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How groundbreaking was MTV's abortion special?

December 29, 2010 |  4:52 pm

Abortion is a tough thing to talk about on camera. So tough, in fact, that Judd Apatow's favorite euphemism, "smashmortion," as he put it in "Knocked Up" ("I won't say it, but it rhymes with smashmortion"), now has its own Urban Dictionary entry. On Tuesday, MTV decided to address the issue head-on by airing the 30-minute reality special “No Easy Decision.” (It remains available to watch online.)

But for some, one half-hour special after many years of MTV teen-mom programming just isn’t enough. Recently, some critics and fans  have denounced MTV's pregnant high-schooler series "16 and Pregnant" and its follow-up series, "Teen Mom," for refusing to present abortion as a viable option. "While 27% of all pregnant teens choose abortion, 100% of pregnant teens give birth in MTV’s version of 'reality,' " wrote Jennifer L. Pozner, author of "Reality Bites Back," on her blog.

“These so-called ‘reality shows’ reinforce Bush-era abstinence-only educations programs,” Pozner said during a recent phone conversation. “The message is that if you have sex, you’ll be punished by getting pregnant, and you will either keep that baby or give it up for adoption.”

MTV finally presented another option with "No Easy Decision," which follows "16 and Pregnant" star Markai and her partner, James, as they weigh their options for her unplanned second pregnancy, the result of a missed Depo-Provera birth control shot.

Already the mother of an infant girl, Markai is torn between her desire to have another baby and the knowledge that she doesn't have enough money to support a second child. Markai ultimately decides to have an abortion because, she says, "I don't want [my daughter] to struggle because of my mistake." After undergoing the procedure, she says she feels sadness but not regret about her decision. By the end of the show, that sentiment is echoed by two other women who share their own abortion experiences with the special’s host, Dr. Drew Pinsky.

Knowing that the show would be controversial, Pinsky addresses backlash from the very beginning. "About 750,000 girls in the U.S. get pregnant every year, and although nearly a third of these teen pregnancies result in abortion, we've never shown this choice on '16 and Pregnant' up until now," he admits. "It can be a polarizing topic, and there's quite frankly no way to talk about this and please everyone. Although controversial to some, abortion is one of the three viable options, and it's among the safest, most common medical procedures in the U.S., so we thought it was important for us to discuss."

Some who are against abortion rights protested the show before it even aired. Conservative blogger Jill Stanek argued that, even though MTV insisted that it would cover the issue from all sides, no anti-abortion voices were included, and a few anti-abortion advocates swore off MTV entirely.

But Pinsky earned raves from abortion rights advocates, as did MTV's decision to partner with Exhale, a "pro-voice" counseling service for women who've had abortions. Salon's Lynn Harris observed that Pinsky was "racking up stunned 'FTW!'s (For The Win!) on Twitter right out of the gate" and praised the show for "giving medically accurate information about abortion procedures" and giving airtime to "the compassionate voice of a clinic counselor (as opposed to, for instance, the cold depiction in "Juno").

The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman applauded MTV for focusing on a mother, since 61% of women who have abortions already have a child. “That is a fact which is all too easily obscured by anti-abortion protestors,” she wrote, “the majority of American women getting abortions aren’t irresponsible baby-killers, they’re already moms.”

But others wondered whether MTV was doing enough to open up debate. Pozner notes that while MTV has aggressively promoted "Teen Mom," even ushering its stars onto the covers of gossip magazines, she didn’t see a single promotion spot for “No Easy Decision.” Many bloggers have complained that  MTV buried the show in an impossible timeslot: 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

For Chloe Melas of Hollywood Life, even those who saw the program faced editing that "completely glossed over" the abortion itself. “One second Markai is fixing James’ dreads and discussing their options,” she wrote, “and the next, she’s passed out on the bed saying she underwent her procedure.”

Pozner remains ambivalent about the special, noting that the fact that everyone’s so grateful for one half-hour program about abortion just shows how far we’ve backslid since the 1970s. Remembering ‘Maude,” the first TV show to address abortion back in 1972, she said, “Why is it that we can’t be as honest now as we were 40 years ago?"

The series "Friday Night Lights" featured a story about a teen abortion earlier this year, but the issue's general invisibility onscreen is something Pozner feels needs to change. "Abortion is a common procedure. It should be a part of our narrative landscape in the way that marriage and sports are."

— Melissa Maerz

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