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How groundbreaking was MTV's abortion special?

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

Comments () | Archives (23)

Just to clarify, I wasn't ambivalent about the special itself: as I said, I think "No Easy Decision" was surprisingly honest and nuanced, and handled the issue in a far more responsible and respectful way than we ever would have expected from MTV, or from any reality show. What I'm ambivalent about is how scared MTV was of its (actually smart and daring) own special that it pretty much ensured that few viewers would even have known to watch it. I'm ambivalent that it was a one-time thing, instead of a series in the same manner as "Teen Mom" and "16 & Pregnant."

Thanks for this piece, Melissa. It's true: Lynn Harris, Jessica Wakeman, Jessica Valenti and I were just a few of the writers on the media beat who were stunned that instead of the train wreck we were expecting, MTV delivered something informative, factual and emotionally resonant. I just hope this is the first step in an ongoing conversation, not the beginning and the end of MTV's willingness to "go there."

Having had an abortion 30 years ago, I know what it is like to deal with the guilt, depression, the inability to have other children, but there IS hope and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

Having had an abortion 15 years ago, I know that there is no guilt, depression, or inability to have other children. It's the best, most loving thing I could have done. Now I have 3 children in a loving home, instead of 1 in a broken one.

I can't believe that it took MTV 19 years to acknowledge the prevalence of abortion in young women's lives. It took them only about 11 seconds to blast exploitative and overly-sexualized images of women, but airing a smart, gentle discussion about the effects of an unwanted pregnancy is somehow off limits. Shame on them.

I had an abortion 26 years ago and haven't suffered one iota of guilt or regret since. It's a medical procedure. Nothing more, nothing less.

I hope this show will be aired at a more reasonable time and will be followed by others. It is time to get the facts straight and be honest about our options. There is no place for the inaccurate information and lies told by anti-abortion advocates. We need to be caring and compassionate in realizing what a difficult decision this is for any woman.

The thought that anyone could be "doing the best thing for the child" is absolutely absurd! Two people make a mistake and the innocent childpays the price. There are so many people in the world who would give anything to have a child, even one that isn't biological and the best society can come up with is, "I can't do this so I will just kill my baby!" Shame on us! Having been there myself there is nothing I regret more in this life and if you think you have no regrets then you are denying what you heart truly feels. Society has hardened us to so many things. What's next? Will it eventually be "no big deal" and "just part of life" when we blow someone away who is an annoyance? Murder is murder no matter when and how it happens. I guess it doesn't matter if you don't know the person or have rights over them? What about their rights?

So Pozner wants us to talk about and celebrate abortion as much as we do marriage and football? That really shows how screwed up her thinking really is.

Abortion stops a beating heart... in my book that is murder. How can having an abortion be the most loving thing you could do? I pray for your soul.

I watched this special and just got disgusted. how about you protect yourself so you don't continue to have bastard after bastard!! I don't feel sorry for you. How retarded are you to continue to screw up with the same thing over and over and over and over again???!! These people are definitely genetically and mentally deficient. Just stupid.

the reason why it was hurting to look at the ultrasounds because they knew they were killing their baby. why should you punish the baby

A child at risk of abortion is at risk of an intentionally lethal act of physical violence. Violence against children is never necessary. All violence against children is preventable.
Before as well as after birth, children should never receive less protection than adults.
Communities must support their families' capacity to provide them with ongoing care in a safe environment. Their mothers' personal and social needs can be solved by non-violent means.
It is appalling that any child should be aborted because the child's mother fears financial difficulty.

I'm one of those women who had birth control "defeated" by her fertility (failures of coil and diaphragm/spermacidal jelly) and chose to have abortions at the time. One time I was married, we were both in graduate school, and did not have the funds. A second time I chose an abortion was when I was divorced. It IS important to show that these decisions are possible, can be thoughtfully made, and poignantly acknowledged. I have not been depressed as a result, have had subsequent children, and strongly value the right to choose.

This episode was heartbraking, especially the those who believe abortion is a nice way of saying killing a growing person. I was absolutely appalled when one of the women exclaimed she was proud of 'terminating the pregnancy.' Did you notice how the show always tried to make the abortion or termination sound positive? They did not once mention killing LIFE. period. That thing with fingernails growing inside of you is life. It may not look like your 8 month old baby, but only because you have cut its life short. I still believe if you are strong enough to kill, oh I'm sorry, terminate the baby, i mean 'pregnancy,' then you are strong enough to give it away. And whoever proclaims that they are not regretful at all are straight out lying, or they are absolutely heartless. Pay the price.

Matt: I never said that media should "celebrate" abortion, just that since it is a regular part of our life -- and a reality for nearly one third of women in America, 61% of whom are already mothers -- abortion should be *discussed*. That is shouldn't be subject to virtual invisibility in the entertainment media landscape. Journalism doesn't allow for full quotes to be included in short articles, but what I said was that honest stories about abortion have been pretty much missing from the entertainment landscape, and that what we should be seeing instead is a climate in which it is discussed in narratives, just as marriage, sports, sex, love, and other parts of our lives are discussed.

To say that MTV "celebrated" abortion completely misrepresents the episode. The young woman whose story was featured most prominently talked about how it was and remains a difficult choice, once that she feels sad about, that she didn't come to easily, that she wishes could have been different. And one which she knows is ultimately the most responsible thing she could do for her family, the right choice -- despite how hard it was for her. That wasn't a celebration, or a glorification of abortion. That was just an honest look at a difficult reality.

Abortion is almost always wrong. I have to laugh at the woman who wrote that having an abortion was the most loving thing she could have done since it resulted in a happy home for her 3 later children rather than a broken one from her unplanned one. Gee, lady, how about having your child and giving it to a couple that would have raised it in a happy home? Call me crazy but to me that sounds a little more loving than having a doctor rip your unborn child out of your womb. But by all means, keep dreaming and conning yourself into believing your self-centeredness is in everyone's best interests.

This makes me so sick i cant believe they showed it. I am 100 percent against abortion it should not be legal I think if u can murder something with no voice then ur a sick person. Yes its hard to take care of a child but thats the risk u take when u lay down and not use anything to stop it. God put us all here for a purpose and because a baby cant stand up and say it wants a life doesent mean u should choose to kill it. When I was 16 I got pregnant it was hard but there are many places out there to help u, and I also got pregnant again at 18 abortion was an option and i was scared and alone at the time but it took one voice to tell me No way in hell thats murder and im happy im having another grand baby! I cant believe the thought ever crossed my mind I was young and Thank the lord i dident do it. Its not fair to let a young girl believe thats a option then in the future they feel guilty depressed and resentment for the desision they made. You dont know how life turns out and if u take the easy way out u will never know how God works. abortion makes me sick i hope i never see anything like this again on my tv it gave me nightmares. Dont be selfish give the child to someone who cant have one!

Gee, Chad, since I am assuming you are a male, why don't you not criticize a woman's choice that you have no chance of ever having to make. If people are so desperate to have a child, why don't they go adopt one of the millions of children who are wards of the state? I don't understand how so many people are "desperate" to have a child and yet there are still plenty of children who have no family or any idea what a loving home is. If you don't agree with abortion, that's fine, don't have one. I am so disgusted by everyone trying to push their "pro-life" agenda on to everyone else. You believe a 6 week old fetus is a child, and I believe a six week old fetus is a group of cells. You have your opinions, and I have mine. I am not advocating anyone to have an abortion, and pro-lifers shouldn't be trying to force anyone to have a baby that for whatever reason, they can't or shouldn't have.

Jennifer P: I should've have considered that editing could have played into a misconception. I was thinking of the two events that they quoted you on: marriage and football. Both are things that are celebrated. Therefore, I equated the quote as implying celebration.
While I disagree completely with your position on abortion and while I hope society as a whole never accepts abortion as a viable medical option I am impressed with and respect your responding to comments here.

I challenge each and every pro-lifer to carry a child for 9 months. Then, go through the agony of labor. When the child is handed to you, look into it's beautiful face, kiss its little forehead, count it's fingers and toes. Look into your partner's tear-filled eyes, and know that you love them more at that moment than at any other in your life. Then, breathe in that perfect smell of your child, and hand it over to someone else to raise.

If not, choose abortion.

I had one. I regret not the procedure, but the fact that I was unable to be strong enough to do the above, and too selfish, and without means to try to raise it. I was in a loving relationship with a man who is now my husband, and was in my junior year of college. I had taken my birth control correctly, just started the pack a week late because I didn't have the $40 to pay for it. I waited the week the pack instructed before having intercourse. I was responsible and preventing. I realized I was pregnant right after Christmas.

I am a scientist first and foremost. I approached it completely clinically. I didn't see it a baby, and the faster I could get it done, the better. My boyfriend agreed. I still see the day that I had it done as the worst day of my life. The ultrasound, the ineffective anesthesia, the pain. It was awful. Afterwards, though, I was sure that I did the right thing.

Even though I still believe that the decision was the right one at the time, the emotional repercussions are devastating, and there is not a January that goes by that I don't think of that day. Every September, I think about how old it would be. But, I don't regret it. And I don't talk about it.

You can judge my decision. And you can believe that you would choose life. But I guarantee that there are SO MANY of the pro-life women that have secretly taken advantage of the Choice that they speak against.

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