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Category: Art and Entertainment, Girls, Reproductive Rights

“16 and Pregnant” Brings Abortion to Prime Time

| April 4, 2012

Last night's episode of MTV's reality series "16 and Pregnant" was the second time in the show's history that it shared the story of a decision in favor of abortion. While the episode was nominally centered on Orlando teen Briana, who chose to carry to term and to parent with the help of her own supportive and involved mom, Briana shared the spotlight with her sister Brittany. Brittany discovered she was pregnant only days after Briana did, and opted to abort.

As the episode opened, Briana was heavily pregnant and Brittany's abortion was some months behind her. Abortion was not at the center of last night's story—birth and parenting were. But the sharply diverging parallels of the two sisters' stories provided an unusually intimate view into the complexity of both women's choices. The idea that women regret abortion has been packaged by anti-abortion campaigners as a universal truth—certainly Briana seemed to believe it when she predicted that Brittany would "get real depressed" after meeting her new niece—but our culture is much less consistent in acknowledging that women may regret parenting, or that the complexity of decisions regarding unplanned pregnancy is so enormous that there is plenty of room within that broad emotional landscape for simultaneous regret and gratitude, pain and joy. That complexity was on display last night as each sister said, at some point during the episode, that she wished she had made the other's decision, and each said at some point that she didn't regret her own. (It's worth noting, too, that the family so thoroughly assumed that only Brittany was at risk for depression due to her abortion, that no one seemed to be looking out for Briana's mental health as she dealt with not only pregnancy and birth but also the difficult realization that she would be parenting without any help from the baby's self-involved father. A recent study suggested that carrying to term may indeed be the bigger mental health risk.)

It's a big deal that MTV is willing to address the tough topic of teen abortion, but it shouldn't be. Over a quarter of American teen pregnancies end in abortion and one in three American women will have an abortion; to the extent that a reality show like "16 and Pregnant" actually aspires to reflect reality, they could have produced quite a few more than two abortion episodes over four seasons. Yet this episode did represent a step toward mainstreaming abortion stories, in that it was unveiled with much less fanfare and much less caution than the "16 and Pregnant" special "No Easy Decision", in December 2010, that was the first time the show addressed abortion. The show aired as a one-off special, in an 11:30 PM time slot in the TV programming wasteland of the week between Christmas and New Year's, with no advertisers who might have suffered blowback as a result of their association with the show. In addition, MTV partnered with "pro-voice" after-abortion talkline Exhale to not only consult on the content "No Easy Decision," but also to mount a social media campaign called 16 and Loved to support the three women whose stories were being aired and to steer the dialogue around the show toward understanding and acceptance rather than politicization and judgment. These special measures were admirable and perhaps even necessary given the personal and professional risk that the special represented for its subjects and its creators, but they were also a plain reminder of just how stigmatized conversations about abortion are.

Writing for Salon after the original airing of "No Easy Decision," journalist Lynn Harris praised the degree to which the special exceeded the expectations of most if not all pro-abortion-rights observers, then asked, "But next time, how about prime time?" Last night, MTV stepped up: Briana and Brittany's episode aired at the show's regular time, with its regular advertisers, with a minimal amount of orchestrated social media buffer. Reality TV just got a little more real about abortion.