The Corner

Cristina Yang’s Abortion & the ABCs of Primetime Cultural Engagement

Grey’s Anatomy did something that doesn’t frequently happen on network TV last week: a main character (Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh) had an abortion.

The character’s husband (Owen Hunt, played by Kevin McKidd) fought her but ultimately gave in after being confronted by a colleague (and his wife’s maid of honor, Meredith Grey, played by Ellen Pompeo), who unloaded on him about her own childhood feeling unwanted by her doctor mom.

Here is the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes, on New York magazine’s website, talking about the story line:

Cristina has had an ectopic pregnancy way back in the beginning of Grey’s. Meredith has had a miscarriage. Have you ever not had an abortion on the show for reasons that weren’t organic to the characters? 

You know, in the first season of Grey’s when Cristina Yang got pregnant, my intention — having never worked in television before — was that she was gonna have an abortion. Like, that was my intention: Cristina finds out she’s pregnant, she’s gonna have an abortion. We had it all laid out. I knew what was gonna happen and I had some very strong conversations with Broadcast Standard and Practices back then about the topic. And nobody told me I couldn’t do it, everyone just had very strong opinions about it. And then I went into the writers’ room and somebody pitched what would then be the medical reality of Cristina having the ectopic pregnancy and collapsing in the O.R. and that’s how Burke finds out that she’s pregnant. That was so much more interesting to me, story-wise, that I let go of what we were going to do and did that. But I do remember it was going to be a battle. I was perfectly willing to face the battle, maybe naively so, but it was gonna be a conversation. A big one.

So the thing that’s different between now and then is that now people don’t fight you because you’re more powerful? Yeah. I mean, yeah, in a lot of ways, I think that that’s one of the differences. I think that I’ve earned my place in my job versus the very first season of my very first television show. Now we’re in the eighth season of my third television show, it’s not as big of a deal for me to just stand up and say, “This is what we’re going to do and I’m not discussing it.”

Do you feel like this is advocacy? I don’t think it’s about the agenda. I think it’s important [that] I try to do what’s right for the characters. In Private Practice, we had a character, Naomi, [who] was staunchly anti-choice, staunchly pro-life. Viciously so, in a lot of ways, in a way that I thought was really kind of beautiful and religious and different from the way I think at all. What I also thought was that her point of view is valid, has merits, and should be portrayed and portrayed strongly. I feel you have to portray all different sides of who people can be if you’re going to create a world. And I feel like Cristina’s choice to give up a child, to have an abortion, is her choice. Meredith would never have had an abortion, I don’t think — I’m not saying she’s not pro-choice — but she would never have had one for herself because she wants a child so badly. I like that we’re portraying all of the different sides. It’s not a political agenda as much as me trying to make the world as full and round and as complete with peoples’ opinions as possible.

Rhimes’s point of view comes through quite clear on Private Practice – even with her “viciously” “anti-choice … pro-life” character.

What doesn’t come up in this interview, oddly, is that another character, Naomi, wanted her daughter to have an abortion and stood through (hand-holding, below) and walked away endorsing a partial-birth abortion last season.

Pro-life enough for prime-time work?

I will give Rhimes some credit though. Despite Addison’s speech about the honor and duty of abortion providers last season: Abortion clearly left her wounded. But like many a woman, even years later, she hasn’t found any healing. That is something for prime-time television. 

I bring it up not to make sure you are up-to-date on ABC’s Thursday-night lineup but because it is a clear fall-season reminder that people who aren’t on the board of Planned Parenthood, as Rhimes is, ought to be sure they are part of the creative mix on television shows and throughout Hollywood. Someone on the board of the National Right to Life Committee or the Susan B. Anthony List or Americans United for Life (or name your favorite pro-life group) ought to be writing story lines. Not a plant, just people who, with their success, have naturally sought to help out causes close to their hearts. We want them there, in the writing shops of ABC shows or wherever the viewers will be, not so much to explicitly advance an agenda, but to naturally infuse their values as they are creating good stories. People who can create multi-dimensional characters and understand what would motivate them, truly “different from the way [Rhimes] think[s]” at all.


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