Earlier this week, a popular reality show went where few television programs -- scripted or reality -- dare to tread, by discussing abortion.
MTV's show Teen Mom 3, like its two predecessors, follows the lives of four teens that became pregnant in high school. The Teen Mom series is itself a spin-off of 16 & Pregnant, which has aired for four seasons and counting on the network. Briana, one of the teenagers profiled on Teen Mom 3, is raising her infant daughter with help from her mother and older sister, Brittany, but her child's father is unwilling to participate in the baby's life, and Briana is beset with financial worries and concerns about how to further her education as a single mother. During a conversation with her sister, an overwhelmed Briana says that she sometimes wishes she'd had an abortion. Brittany immediately protests and Briana makes it clear that while she loves her daughter and is glad to have her, she also wishes the timing was different.
This conversation is noteworthy for several reasons. First, there's the particular story of this family, which was earlier followed on 16 & Pregnant. Brittany also became pregnant around the same time that Briana did, but she chose to terminate her pregnancy. While both sisters confessed to sometimes second-guessing their different decisions, neither expressed regret; and both received support and understanding from their mother.
So this brief exchange neatly subverts one popular anti-choice trope: that any woman who chooses abortion doesn't care about children. Brittany's love for her niece is evident, as is her support for her sister. Their conversation is also memorable for how it undercuts another, equally pernicious claim: that to ever admit to having second thoughts about having a child makes a woman a bad mother. In other words, it's a reality show doing that rarest of things -- being real.
The conversation also makes this episode significant in the wider world of how American popular culture talks -- or, more often, doesn't talk -- about abortion. Even in a series devoted to unplanned pregnancy, the 16 & Pregnant franchise has been markedly reluctant to talk about abortion. MTV did air a stand-alone 16 & Pregnant special in 2010 that featured three young women who chose abortion after becoming pregnant in their teens; the half-hour show is notable in that it aired without any commercials, was extremely even-handed and thoughtful, and has been rarely, if ever, shown on the network again.
In its apparent reluctance to examine abortion in the context of unplanned pregnancy, MTV has found itself in very good, and very exhaustive, company. Dozens of television shows have featured unplanned pregnancy storylines and explored the reasons that the woman is unsure about having the child: economic worries, the lack of a supportive partner or family, educational goals, age, and mixed feelings about becoming a mother for the first time or adding to the family that she already has, are the most common concerns. Often the pregnant woman will decide to have an abortion, only to either miscarry right before the appointment or change her mind at the clinic.
While there is certainly nothing with depicting unplanned parenthood -- and, more rarely, adoption -- as a valid choice, television's reluctance to explore abortion as a rational choice speaks to just how much abortion remains the third rail of popular culture. The choice becomes so foreign that it cannot even be addressed, at least not by characters that have to remain sympathetic and relatable to viewers. This lack of diversity when it comes to pregnancy options diminishes the validity and acceptability of abortion, and stands in stark contrast to real life, where 49 percent of all pregnancies in this country are unintended and 43 percent of those pregnancies end in abortion.
Popular culture at its best holds a mirror up to society, letting us not only see ourselves more clearly, but also think about whether we like what we see. The Cosby Show was once considered groundbreaking because it focused on a highly educated black family. Now black surgeons, attorneys, and executives are common all over television -- and the country itself has a black president. The Cosby Show is not responsible for Barack Obama's presidency, but it and similar shows played a role in changing the way that a lot of the country viewed black families.
Likewise, parallels can be drawn between the gay-rights movement of the 1970s and the plethora of ways gays and lesbians are depicted in pop culture forty years later. While Joe Biden may have overstated the importance of Will and Grace, that show, along with 30-something, L.A. Law, Melrose Place, and Roseanne -- to name just a few shows that drew headlines in the 1980s and 1990s for depicting same-sex relationships -- has certainly helped increase the visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ movement.
The 16 & Pregnant franchise has been blamed and lauded in equal measure for, variously, glorifying teen pregnancy, rewarding teen pregnancy, helping lower the rates of teen pregnancy, and making teens more aware of the importance of contraception. While it is far too early to tell what role (if any) abortion rights and the nuances of choice will play in this season, it is commendable that Teen Mom 3 is at least willing to remind its viewers that abortion is real, and is a choice that everyday people like themselves have to confront.