People feel a range of emotions and hold a wide swath of opinions when it comes to abortion. But even amongst some who consider themselves pro-choice, they may not wish to discuss teens and abortion. While we’re starting to see more shows handling teen pregnancy, we still rarely see teens choose abortion, even though they often do in real life. Yet MTV (much to my surprise) tackled the controversial topic with dignity and grace.
When I heard there was going to be a TV special on teens and abortion, I was thrilled. When I found out that special was created by MTV, my elation rapidly waned. I’ve blogged in the past about MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, two mesmerizing train wreck shows which may possibly be the best forms of birth control out there. So with excitement and trepidation I watched the 30-minute documentay No Easy Decision, which features Markai, one of the young women from the latest season of 16 and Pregnant. When Markai, who already has a daughter with her boyfriend James, finds herself pregnant for a second time, she contemplates and ultimately goes through with an abortion. The special also featured two young women, Katie and Natalia, who also had abortive procedures. Dr. Drew Pinsky hosted and interviewed the young women. While I loved Dr. Drew on Loveline with Adam Carolla, is it me or hasn’t he lost ALL credibility with his stint on Celebrity Rehab?
While 16 and Pregnant has covered aspects of teen parenthood and adoption, abortion had never been discussed as a viable option on the show. Writer Jessica Valenti (one of my feminist icons), author of The Purity Myth and Full Frontal Feminism and co-founder of the amazing website Feministing, was also surprised by this omission. She told ABCNews.com,
“It just struck me as odd that MTV was taking such care to present this issue [teen pregnancy] responsibly, that it seemed like a glaring gap not talking about abortion. Nearly a third of teen pregnancies end in abortion. They should be represented…I’m looking forward to seeing young, smart women talking about their abortions and how their lives are better because of it — like they were able to go to college…I think too often abortion is so stigmatized…It’s something we should be constantly talking about, because it’s constantly happening.”
MTV teamed up with Exhale, a non-profit that provides women with post-abortion counseling, to create the documentary. In a press release, MTV stated their reason for airing the special:
“It’s important we cover every aspect of this issue, including focusing on prevention by encouraging widespread use of contraception and making sure young people are aware of the consequences of unprotected sex.”
In addition to consequences, “No Easy Decision” conveys just how much misinformation needs to be dispelled. Markai believed she was protected as she receives the Depo-Provera birth control shot. But she missed a shot and fails to use a back-up method, believing the hormones are still in her system. When Markai discovers she’s pregnant with her second child, she and James weigh the options. Markai has graduated high school but is currently saving for college. Both fear being able to financially provide for two children as both come from impoverished backgrounds and already struggle to support their daughter. Luckily, Markai has a strong supportive network including her mom, sister and best friend. This was great to see as we’re often bombarded with negative stereotypes of African-American families. Even James, whom she has had a tumultuous and violent relationship with, provided comfort and support in this situation. Although I’m dismayed that they downplayed the domestic violence, a serious crisis in our society. While he shared his thoughts and fears, James told Markai that it was ultimately her decision (which it was of course but still nice to hear a guy say).
I was thrilled that MTV filmed Markai calling an abortion counselor, who explained the procedure (pill vs. medical light suction), as well as the physical and emotional side effects. After much deliberation, Markai decides to have an abortion. They don’t show the procedure due to patient confidentiality and to maintain privacy. Afterward, Markai struggles with feelings of remorse, particularly when James to refer to it as a baby and Markai says she needs to think of the fetus for what it is, a bunch of cells. Markai says,
“Maybe god had a plan for us.”
To which James replies,
“God gave us brains so we can make decisions.”
But Markai, while conflicted, comes to terms with her choice as she says,
“Nobody ever wants abortion…I wouldn’t choose abortion as the number one choice for everyone. But this is the best choice for me.”
The show then shifts to interviews with Dr. Drew and the three young women. Dr. Drew (almost) redeems himself when he proclaimed,
“Abortion is one of the safest and most common medical procedures in the US… Having an abortion is not uncommon but talking about publicly really is. 1 in 3 of all women in the U.S. will have an abortion in their lifetime.”
Katie, who was 20 when she had an abortion, thought she was “taking birth control effectively.” She was taking the pill but throwing up, essentially throwing up the hormones so she was not protected. Regarding her decision, Katie says,
“My decision to terminate my pregnancy was kind of a parenting decision in a sense. I acknowledged it as a baby and for me it’s a parenting choice. And that dialogue is not out there at all. People assume that if you have an abortion it’s because you’re denying the right, the fact that you’re a parent. But it’s not, it’s not at all.”
Parenting as the impetus for an abortion is an aspect most people, even those pro-choice, don’t discuss. Markai also made the decision to terminate her pregnancy due to wanting to provide a better life for her daughter. Many anti-choice supporters claim that women callously or selfishly terminate their pregnancies. But some women opt for abortion for the sake of their families. Often times abortion is the responsible choice.
Natalia, 17 at the time of her abortion, went to a judge to get a judicial bypass as she “lived in 1 of the 35 states that requires parental consent.” Just when we think we’ve achieved equality, we need to remember that not everyone in the U.S. has equal reproductive rights. Natalia said it was like “begging for permission to make your own decision.” She also talked about the cost of an abortive procedure $750, which she paid for with money from her ex-boyfriend and by selling back her prom ticket. It was great to hear that as we don’t often hear about the costs nor the sacrifices people make in order to afford abortions.
Natalia and Markai both said that they didn’t want to tell anyone (even though Markai did) because they didn’t want to disappoint their families. Markai also discussed how she couldn’t go through with an adoption because she would have already bonded with the baby. Katie and Natalia echoed those sentiments.
But my fave moment in the show came when Natalia, expounding off of Katie’s comments on what society does and doesn’t discuss, boldly declared,
“…And just the shame and there shouldn’t be. In retrospect, I’m not ashamed at all. I’m proud of what I did. And sometimes it’s the responsible choice. And I think sometimes people look at it that you’re shirking your responsibility; that you’re taking the easy way out. And girls need to know that they’re not alone and that a lot of people go through this. And it’s okay to talk about it.”
Yes, yes, a thousand times YES! Love this woman! When Dr. Drew asked what she hopes for, Markai said,
“I want women and girls to know they’re not alone…it’s the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
It’s so important for women to know they do not have to face this alone, that there are people they can talk with and people who care. Exhale launched the website 16 and Loved, a campaign to provide support to Markai, Katie and Natalia, who all shared their stories. Words of love and encouragement from complete strangers poured in on the website. Pro-choice feminists like Valenti, Steph Herold, Jamia Wilson, Lynn Harris and Shelby Knox also live-tweeted/blogged during the episode. It was fantastic to read their insights and see people support these young women’s decisions.
While I was worried about how MTV would handle the topic, the show never felt exploitative. It showcased real women tackling difficult choices. And while I could nitpick about how the show was hidden at a timeslot of 11:30pm, that it felt rushed or that I wish they had discussed the procedure in greater detail, I’m grateful MTV aired the episode at all.
Abortion is often considered a taboo topic yet we need to talk about it openly. Teens (and younger) need comprehensive sex education and access to condoms and birth control. Many people, particularly parents, don’t want to think about teens having sex. But burying our heads in the sand won’t improve the situation. Teens are going to have sex and we need to equip them with information so they can make responsible choices. And one of those choices is abortion.
Dr. Drew ended the show perfectly when he told the young women,
“You’re so courageous. Hopefully it’ll inspire each of us to be more compassionate and to really think about this and realize there are just no easy decisions.”
Like the young women said, women of all ages who’ve had abortions are not alone; many women have made that same choice. Hearing women’s stories and discussing it in a public forum, helps to de-stigmatize abortion. As I’ve written before, we will never know the private pain someone faces. We don’t know what it feels like to live another’s life and face their difficult choices. What right does anyone have in telling a woman what to do with her body? Women shouldn’t feel shame for the choices they’ve made. Markai, Katie and Natalia bravely shared their stories and let us into their worlds. They show sisterly solidarity as they wipe away their tears and hold each other’s hands. Maybe other young women facing an unplanned pregnancy or who’ve had an abortion will feel less alone after watching the show. Perhaps others will be touched by their words, becoming less quick to judge and more capable of empathy. I hope more shows discuss abortion and more women feel empowered to discuss their experiences. Perhaps then we can truly embrace a culture of choice.