Very Canadian, and not only because it is set in Toronto
One episode was particularly interesting to me, and very Canadian, something you'd be most unlikely to see on US television. In "Shades of Grey," Season 2 episode 6, a girl is found dead. Dr. Julia Ogden, the pathologist who is Detective William Murdoch's friend, colleague, and love interest, reveals that the girl, Lilly Dunn, had been pregnant. It turns out that Lilly was not murdered by a lover who didn't want the child, but bled to death after an attempt at a self-induced abortion.
Detective Murdoch questions two known abortionists, plus Dr. Isaac Tash, who is an old friend of Dr. Julia Ogden. Murdoch's Roman Catholic faith is often referenced on the show - for example, when he is passed up for promotion because "Toronto is a Protestant town". And although Murdoch is progressive in matters of science, he is prudish and socially conservative.
In the course of the episode, we learn that Dr. Tash does perform abortions, and crucially, that Dr. Ogden herself had an abortion when she was in university. But these facts alone are not what makes this episode so noteworthy to me.
Abortion without apology
First, Dr. Tash, when questioned harshly by Murdoch, sounds like none other than Henry Morgentaler as he apologetically explains his choices.
Tash: If a woman comes to me needing or wanting an abortion, I do not turn her away. Whatever her reasons - poverty, abuse, ignorance, illness - I ask no questions. I make sure the procedure is done safely, properly, with the least amount of trauma to the patient.Next, Julia speaks frankly to William.
Murdoch: You realize what you're doing by telling me this.
Tash: I do. And I may soon find myself dragged out of here in chains for all the world to see. But the truth is if Lily Dunn had come to see me, she'd be alive today. I know it and you know it.
Julia Ogden: Like Lily Dunn, I found myself in an untenable situation. I had no desire to marry the man. I wanted to be a doctor, William. It was everything to me. I had fought so hard for so long. Wanting a medical career was difficult enough. But with a child...That was amazing, refreshing - exciting. Julia was not raped. She did not surrender a child to adoption. And most of all, she isn't sorry. She chose abortion, a valid choice, and one she stands by. As Julia says, she did what she had to do. And now, she does not beg William to forgive her. She doesn't want exceptions: she wants enlightenment.
William Murdoch: It was a choice of convenience, then.
Julia: It was anything but convenient. It was what I had to do. [pause] I went to Isaac and asked for his help. He refused. He would absolutely not consider breaking the law despite his personal convictions. I was desperate. So I went elsewhere. The procedure was an unimaginable nightmare, I almost died. I would have died if it wasn't for Isaac. He saved my life. And after that, I know that he hoped never to have to watch another woman to go through what I did.
William: He saved your life, and for that I am more grateful to him than I can ever possibly say.
Julia: But he's still a criminal to you, isn't he? [No answer.] Of course he is.
William: This has nothing to do with you and I. We can put all of this behind us.
Julia: But how do you propose we do that? Are you willing to forgo your principles, your values, your faith?
William: I don't think that's necessary.
Julia: Don't you? I thought upholding the law was everything to you.
William: And that will never change.
Julia: What does that mean? Now that you know the truth, that I freely procured an abortion, what will you do? Will you jail me? Should I hang?
William: No, of course not.
Julia: So then, you'll make an exception for me.
William: I'll do what I have to do.
Julia: But that's just it, William. I don't want to be an exception. I don't want your pity. Or your mercy.
William: Do you regret it?
The tearful choice... the convenient pregnancy loss
Abortion is mostly invisible on American television. Few producers want to deal with the sponsorship headaches, the calls for boycotts. But beyond that, abortion has been made into an act of shame or desperation, a dark secret that no protagonist can freely choose without suffering dire consequences.
This story in The Week is an annotated timeline of abortions on American TV, beginning with the famous first, Bea Arthur's "Maude" in 1972. Ten years later on "Dallas," Lucy Ewing had an abortion after she was raped. The rape was used to justify Lucy's decision, the abortion still left her in a state of empty despair. There was no suggestion that the depression might have come from having been raped. The Week missed the Ewing abortion, but takes special note of the generally positive treatment of an abortion on "Friday Night Lights".
January 2010The words "heartrending decision" make me wonder what I would have thought of this episode (I will look it up on Netflix). The decision for a teen is often anything but heartrending. It might be closer to "get this friggin thing out of me". But this example from "Grey's Anatomy" makes me hopeful for change.
Friday Night Lights: After a one-night stand with Luke, 10th-grader Becky (Madison Burge) becomes pregnant, and, afraid to talk to her mother about it, goes to her guidance counselor Tami Taylor (Connie Britton). After reading literature and learning about her options, Becky has an abortion. It's "the best and most honest portrayal of the heartrending decision to end a teenage pregnancy that we've ever seen," says Andy Greenwald at New York. Later, Luke's religious mother discovers that Mrs. Taylor counseled Becky on the decision, and ultimately gets her fired. Tellingly, there is little outrage over the episode, says Jessica Grose at Slate, hinting that perhaps the subject is no longer taboo.
September 2011The excellent analysts at TV Tropes have dissected the treatment of unwanted pregnancies on TV, on a page called "Good Girls Avoid Abortion".
Grey's Anatomy: Years after considering an abortion and then miscarrying, Sandra Oh's Cristina Yang gets pregnant again. Her husband Owen (Kevin McKidd) wants her to keep the baby, but Cristina insists that she loves her job too much and wants to dedicate her life to it; a baby would make that impossible. It was "pretty radical," says Willa Paskin at New York. "It's common TV wisdom that whatever your reservations, once you see your child, you'll not only love it, you'll never regret having it."
When a female character has an unexpected and/or unwanted pregnancy, someone may allude to the possibility of abortion (usually without saying the 'A' word). However, she will likely not have an abortion for one of three reasons:That nails it!
- She dismisses it immediately because of her religious/spiritual beliefs or upbringing, or because she distrusts the procedure (especially if it would involve a Back-Alley Doctor).
She thinks it over for a while, then decides that, no, she's going to keep the baby. This may be followed by a Convenient Miscarriage. Which, ironically, she will never be relieved by; she'll be sad because now she wanted it.
- She actually decides to have it done, but somehow things don't turn out as she expects, and her attempted abortion is aborted.
- If she actually goes through with the abortion, and doesn't suffer gruesome complications from the procedure, it's usually to show that she's a deeply damaged, screwed-up individual. If this happens, but it is played for laughs, it's a Black Comedy. If the male character who got her pregnant voices support for the abortion option, it's played as a Kick the Dog moment to show what a jerkass the guy is.
Just what are we saying here?
In another "Murdoch Mysteries" episode, Inspector Brackenreid, Murdoch's superior on the police force, is chatting with another man about their military service for Queen and Country. One says he fought in the Crimea and asks, "Where were you?" The other answers, "Afghanistan," to which the first replies immediately, "That was a mistake."
I grabbed the remote to see the scene again. In Canada, in 2008, "Afghanistan ... that was a mistake," echoes loudly. If nothing else, it reminds viewers just how long empires have been trying to secure that patch of Earth. Or perhaps it means what it says: Afghanistan was a mistake.
Fun with Victoriana
The show's Late Victorian-era setting is rich with possibility. Murdoch's "thing" - the sine qua non of TV detective shows - is the use of new-fangled scientific methods to solve crimes. Some of these methods were actually coming into use, and others are Murdoch's own inventions, steam-age prototypes of digital-age technologies.
The show often features historical characters; portrayals of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Nikola Tesla, Harry Houdini, and "Buffalo" Bill Cody and Annie Oakley are among the ones I've seen so far. There are other historical references, such as Toronto's gay subculture and the dangers and persecution gay people faced, and the so-called "home children," the vast child migration program that brought child labourers from impoverished English areas into the colonies.
Researching this post, I discovered that "Murdoch Mysteries" is now airing in the US, where it is called "The Artful Detective". Let's see if "Shades of Grey" causes a ruckus... or if it even gets aired.