Earlier this month, NBC did something rare. In fact, it's happened on average only once every two and a half years years since 1972. The network (spoiler alert) included an abortion plotline in a recent episode of its Tuesday night drama Parenthood. When high school sweethearts Amy and Drew discover she is pregnant, Drew wants to keep the baby, but Amy insists on having an abortion. Without counsel from their parents, they navigate the complicated and clearly heartbreaking process. Hailed as "brave" and "refreshing" by abortion advocates, the plot struck right-to-life groups as yet one more attempt by Hollywood to push a pro-choice agenda.
And yet, on the surface, it would not necessarily appear that way. The episode captured the strain, isolation, and fear that accompany an unwanted pregnancy. It did not make the decision to abort look easy; and it did not suggest that abortion was the only alternative. At one point, as Drew and Amy wait at a Planned Parenthood clinic, a nervous young girl sitting near them gets up and walks out, ostensibly deciding to forgo abortion. This was no light treatment; it was layered, complex, and emotionally nuanced. And that is precisely why it was so disturbing.
How We Deal
How television chooses to portray abortion holds important clues to how broader society understands and deals with it. Broadcast networks face a lot of pressure to portray controversial subjects in a way that will not alienate their audience. They sit under the judgment of advertising dollars and viewer ratings. While scriptwriters may push a certain agenda, as right-to-life groups believe the recent episode of Parenthood did, they can only push so far—push farther and they'll lose their audience. Lose their audience and they'll lose their show.
For the most part, network television has avoided abortion. In the past 40 years 55 million babies have died in abortions, but only 16 television plots dealt with the subject. In more than half of those cases, the mother either ultimately chose to keep her baby or suffered a miscarriage before she could abort. And we know Hollywood doesn't avoid abortion because they're queasy about all controversial topics--single motherhood, teen sex, violence, and homosexuality have been plot staples for those same 40 years. You can joke openly about any of those topics—but not abortion.
Television reflects the conflicted attitude of the American public. Abortion may be problematic, perhaps even tragic, but we aren't willing to make a moral judgment. Of course, the lack of judgment is judgment; the unwillingness to decide, a decision. It may feel appropriate for television to portray abortion as nuanced and multi-layered, but we're not so much seeing the heightened sensitivity of the American conscience as the slow, subtle suppression of it. Even as we're disturbed by abortion, we're unmoved to do much of anything about it.
It would be easier to see how we suppress our conscience about abortion if television depicted women triumphantly celebrating their right to take life. But we see abortion in a cloud of moral chaos. It does not take place in ambiguity—in the absence of morality—but in ambivalence--in the conflict of dueling moralities. Because in order to suppress our conscience, we must first feel it. In order to push it aside, we must acknowledge that at some level it bothers us.
You can see how this process plays out on television. By not normalizing abortion or using it as a topic for humor, Hollywood tacitly acknowledges that we are still troubled by the practice. We cannot approach it except with delicacy and a certain amount of angst. We haven't yet reached the point where a woman killing her unborn child is funny or typical. And yet, given our current moral hierarchy, we are also unwilling to deny a woman the right to do what makes us uncomfortable.
Even more tragically, abortion advocates leverage this angst to inoculate the practice from judgment. Setting up the choice to abort as difficult and morally layered, as the Parenthood episode did, positions the woman—not the child—as the primary victim. Because she is caught in a swirl of doubt, confusion, and fear, we sympathize with her and cannot judge her decision. Nor can we call abortion murder, because in our common understanding murder requires malice and evil intent. If a woman doesn't want to make this choice; if she wrestles with it; if she makes it under duress, she simply can't be doing what pro-life advocates say she's doing to her own child.
A troubled conscience is not enough. Simply struggling with an issue and acknowledging the moral complexity does not equal repentance or progress. As Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 7:10, "worldly sorrow" by itself ultimately leads to death. Apart from repentance and grace, we can only resolve our conflicted consciences by suppressing them. Apart from Christ, we can only survive our moral confusion by shutting it down. And so bit by bit, episode by episode, we slowly suffocate our conscience in a blanket of relativism and doubt.
When a woman unexpectedly learns she's pregnant, her world fills with complexities. And in these complexities we find opportunities to the extend the love and grace of Christ in practical ways. But we must not confuse the complexities of an unexpected pregnancy with the shockingly simple cry of conscience against killing unborn children. Instead, we need hearts that respond quickly and decisively when the Holy Spirit convicts. We need hearts that sorrow over sin and do not shroud it in layers of moral ambivalence. And ultimately we need hearts that proceed with appropriate fear, earnest passion, and zealous desire to protect "the least of these" even when others will not.