Last Thursday, the long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy aired its last episode that featured Dr. Cristina Yang, a surgeon who had been on the show from the very first episode. Played by Sandra Oh, Dr. Yang was arrogant, ambitious, caring, and brilliant—and a staunch supporter of reproductive rights who chose to have an abortion. And in this, Dr. Yang joins a very, very small list of lead female characters on a television show to not just talk about having an abortion, but also to realistically depict some of the reasons a woman might make that choice and what its wider effects can be.
The very first abortion depicted on television occurred in 1964, on the soap opera Another World; but perhaps the most famous abortion storyline played out on the sitcom Maude. In an iconic two-part episode that aired on CBS in 1972, the title character decides—after much consideration, including conversations with her husband and adult daughter—to terminate her unexpected pregnancy (the show was set in New York, which legalized abortion in 1970). Two affiliates initially refused to air the episodes; others were pressured not to rerun them the following summer; and sponsors pulled ads from the reruns following pressure from anti-choice groups. If this pressure was meant to dissuade viewers from watching the episodes, that attempt backfired spectacularly—65 million people watched the episodes when they ran for a second time.
Bea Arthur as Maude, center
Unplanned pregnancy has been a plot staple pretty much as long as television has existed. Generally, these storylines are resolved in one of three ways: the woman continues the pregnancy; decides to have an abortion but miscarries instead; or decides to continue the pregnancy after she considers having an abortion, then carries to term and has the child. Shows as disparate as Beverly Hills, 90210, Desperate Housewives, Felicity, Roseanne, Dawson’s Creek, The O.C., E.R., Melrose Place, Mad Men, Army Wives, and Sex in the City all presented their own takes on this third storyline. In every case, valid concerns were raised about having a child: economic worries, the lack of a supportive partner or family, the woman’s educational or career goals, her age, and her own mixed feelings about either becoming a mother for the first time or adding to the family that she already had. Yet in every case the woman decides to continue her pregnancy.
There is nothing wrong with depicting unplanned parenthood as a valid choice. Indeed, many of the shows mentioned above could have benefited from even a cursory exploration into the woman’s reasons for choosing to continue her pregnancy. But by consistently making abortion the option that dare not speak its name, no matter how rational a choice it might be, its validity and acceptability is diminished. The choice becomes so foreign that it cannot even be addressed, at least not by characters that have to remain sympathetic and relatable to viewers. The popular media’s lack of diversity when it comes to pregnancy options is a reflection of, and more fodder for, the stigma surrounding abortion. And it stands in stark contrast to real life, where 51% of all pregnancies in the United States (about 3.4 million) are unintended and 40% of those pregnancies end in abortion. If these plotlines were more realistic and featured discussions of the circumstances, feelings, and beliefs that a woman actually experiences when making such decisions, media could help destigmatize this common choice.
All of which makes Cristina Yang’s decision more remarkable. She actually experienced two unplanned pregnancies, and decided to have an abortion both times. But show creator (and Planned Parenthood, Los Angeles board member) Shonda Rhimes explained why the first pregnancy, which occurred in 2005, was resolved by being ectopic: “[T]he network freaked out a little bit … No one told me I couldn’t do it, but they could not point to an instance in which anyone had. And I sort of panicked a little bit in that moment and thought maybe this isn’t the right time for the character, we barely know her… I didn’t want it to become like what the show was about. … And it bugged me. It bugged me for years.”
When Cristina became pregnant a second time in 2011, she was happily married but resolute in her decision to not have children. The conversations with her husband about what to do, as well as how his desire to have children contributed to their divorce, fulfilled what Rhimes said in an interview at the time that the show was hoping to achieve: “I think for me the point is, it’s a painful choice that a lot of women have made in their lives and we just wanted to portray it honestly and with a really good conversation . . . [a]nd see what happens after.” (Rhimes has also noted that there was no network interference regarding the 2011 plotline.)
Depicting controversial topics on television shows is often challenging; there’s the risk of trivializing a subject, relying on lazy stereotypes, or falling into the dreaded “very special episode” trap. Achieving the balance of simply telling a story, neither lecturing nor trivializing, is tricky. Grey’s Anatomy is far from a perfect show, but when it came to Cristina Yang and reproductive rights, it achieved a perfect balance.
Sarah Erdreich is the author of Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.