The Last Taboo
— By Jennifer Lenhart
In six decades of daytime television, a genre known — and often lauded — for tackling controversial social issues first, there have been exactly six abortions (one illegal, five legal). To put that into perspective, there were more characters who came back from the dead in this year alone. So, why is abortion still a taboo? Think about your first reaction upon reading the word — immediate, visceral and decisive, right? You have your answer.
"Soaps have really provided a social history of this country, but abortion is so polarizing and such a political issue — and soaps traditionally don't get into political issues," says Julie Poll, former AS THE WORLD TURNS scriptwriter.
And unlike most social taboos, which have loosened over the years, abortion has only become more incendiary. "ANOTHER WORLD did a quite an amazing, for that time, abortion story with Pat Matthews," says Poll. "It was 1964; abortion was still illegal; it was a core character. They gave [Co-Creator/Head Writer] Irna Phillips carte blanche, more or less, to do the story she wanted to do. Maybe there wasn't the political taboo on it at that time because that certainly wasn't the experience in the '90s." Poll would run into much more opposition as part of the team that wrote Ellie's abortion on ATWT almost 30 years later. "It was a very, very big deal. There was a lot of talk about how they were going to do this, meetings with the network, etcetera, and at that point something still had to be wrong with the child to justify having this story on air," she recalls.
ALL MY CHILDREN Head Writer Megan McTavish was responsible for Julia's abortion in 1995 and faced the same problems, even though that show had done daytime's first legal abortion with Erica in 1973. "I think it was more controversial in 1995, when we did Julia's than when Agnes [Nixon, AMC's creator] did Erica's," she says. "By the time we approached Julia's, the political and religious ramifications of the act had [become so divisive]. I think [ABC] handled it very smartly — in other words, they didn't try to slip it on anybody. We warned everybody first. We told the advertisers that this would be the content and we left it up to them whether or not they chose to advertise." And while some sponsors chose to drop out, "In those days, we certainly had no lack of people who were willing to advertise."
Of course, AMC actually went through with it. "It was more typical that if you talked about it, none of the characters wanted to deal with it because the show didn't want to deal with it," recalls Poll. The subject would then be dropped or the pregnancy would "conveniently" end with miscarriage to sidestep any controversy. It is, to put it bluntly, somewhat of a cop-out. "A miscarriage is a miscarriage, and there are times when you don't want this character to have a baby and for whatever reason you write a miscarriage, which is its own sad event and afflicts many women," says McTavish. "But I wouldn't go toward an abortion if I were planning a miscarriage."
And if the story is told, there are often restrictions, from circumstances of conception to how the act is addressed. "You really couldn't talk about killing a child. That could never be part of it," says Poll, who adds that even the ‘a' word was often off-limits: "Leading up to it, mostly ‘terminate the pregnancy' was used."
No one likes to talk about it. Even NBC, the network that is currently addressing abortion — on both of its soaps, which, not surprisingly, share a head writer in James E. Reilly — wouldn't comment for this story. Ken Corday, executive producer of DAYS OF OUR LIVES which, unlike PASSIONS, actually had a character go through with an abortion, would only say, "The story speaks for itself."
Oh, yes, story. Try to put aside for a moment how you fall in the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate and look at the issue from a dramatic angle. Fox believes that it's crucial to "depoliticize" the topic as much as possible. "The choice should be at issue, not abortion," he says. "There are emotional fallouts that women have from abortion. It is not a strange, alien issue. We know it's fairly common, maybe too common."
But is showing a choice tantamount to choosing a side, politically? Not necessarily. "I haven't heard a happy abortion story yet," says Foster. "From our perspective, being pro-woman and pro-life, I don't see this as being a bad thing. I think it's important to examine what leads up to an abortion and the realities that women face afterward. All these stories about abortion really do help us understand that we have not met the needs of women in this world. So, I think that is an important discussion. I would just be irritated if they were making it really rosy."
Adds Fox, "If you treat it so that the person watching who thinks abortion is, for religious or other reasons, terrible — if their side gets a fair hearing, you might disarm that kind of objection." That's what McTavish tried to do with Julia's abortion. "We made sure that core characters understood Julia's choice and core characters were against Julia's choice," she says. "We actually got letters from both sides of the political and religious side of the question thanking us for presenting a pretty well-balanced view."
Foster disagrees; this is one story that she believes should have had more lasting repercussions. "I remember being really irritated," she says. "We understand why well-meaning people think they can protect a woman from the experience of rape by encouraging abortion, but she never forgets that. You wish that they were more familiar with long-term, post-abortion medical and psychological consequences. I think that's really telling that they're showing a different vantage point of this [with AMC's Bianca]."
Bianca, of course, kept her baby because of her love for sister Kendall, who was also the result of a rape. "I did get a few unfavorable letters from women who were a little upset because they didn't see how Bianca could have made the choice to keep it," reveals McTavish. "Clearly, their choice had been to terminate."
Meanwhile, on PASSIONS, Whitney recently chose to keep a child who was conceived through inadvertent incest, while her DAYS counterpart, Mimi, terminated a pregnancy based on her fears about her boyfriend. Both decisions were obviously designed to create conflict in their relationships. "Even though abortion is kind of the focus, the story is more about Mimi's lie to Rex and keeping the secret from him and her mistrusting him to even have gone through with it," says Farah Fath, who blames her character's mother, Bonnie, for this "big mistake."
Poll, on the other hand, saw Bonnie's talk as a positive. "They showed the other side of the argument, when she talked to her about a woman's right to choose," says the scribe. "In a way, on DAYS, they are using it as a plot device to cause tension in the relationship. I agree that that's the way it should be used on daytime because that's daytime." But can you really get away from the political ramifications?
Maybe not, but shows can certainly try. That means sticking with what they do best. "We're never going to convert anyone to any other side, and that's not the issue," says McTavish. "The issue is to say, ‘This is the character and this is her situation.' " "You don't want to put it there just to make an exclamation point," warns Fox. "You want to integrate it. Whatever the issue, it's always about good storytelling."
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