On 'Friday Night Lights', Abortion Stigma Goes Primetime
By Nancy Northup, originally posted on The Nation
08.27.10 - It's evident just how much of a taboo abortion has become when a television show gets lauded as bold for having a character go through with the procedure. Friday Night Lights, NBC's gripping portrayal of life in small-town Texas, is being deservedly praised for the emotional realism with which it recently depicted a teenager's decision to have an abortion—a decision rarely made on television or film nowadays, even though abortion is a common and legal medical procedure that one-third of American women decide is the right choice for them.
In another remarkable move, the show tackled the very forces that have so effectively stifled discussion of abortion as a viable option for women, both on TV and real life: the antichoice assault on accurate information about reproductive healthcare.
The story revolves around high school sophomore Becky Sproles, who turns to the principal of a local high school, Tami Taylor, for help when she finds out she is pregnant. Tami tells Becky about adoption agencies and support services for pregnant teens, and urges her to talk to her mother. Only when Becky asks about abortion does Tami tell her she can "direct her to the literature on that." From the careful way that Tami chooses her words you can tell she knows she's walking into a minefield. And sure enough, she soon becomes the target of a school board probe and a public campaign to get her fired.
The campaign succeeds: the season's final episodes, the last of which aired earlier this month, saw the school board ask Tami to apologize for doing what, in her words, she was supposed to do "as a principal and a human being"—listen to a scared young woman and give her information about all her options. It's a loss for Tami, who, refusing to apologize, is ultimately reassigned to a new school and leaves the principal's job that she loves, and a loss for her students at Dillon High, who are left without one of their most dedicated and compassionate champions.
What the antichoice characters on the show want is exactly what their real-life counterparts want: to deny women any information that could help them obtain an abortion and to prevent them from getting one. Since antichoice forces are unable to overturn Roe v. Wade, they've resorted to pushing laws that severely limit women's access to abortion, especially on the state level. The restrictions are either intended to dissuade women from getting an abortion—through false information, for instance,—or they're designed to make it so expensive or cumbersome for clinics to provide services that the facilities shut down. This year alone, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed lawsuits to block some of the most egregious assaults yet on a woman's right to accurate reproductive healthcare information.
Oklahoma passed two laws this spring that may at first seem contradictory, but make clear their antichoice backers' intent to manipulate a woman's decision-making process when she is considering terminating a pregnancy: One requires a woman to have an ultrasound before an abortion and listen to a doctor describe the image in detail, even if the ultrasound is medically unnecessary and even if the woman refuses. The other prohibits a woman from suing doctors who don't tell her or even lie to her about a fetal abnormality—an egregious license for doctors to substitute their judgment for their patient's about whether to continue a pregnancy. Remarkably, the Oklahoma legislature is, on the one hand, requiring doctors to withhold information that a woman may very well want; while on the other, demanding doctors force-feed unnecessary information to a woman when she has declined to hear it. In both cases, though, the legislature is controlling the medical information that women receive, effectively interfering with their decisions about their pregnancies. For now at least, the ultrasound measure is not being enforced while our lawsuit proceeds.
Baltimore decided to end the deceptive practices of antichoice "crisis pregnancy centers," which lure pregnant women seeking abortion to their offices, and then subject them to biased counseling intending to persuade them otherwise and provide no information or misinformation about abortion. Still, Baltimore's ordinance merely requires such centers to post signs saying that they do not provide abortion or contraceptive services. But the Catholic Church sued the city in an attempt to halt this nod to truth in advertising, as if there is a right to mislead and withhold information when it comes to abortion. The church's suit is still pending.
Information overload is the preferred tactic in Nebraska. A new law there requires a healthcare professional to evaluate a women's risk for post-abortion complications based on an almost limitless range of information published in peer-reviewed journals, even if the studies are ambiguous or contested. In effect, the law forces doctors to provide women with irrelevant, unreliable and misleading information on trumped-up "risks"—including the long-debunked "connection" between abortion and breast cancer—or face disciplinary sanctions. Never mind that the doctor already has an ethical obligation to provide patients with the risks and benefits of abortion based on their individual situation. (A federal judge recently struck this law down as unconstitutional, ruling that the law "would be impossible or nearly impossible" to comply with and ultimately, would place doctors in "immediate jeopardy" of civil litigation and therefore, women in "immediate jeopardy" of losing access to doctors.)
It goes without saying that antichoice politicians have a right to express their views. But when they pass laws that manipulate information that women receive from healthcare professionals about their pregnancies and options for abortion, they cross the line and violate a woman's dignity and fundamental right to make her own decisions about her body and her life.
We would not tolerate being deprived of critical information in other important areas of our lives. Yet when it comes to whether to continue a pregnancy—a decision that profoundly affects every aspect of a woman's being—ignorance and deception have become acceptable, or even politically safer, than accurate and supportive information and understanding, as Tami learned too well.
It's unsurprising: when even information about abortion becomes the object of legislative control and antichoice reprisals, fear and silence inevitably prevail. It is a chilling effect we can see in both our popular culture and our political debates where antichoice rhetoric dominates and prochoice lawmakers must tiptoe around the issue or risk heated attacks on their character.
Against this backdrop, Friday Night Lights's willingness to depict Becky's abortion as the right choice for her is truly an exhilarating breath of fresh air. But it is not enough. Each and every one of us needs to break the silence, stand up for all the Beckys and Tamis of the world, and demand that our laws as well as our TV shows reflect and respect the reality of women's lives.