16 and aborting

Should MTV show the other side of teen pregnancy?

Published July 24, 2009 5:25PM (EDT)

In a feature story that ran yesterday, I wrote about the MTV documentary series “16 and Pregnant,” which followed five pregnant teenage girls and their partners through pregnancy, delivery and early parenthood, and one couple who choose to place their child for adoption. But there’s a large segment of pregnant teenagers who are not represented on the show: the roughly one-third of pregnant teenagers who choose to have an abortion. Isn’t their choice an awful lot more common than the 1 percent of women who choose adoption? Where are their stories?

In my original interview with Morgan J. Freeman, the executive producer of “16 and Pregnant,” I asked him if they had considered doing a segment on abortion. “It’s a constant discussion,” he told me, “but we’re looking at how we could cover a story like that in a safe, responsible way.” In the end, I decided that there was so much else to talk about in my piece that discussing something that hadn’t actually happened on the show seemed pretty tangential. The next day, I took one look at the comments to my piece and immediately regretted not raising the issue. So, hey, let’s do so now.

Is there any safe, responsible way to film interviews with teenage girls who had abortions, then broadcast them on national television? The question alone almost answers itself. As someone who has written and edited first-person essays by women for 10 years, I can tell you that pretty much every pro-choice editor wishes like hell that we could get women to go on record, under their own damn bylines, writing about their own abortions. (Salon editor Sarah Hepola and I spent one night dreaming about some hypothetical column called “My Abortion Story.” But we have yet to do it.) Some do. But most won’t, and for good reason. What happens if your story gets Googled by your boss? Your mother-in-law? Your pro-life next-door neighbor? Or, even more dramatically, some right-wing dude compiling a hit list? It’s absurd, but also true: This is the kind of thing that gets a few unlucky people harassed, and even shot and killed.

In the print world, one must often resort to pseudonyms. But the options for film are even worse: Do you have girls filmed in shadow, like government witnesses or criminals? Do you have paid actors read their words, thus losing the documentary realism? Any of those options only underscores the unfortunate fact that, in the United States, discussing a fully legal act can make you look like a criminal.

But frankly, abortion stories are better suited to print than film anyway. Unless there’s some sort of crazy complications, there’s not a whole lot of action (and nothing that compares to the drama of birth). It’s more a question of how one feels about it all. And honestly, it makes me downright squeamish to think of putting a teenage girl in a position to be judged by others about a procedure that even adult women can’t talk about without having their decision subject to debate: One can imagine a girl who expresses nothing but relief at being able to get the hell on with her SAT practice test being branded as selfish. (What, she had to go to an Ivy League school? The local college wasn’t good enough for her?) On the other hand, the kind of girl who expresses grief or regret might be branded a traitor. (Doesn’t she know she’s ruining it for all of us?) The consequences of not portraying the full range of abortion experiences leaves us afraid that anyone who does express ambivalence may jeopardize every woman’s right to a safe, legal abortion. That situation alone should make those of us who are pro-choice mighty pissed off.

But here’s the second half of the problem: By not talking about the girls who do choose to have an abortion, we leave the girls who don’t in the position to take the full brunt of our collective ire about teen sex and teen pregnancy. It’s an inexact analogy (separated by the rather large difference that adoption involves pregnancy, birth and an actual, rather than theoretical, child), but in many ways abortion can be the social, if not emotional, equivalent to the girls of the “Baby Scoop Era” -- when girls, by and large those from “good families” (whatever the hell that means), were encouraged to preserve their bright futures and their family’s good name by spending their pregnancies hiding out in maternity homes, knocked out for delivery, and releasing their babies into a closed adoption, never to speak of the experience again. In both cases, girls who choose that route retain the option to remain invisible, and thus avoid being stigmatized for their pregnancies. If they wish, they can become Ginia Bellafante’s girls who get in the 99th percentile on their SATs, and go off to Wesleyan or Berkeley without anyone knowing they, too, fall into the much maligned category of girls who got pregnant in high school.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and as an adamantly pro-choice woman, I applaud it. But I don’t think that everyone who claims to be pro-choice, even pro-choice feminists, always show enough consideration for the girls who aren’t invisible, whose highly pregnant bellies advertise the fact that they made a different choice. Over the past year, even feminists  have felt comfortable questioning the idea that Bristol Palin “chose” to raise her child, or mocking the girls of “16 and Pregnant” as little more than advertisements for contraception. And yesterday over at Double X, Torie Busch wondered if perhaps the upside of the emotional season finale, in which Catelynn and Tyler release their child for adoption, would encourage more teens to pursue adoption.

While I, too, teared up at that episode, the thing that impressed me most about their story was how much love and respect the couple who adopted their daughter displayed toward Catelynn and Tyler, and most of all, how perfectly clear it was that Catelynn and Tyler were absolutely committed to their choice. And a huge part of their committment came from the fact that they had absolutely no support at home -- last night on the reunion special, Catelynn talked about living in a home where her mom was always drunk and she had to raise her 2-year-old brother. But as much as we may be touched by their decision, it does not mean that every other girl should have done the same. When host Dr. Drew asked Maci if she had ever considered adoption or abortion, she said she hadn’t. “They were options, but neither one was for me. Not with the support I had from my family, and the relationship I had at the time.” And Whitney said that she thought her decision to keep her child made her stronger. “In some ways I feel like I’m going to be even more successful because it gave me that push.”

We don’t know how it will all shake out for these six girls, and that isn’t really the point. They don’t stand in for every girl who has ever received a plus sign on her EPT test any more than I do. But this is the point: Choice really means choice. We don’t have to encourage girls, as a whole, to do any one thing. This isn’t a public referendum: We aren’t voting on some socially sanctioned, one-size-fits-all choice that, going forward, will represent the official code of Girls Whose Reproductive Decisions We Agree With. Some women may have an abortion without regret; others may have a respectful, loving adoption and keeping one’s child does not necessarily mean condemning both of you to lifelong poverty and despair -- or even that you won’t finish college.

Pro-lifers, of course, have no problem saying that they support one choice and one only, and often suggest that pro-choice is a cover for being “pro-abortion.” Finding better ways to talk about teens who have abortions will help us all. But if we want to prove that choice really means choice, we have to openly and adamantly support the other two-thirds as well.


By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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