she can make a decision in a vacuum.

Interestingly, the show uses the language and values of choice--”It’s her decision and we have to stand by her” -- even as its character predictably decides not to do it. This plot line served to exemplify a new kind of anti-choice rhetoric in the country, one that pays lip service to the concept of a woman’s decision being her own--an indication of a victory for the pro-choice side. But according to this logic, one choice remains better than the other, the superior choice, the choice that makes you a good person. That is the message of “Secret Life,” and that’s the message that has the most danger for the pro-choice movement--it allows for abortion to remain nominally legal but full of loopholes, requirements and stalling tactics that make it a choice in name only.

For many in Becky and Adrian’s situation, there are no supportive adults around, however. Unfortunately for them, the parental notification laws that are on the books make it impossible for them to undergo the procedure alone or with a friend.

But beyond this, the Center for American Progress counted 23 new laws and initiatives, this year alone, which attempted everything from making a fetus a person at conception to making it nearly impossible for women’s care providers to meet targeted standards. According to report authors Jessica Arons and Alexandra Cawthorne, these laws indicate “renewed momentum” for the incremental anti-choice agenda. They write:

Some 600 such laws have passed since 1995. States currently have abortion laws that, among other things, mandate biased counseling and burdensome waiting periods, impose costly and unnecessary clinic regulations, require parental notification or consent, restrict funding for abortion, ban a safe pre-viability abortion procedure, and allow health care providers to refuse to provide needed medical care.

For young women like Adrian and Becky, the emotional decision to have an abortion would only be the beginning. That’s what FNL got right.

Greenberg: Abortion in a Blue State

And then there’s the abortion in Greenberg--an L.A. abortion, in a big city, without a waiting period or any family members objecting. Still, heroine Florence, a young woman who wants to be a singer, is upset about the cost of the procedure--as a personal assistant, we assume she doesn’t have insurance--and neurotic about pain. If FNL illustrates a red-state abortion and “Secret Life” shows an abortion in a mythological American town, Greenberg depicts a blue-state abortion, the kind of abortion that Brenda Hampton and the “Secret Life” team think anyone can get with a snap of her fingers. And yet even Florence can’t snap her fingers. She needs the help of her friends, she needs money, and she needs to go to the hospital.

What’s fascinating and wonderful about this film, and the stark performance of its female lead, Greta Gerwig, is that she’s the kind of person stereotyped by anti-choicers as having a “bad” abortion. She’s young, she’s sleeping around, she’s not watching out for herself, and her abortion serves as a wake-up call for her to find a new direction in her life. But Florence's post-adolescent, lost-in-the world pathos, and her innate goodness to other people, truly invite us to sympathize with her plight and even laugh as her erstwhile love interest sticks a hamburger in her face when she wakes up from anesthesia. (“She said she couldn’t eat before the procedure” he explains.) For Florence, who is just learning to take care of herself, the abortion is a necessary, if uncomfortable, good.

As we ponder the mini abortion boom onscreen, the question we’re left with is whether the real Florences of the world, for whom abortion is accessible but not easy, will keep advocating for the Beckys, the young women in rural America who are watching their access dwindle and dwindle some more. Abortion will always be available for the Florences, even if they have to borrow and beg to get there. But for women in places like the fictional Dillon, Texas, the freedom to make an informed decision about a pregnancy, whatever the decision is, is disappearing slowly and surely.  Those of us who will never have to worry about choice need to step up and fight on their behalf.

Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Women's eNews and Publishers' Weekly.