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Abortion on NBC’s Parenthood

As the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade approaches later this month, we can certainly expect attention to abortion and attitudes towards it to increase.  Here is an interesting analysis calling us to move beyond the not-nearly-complex-enough pro-life/pro-choice labels.  Its shocking and confusing statistic:  43% of respondents identified themselves both as pro-life and pro-choice.  Here’s a great piece by Kim Daniels on being “Pro-woman, pro-child, pro-life,” which documents a lot of the networks of resources that have been developed for women and families in crisis pregnancy situations.

But primetime network television was, for me, an unexpected place to find increased attention to abortion.  NBC’s hit drama Parenthood included a powerful abortion storyline.  In general, the show follows the lives of a set of four adult siblings (Adam, Sarah, Julia, and Crosby) and, of course, the family and relationships all around them.  In the midst of multiple storylines, this week’s episode featured Sarah’s teenage son Drew and his girlfriend Amy dealing with an unexpected pregnancy.

Now, let me admit that I am both pro-life and a fan of the show.  Although I don’t think this was a particularly “pro-life” approach, I think it displayed certain aspects of the tragedy of abortion and of the crisis of a pregnancy one is not ready for incredibly well.  Please note that this story, really, was Drew’s story from the beginning, not Amy’s, and not Drew-and-Amy’s.  I suspect that was largely driven by the larger storyline (Drew is part of the family we are following here; Amy is his girlfriend and so is a more minor character).  But it also meant that in a whole world of untold stories about abortion, this was among the least told stories: the story of the boyfriend.

Let me take you through a couple of scenes rapidly:  her “Drew, I’m pregnant” is met by his stunned silence.  Then he begins to ask whether she is sure.  He reassures her that it will be okay, reaching out for her, but she pulls away, saying “It’s not going to be okay.”  She is distancing herself from him from the beginning, and is clear that they are not going to tell anyone.  When he asks about telling her parents (and we get a quick but clear picture of her very caring father), she says, “I don’t know.  They just like, see me in this certain way.”

So, Amy’s concern for privacy, her concern to protect her parents’ image of her, means that if Drew is going to respect her, he cannot turn to his family, the family we have come to know and love over the past several seasons.  Drew actually lives with his mom and her parents in the wake of his parents’ divorce.  And, by the way, two of the other storylines in this same episode involve questioning the limits of this kind of hospitality.  Crosby and his wife struggle with having her mother living with them; Julia and her husband struggle with whether to go through with the adoption of a son (adoption pending, but having been living with them for some time) who is basically rejecting Julia as mother.  This is a family who (even when they get annoyed with one another) makes the room and rallies the resources to help one another.  You acknowledge mistakes, give and receive forgiveness, and everyone helps everyone move forward.  This, for me, was the great tragedy displayed here.  Although we suspect it is the case with Amy’s family, we know that the Braverman clan would rally to support them if this young couple decided to have this baby.  In fact, it is exactly this sort of history that make Drew quite believable as a young man whose instincts are to find a way to welcome a child.

After the pregnancy is confirmed (at Planned Parenthood, which came off looking pretty good in this, including listing off options and services to help them keep the baby or give it up for adoption), Amy says to Drew, “Well, there’s only one option, right? And the doctor said I could get an appointment as early as tomorrow.”  Drew responds: “That’s not the only option.  We could start a life.  I could go to college.  I could get a job.  There’s plenty of people that would be willing to help us.  And I love you and that’s all that matters.  Look, obviously, I’m going to support you no matter what….”

Drew has learned the lesson from his family that people’s lives are messy, but that family gets you through the mistakes and helps you put them right.  The one person that he turns to is his sister Amber.  And clearly, the only reason he tells her is because he needs help coming up with the money for the abortion.  When she asks him how he is doing with everything, he says to her through quite a bit of emotion:  “I just … don’t want to go through with it.  I don’t … want to … give it up.  But I’m trying to respect how she feels.”

The show makes no religious or moral judgment about abortion.  This is as “pro-life” as it gets: Drew’s expression of his own desire not to “give it up.” But young Drew is put into a position where he feels obligated to brush off the concern of his mom and a teacher (who happens to be his mom’s ex).  His teacher’s “You can talk to me about anything” is dismissed with “Okay, thanks,” as he walks away.   His mom, knowing the teacher is concerned, comes in and asks all the right questions, but he convinces her that he and Amy are just stressed out about college applications.  I found myself hoping so hard that he would talk to her.  I don’t know that it would have changed the outcome, or Amy’s decision, but Drew would not have been bearing the burden in such isolation.

In the end, Amy tells Drew that she needs some space—a lot of space.  In our final glimpse of her, she is preparing to go into her house, where her dad is waiting, not knowing anything about this.  “Do I look okay?” she asks Drew.  “Do I look … normal?”  She clearly intends for no one else to learn about this, ever.  And she pushes away Drew, the one person in her life who knows.  The final scene of the whole episode, however, shows Drew’s mom responding to a knock on the door.  Drew is there, his face marked with tears, and he falls sobbing into his mother’s arms, finally breaking down and relying on that connection.  Better late than never, of course, but parental support in dealing with the situation would have been even more helpful than parental support in dealing with its aftermath.

This story displayed the radical isolation that these young people entered into in facing this crisis.  For what seem to be reasonable reasons, our legal system protects the privacy of women facing such a choice.  (The show in no way engaged the question of Amy minority or questions around parental consent.)  But the other edge of that privacy is isolation.  Again, legally, the choice is the woman’s.  But without mentioning legality at all, Parenthood displayed the difficult situation Drew was in.  He didn’t want to give up the child; he wanted to be supportive of Amy.  But also, he was powerless, even to delay her decision by a week.

As noted, there was no mention of religion in this storyline at all, and the Bravermans are clearly not a religious clan, but I found myself wondering how the Church might better support families with teenagers and young adults in cultivating the ground for openness to these conversations.  Certainly for Amy, her shame in admitting that she was sexually active was surely part of what made her refuse to tell her parents about the pregnancy.  It is not an easy thing to convey to one’s kids both the Church’s teachings on premarital sex and a sense that, if they violate that and become a parent, you really want them to tell you because you will find ways to help them welcome that child.  It is a mixed and complicated message, but it seems to me to be an important one.

Although I think the pro-life movement should continue to fight legislative and policy battles, it is also crucial that we continue to work to build a culture where, even if abortion continues as a legal option, no young woman says to herself, “There’s only one option.”

(If you or someone you know needs some help grieving or otherwise dealing with the aftermath of an abortion, please check out the resources here.)

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6 Comments

  1. The Pro-Life apostolate in my diocese does a presentation on human sexuality and Theology of the Body with each confirmation class and parents. Perhaps something like that could be expanded into multiple sessions bringing children and parents together, and including dialogue about abortion so that the conversation is started BEFORE a crisis, so that, should a pregnancy occur, the kids don’t feel like they can’t talk to their parents. They can know how their parents really feel, and know that their love is not conditional.

  2. Chesire11, thanks for the comment. Yes, that sounds like a great idea. I’m trying to think through some of the ways that the Church can support families in those conversations. I suspect that the ideal of the Church’s teaching on sexuality morality can make it difficult sometimes for parents (who may not have lived or be living that perfectly) to talk with their children well and honestly about that ideal and about such failures. I think that the cultural emphasis on privacy in such matters magnifies the communication problem. Also, I love that your diocese is connecting pro-Life and sexuality. I think it’s crucial that our young people (especially as immersed as they are in the secular culture of hook-ups and contraception) understand that life is always a potential result of sexual intercourse, and that their families and their Church families are there both to forgive their failings and also to support them in welcoming a child should one result. And, as you say, the seeds for this have to be planted before a crisis.

  3. Good analysis, Dana. I blog frequently about TV, but am not a regular viewer of “Parenthood.” I read about this plotline in the newspaper yesterday. From the article, it sounded like the storyline was simplistically on the pro-abortion side, but your piece reveals there was more nuance involved – even if it does ultimately come down on the pro-choice side.

    I don’t know if you saw (or even heard of) the PBS series “Call the Midwife” which takes place in 1950s England. But its “Holiday special” had a teen pregnancy storyline that was very moving and devoid of abortion politics. If you’re interested, you can watch it online at http://video.pbs.org/video/2319188358

    Again, great job on this post.

  4. Hi, Tony. Thanks for your comment, and for the link. I’ll try to check that out soon. I saw a couple of other pieces on this episode, too, that seemed to think this piece was pro-abortion propaganda. I think that it’s not very realistic to expect a show like this to operate otherwise than in the basic world of choice. That they gave voice to the desire to choose life and showed the tragedy and pain both of a couple not on the same page and of the failure to choose life was a good thing, and powerfully done.

  5. Dana, I saw this post back on the 11th of January, but didn’t read it because Erin and I hadn’t yet watched the episode. I sort of dreaded watching it, as I assumed NBC must have botched it. I was pleasantly surprised by the episode, and figured I needed to hear what you had to say. Love what you do in the post here, especially with how “hospitality” is a sort of key to the series in general, and this episode in particular. One of the things you don’t mention (how could you mention everything?!) is the way they’ve portrayed Sarah Braverman in the midst of all of this. Her infidelity/breaking off of her engagement to Mark is the backdrop to her cluelessness about what’s really happening in Drew’s life, and when her ex-fiance sucks it up to got to her and share his concern about Drew, Sarah thinks he was just doing it because he wanted to see her. At the end of the episode, when Drew is devastated and comes to see her, Sarah sort of smiles at the knock at the door, as if she’s hoping Mark might be there. Her son has fathered a child, and she seems to be busy thinking about two other men.

  6. Charlie, thanks for the comment. Yes, I was thinking a lot about Sarah specifically, both in terms of what you mention here, and in terms of her longer story and its impact on Drew. I was thinking both of Drew’s father’s absenteeism and incompetence as a father, and its impact on Drew, both in terms of his longing for his own father (he was much more open than Amber was when he showed up a couple seasons ago) and his desire not to abandon his own child in this. But I also suspect that the lack of “picture perfect family” in his own background (he and his mom are living with her parents, after all) is also part of what sets him up to believe that his family would shrug off the “mistake” leading to the pregnancy and rally to welcome the child. And it is what leads him to knock on his mom’s door in tears, regardless of her recent distractions. Is it possible that the same set of imperfections and insecurities that lead her to be more focused on herself than on her son are also the imperfections which allow him to share his own brokenness with her? (I ask this largely in contrast to Amy, who seems to have the picture-perfect family and so insists on continuing to appear normal (ie perfect) to them.)

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