Welcome. Earlier this evening, I posted this “Viewers Guide to MTV’s Abortion Special: Send young women your love, but give Dr. Drew the side-eye.” I hope you’ll find it useful as you watch the abortion special that is airing right now. I’ll be liveblogging here for the next half hour.
Due to the snowpocalypse, I didn’t get cable back until a little while ago, so I wasn’t able to liveblog the full 16 & Pregnant Reunion, but here are a few of my tweets from the tail end, which featured Markai, whose abortion story will be featured in the special tonight.
During 16 & Pregnant Reunion:
@jennpozner B4 MTV abortion special airs, 1st hypocrisy: #16&Pregnant reunion, Markai’s 2nd pregnancy+abortion never mentioned! http://bit.ly/g3J6ka
@jennpozner #16andPregnant: Dr.Drew asks how Markai is preventing anthr pregnancy. She says,”depo shot.” Her abortion invisible-like her 1130et special!
At that point I stopped tweeting and started this post. Toward the end of the reunion, Dr. Drew asks former 16 & Pregnant mom Aubrey, who is now on a non-hormonal IUD, if she had sex education or health classes in school. She said that she had not been told all her contraceptive options. To Drew’s credit, he asked, “If somebody had discussed this with you ahead of time, do you think you would have gotten pregnant?” To which she replied, “I probably would’ve already been on the IUD. I probably honestly would have been. So.”
Fast forward to No Easy Decision:
Markai and James find out that she has become pregnant again, after she missed a depo shot. She initially wants to keep the baby, but as she and James talk about it, he expresses concern that their daughter will have a harder life, and will have to struggle so much more, if they have another baby while they’re already not in good shape financially. They talk honestly about their options, which Markai lays out: “Well, there’s adoption, keeping the baby, and abortion. I knew abortion was out there, I just never thought that it was an option for me.”
James says that the “Best decision is our kid having everything they want to have in the future.” But to Markai, who says she already loves this baby even though all it has done so far is make her sick, “it’s not that easy.”
Not ready to reveal her second pregnancy to her mother, Markai goes to a friend’s house, where she confesses her fears and her sadness about finding herself in this situation again. Because she isn’t sure what she should do, she calls an abortion support service to find out what kinds of technical options are available if she did decide to choose abortion. A compassionate counselor talks her through it, but the voice on the other end of the phone seems perhaps a bit too chipper, and Markai breaks down in tears. She hands the phone to her friend, as she can’t handle hearing any more.
Later, holding her baby daughter, she tells her mom, “I don’t want her to struggle because of my mistake. There’s nothing like I can do now except for think about my decision and what I want to do. If I have an abortion I’m always gonna think ‘what if?’ If I have the baby I’m gonna think ‘what if?’ If I put the baby up for adoption, I’m gonna think ‘what if.’ I just want to make the best ‘what if?’ – I just want Zakaria to be happy.”
In fact, 61% of women who have abortions are already mothers. This is one of the main reasons why women choose to terminate their pregnancies: to protect the well-being of their existing family.
So far, this special is far more nuanced and respectful of Markai’s (and James’) experience than I had expected. I will continue recapping shortly. I’ll post this in a minute, but will return to this post to update it with the rest of the special. In the meantime, feel free to leave your questions and comments below, or send your questions and comments to me on Twitter @jennpozner.
Markai and James have a wrenching but extremely honest conversation about the economic realities they’d face with a second child. They talk about how they both grew up in poverty, worried about money from early childhood. Living in places without enough heat, at times without water or lights. Not having enough food. James talks about how awful he has already felt not being able to provide everything he wants to provide for baby Zakaria. Markai worries that with a second baby to support, James would have to get two jobs and she might also, meaning that their kids would never see them — just like she didn’t get to spend enough time growing up with her own overworked father. They turn the issue over repeatedly, and they realize that although there’s no easy decision, going through with the pregnancy would be the wrong choice for their family.
James says he thinks abortion is the best option, but acknowledges that having an abortion or keeping the baby would affect Markai the most. She hugs him and, in tears, resolves that abortion is what they have to do.
A week later, having talked everything through and evaluated what they needed to do as parents, Markai drives to the clinic. She describes herself as nervous and sad, but relieved that she has made the right choice. Arriving at the clinic, we hear her voiceover: “Now that James and I are here, I know I need to have strength.”
Dealing with the emotional impact of the abortion was harder than Markai expected. Though at first she feels better when she recounts the provider telling her not to think of her 6-week fetus as a person with a forehead and ten fingers and toes, but instead to consider what it is at that developmental stage: a cluster of cells. This only helps at first, though, because when James echoes this advice and says, “I never called that thing a baby,” Markai gets angry, and sad.
“You hurt my feelings when you called it a ‘thing,’” she tells him tearfully. They argue, as he tries but is unable to find the right thing to say to make her feel better. “You will never feel my pain. You weren’t the one in my surgery room. I was there. A thing can turn out just like that,” she says, pointing to her daughter on James’ knee. “Nothing but a bunch of cells, can be her,” she cries.
She is worried that she may have made the wrong choice, wondering if God would have given her something that she couldn’t handle. James says that God made them human beings with brains who are able to weigh ideas and come to reasoned decisions. Together, they realize that they did the most responsible thing for their daughter.
At the conclusion of Markai’s taped segment, just before her interview with Dr. Drew, Markai says that the financial strife a second baby would have brought would have been devastating, requiring Zakaria to sacrifice too much of what she needs.
Her segment concludes with the teenager telling the camera: “We would have to sacrifice her life. I couldn’t do that to my child. I wouldn’t choose abortion as a first option for anybody, it’s the toughest decision ever to make in your life but this is the best choice for me. But with regards to my life and my daughter, I know I’ll make it through.”
Dr. Drew opens the segment saying:
Markai hurts just watching the segment, being forced to remember how raw her emotions were in the aftermath of the abortion. James says that it’s not an easy decision for the father, either, but reiterates that he never wants his child to have to suffer and struggle the way he did in his life. Dr. Drew guides them in a conversation about the way the pregnancy happened. Markai said she hadn’t understood that missing a Depo shot would void the effects of her birth control, and that this was not only a shock but made her feel angry at herself. She talked about feeling stupid for not knowing this, worrying that she let herself, James and her daughter down (something she also discussed in her taped segment).
Dr. Drew mentions the fact that most women feel, two years after their abortions, that they have made the right decision. (I’ll fact check this for you later, but I’m pretty sure that’s a stat I’ve seen via the Guttmacher Institute.) He asks Markai if she feels she made the right choice, and she’s honest about having mixed emotions. She says it hasn’t been long enough for her to really comprehend of understand how she feels.
I’m pleasantly surprised: the framing of Markai’s abortion experience has been respectful, and seemingly true to her authentic reactions during pregnancy, through her decision-making process with her boyfriend, mother and friend, and finally in the aftermath of how she has been coping with the choice she made. She seems resigned to knowing it was the right decision, but feeling doubt and sadness that this choice was necessary — which, of course, is how a great many women feel when they find themselves having to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. I knew it was possible that MTV could produce a reality special that handled abortion with nuance, respect and authenticity. But having documented ten years of reality TV manipulations, misrepresentations and regressive anti-feminist backlash for my book, Reality Bites Back, I was skeptical that they would really want to do so, or know how to do so even if the good intentions were there. So far, at least for this first 1/3 of the special, I’m really glad that my concerns have been misplaced. And with that, Markai’s segment is complete. A quick edit cut, and Drew turns to the camera:
Of course, this speaks to why I was skeptical and distrustful of MTV being able to deal with abortion honestly: because for two seasons of Sixteen & Pregnant and two seasons of Teen Mom, we have never seen any pregnant teen even seriously consider abortion, no less actually terminate their pregnancy. As I said earlier, “27% of all pregnant teens choose abortion, [yet] 100% of pregnant teens give birth in MTV’s version of ‘reality’ over the course of two seasons each of 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom.
” This means that MTV has made an active decision to censor girls’ real experiences of pregnancy in their “reality” programming. The silence that Dr. Drew mentions has been actively enforced by MTV and by the programming he has been involved with, and it is telling that their way of addressing the invisibility of nearly a third of girls’ experiences is to air one half-hour, completely unadvertised special to supposedly balance two series and four seasons worth of (un)reality programming.
OK, my DVR malfunctioned, didn’t record. Alas. Now can’t pause and transcribe anymore — so, no more detailed recapping/quotes. Two additional young women join Markai and Dr. Drew. One of them got pregnant at 17, in a state with parental consent laws. She went before a judge to plead her case, and got permission to make the choice herself without her parents’ consent. Dr. Drew didn’t ask about her family, and she didn’t volunteer it (at least, so far as the edited version of the conversation we see on air), so we don’t know what compelled her to feel she could not count on her parents’ support.
Though I’m sure there will be endless antichoice commenters attacking the girl for disobeying her parents, what the special didn’t broach was the fact that many young women can’t go to their parents for consent when they are pregnant because of child abuse and incest, both of which are all-too-common epidemics in the United States, and which put pregnant teens in a virtually impossible situation within their families.
(To be clear, I wouldn’t dream of guessing why the young woman featured in this interview didn’t seek parental consent — it’s simply important to note the impact of child abuse and incest when talking about pregnant girls who seek to avoid parental consent requirements: sometimes it’s not out of fear of letting their parents’ down, sometimes it’s out of fear of parents or relatives who may have impregnated them, or who may be otherwise abusive.)
Another surprise: the special addresses, albeit briefly, how expensive abortion is. This young woman had to pay $750 for the procedure. Dr. Drew asked how she was able to come up with the money, and she said it was difficult. She got some of the money from the father of the baby, who had just started a job, and the rest she had to sacrifice for. As one example of how much she had to scrimp to cobble together the money, she said she had to sell her prom ticket back to her high school just to get the $80 or $90 back to put toward the abortion.
The last young woman, Katie, was asked how she felt after the abortion. Turns out, she felt fine. Her response was refreshingly opposite to the standard narrative we usually hear in media, which (when abortion is, rarely, mentioned at all) usually features a woman like Markai expressing grief, doubt, and loss. While all of those emotions are normal for some women, and while it was important for Markai to have the space to speak her truth, it was extremely important to hear Katie say:
The other young woman said she wanted to speak out because “Girls need to know that they’re not alone and that it’s OK to talk about it.” In one capacity or another, they all said they did the show because they wanted to break the silence and show that abortion isn’t a selfish choice, but a choice that women make for a variety of reasons, usually having to do with being responsible to their families and their own futures. One of the last comments came fromMarkai:
Dr. Drew ended the special encouraging those who have had abortions to visit Exhale’s website if they need support. Unfortunately, the special never mentioned “16 and Loved,” the Exhale-led companion campaign to this special aimed at showering Markai, Katie (and the other teen whose name I didn’t catch) with support and love, which I blogged about earlier. Was this a perfect special? No. Did it cover all the reasons young women have abortions? No. But it was far more honest, and allowed far more authenticity of girls’ experiences, than I expected. And my biggest surprise: Dr. Drew wasn’t the moralizing, judgmental, faux-sincere jerk he has often been on his other MTV shows, Celebrity Rehab, Sex Rehab, and Sober House.
I’m glad I provided you all with the viewers’ guide to critical reality TV consumption to use while watching this show — and even more gratified that it was less needed than I expected. Here’s to MTV for taking a positive baby step in the right direction, opening up a conversation about the option chosen by nearly a third of those who get pregnant. Now, let’s make sure they don’t think one half-hour episode is enough. As the Women’s Media Center says, we must “LET MTV KNOW THAT YOU’RE WATCHING AND EXPECTING CONTINUED, BALANCED COVERAGE ABOUT ALL OF THE OPTIONS AND SUPPORT TEENS HAVE WHEN FACING UNINTENDED PREGNANCY.”
I may post additional thoughts tomorrow, but I’m calling it for the night. If you have additional questions, post them below or send them to me on Twitter, and I’ll reply Wed.
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