Reproduction & Abortion Week: ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Advocates Abortion and Reproductive Rights

Sandra Oh as Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy
Warning: if you have not watched up to Grey’s Anatomy Season 7, spoilers ahead!

Abortion is healthcare — a routine, normal and legal medical procedure. Yet most films and TV don’t ever broach the subject. Their characters don’t get abortions, people don’t talk about abortion. That’s why I’m thrilled about Cristina Yang’s abortion storyline on Grey’s Anatomy.

As I’ve shared before, I love the hospital drama. Is it melodramatic? Of course. Is it over the top? Absolutely. But Shonda Rhimes has crafted a show with not only a woman at the center, not only an incredibly diverse cast with open auditions for characters, but a female friendship at its core. Surgeons Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang transcend best friends. They are each others’ soulmates…and frequently say so, telling each other and others that the other is “their person.”

Cristina is a badass — one of my favorite female characters. She’s arrogant, blunt, brilliant, driven, competitive and fearless. And a woman of color…huzzah! She’s never been a woman who wanted “traditional” things. She’s also been adamant that she never wants to have children. Hollywood rarely depicts women who don’t want children. If a character starts out that way, they often change their mind once they fall in love or get married. But Cristina maintained her choice, even after she married her husband Owen.

When Cristina becomes pregnant at the end of Season 7, she adamantly tells Owen that she wants to terminate her pregnancy. Yet he keeps trying to convince her to keep it. Cristina firmly replies:

“No, there’s no way we’re doing this. Do you hear me? No, no I am not this beautiful vessel for all that might be good about the future. No, I’m not hearing your hopes and dreams.”

Owen tells her that they should talk because they “are a partnership.” He says that he loves her, not her incubating potential. He doesn’t want to make her do something that would make her miserable. And yet, that’s precisely what he wants her to do. Owen wants her to change her mind…for him.

Owen: “There is a way to make this work without ruining your life or derailing your career.”

Cristina: “I don’t want a baby.

Owen: “Well, you have one.”

Cristina: “Are you getting all life-y on me?!”

I like that Cristina pointed out Owen’s pro-life anti-choice position. He’s telling Cristina she has a baby when it’s not a baby, it’s a fetus. It also should be Cristina’s choice. When Owen asks her how late she is, Cristina tells him it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t.

Cristina:  “I don’t want one. I don’t hate children. I respect children. I think they should have parents who want them.”

Owen: “I want them. And I believe you could want them too. Your life could be bigger than it is.”

Great. So anyone without a child doesn’t have a meaningful, impactful life?? Well then I’m screwed.

Later, when Owen tells her that he could take a leave of absence, Cristina explains to him that she’s “not a monster,” if she has a baby she’ll love it. He scoffs at her as he tries to look for a compromise. But as Cristina rightfully tells him, “there is no compromise:”

“I don’t want one. This isn’t about work or a scheduling conflict. I don’t want to be a mother.”

Owen keeps telling her to trust him, trying to convince her she would be a great mother. He doesn’t listen to a word she says:

“Have a baby? This isn’t pizza versus Thai. You don’t give a little on a baby…I am saying NO!”

Owen then kicks Cristina out of their house, abandoning her for her choice. She turns to her soulmate Meredith and tells her she’s getting an abortion.

In the next episode, Cristina has postponed her abortion but is still determined to get one. When Meredith questions if she’s hesitated because she wants to be a mother too, Cristina tells her she wishes she wanted a child because it would be easier and her life wouldn’t be a “mess:”

“I don’t want a kid. I don’t want to make jam. I don’t want to carpool. I really, really, really don’t want to be a mother. I want to be a surgeon. And please, get it. I need someone to get it. And I wish that someone was Owen. I wish that any minute he’ll get it and show up for me. But that’s not going to happen. And you’re my person. I need you to be there at 6 o’clock tonight to hold my hand cause I’m scared, Mer. And sad. Cause my husband doesn’t get that. So I need you to.”

Cristina’s plea to Meredith broke my heart. Because it’s not sad that she wants to get an abortion. It’s sad that those closest to her don’t understand or respect her decision to choose what’s right for her body and her life.

Later, Meredith confronts Owen, telling him he’s “punishing” Cristina. Meredith tells him how her mother didn’t want her, how Cristina is kind and that “the guilt of resenting her own child will eat her up” inside. While I like that Meredith calls out Owen’s bullshit, it would have been great if someone reminded him that it’s Cristina’s body and Cristina’s choice, not his.

Owen eventually supports Cristina and accompanies her to the abortion, holding her hand, both physically and emotionally. Although I’ve heard (I’m a bit behind in watching), that he later accuses her of killing their baby. Horrible. As Feministing’s Maya talked about Hollywood’s “rules for abortion,” she asserted that Cristina would probably have to pay for her decision down the road. Sadly, it seems like that might be true.

What I love about this story arc is that it feels honest and raw. Cristina is a married, accomplished, financially secure, career woman in her late 30s. If a character gets pregnant unintentionally, we witness adoption or having a baby as the only 2 viable options, implying that there’s a “right” and “wrong” choice when it comes to reproduction. Cristina isn’t the stereotypical abortion patient depicted in the media. If we see abortion — which happens so rarely as it is — it’s a teenager or a woman in her early 20s. We typically don’t see women choosing abortion in committed relationships. And yet in reality, they do. Teens, single women, married women and mothers all choose abortion. People in all stages of their lives choose abortion. And this isn’t something to shame or hide.
In Shonda Rhimes’ shows Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, abortion is shown as the routine medical procedure it is. Rhimes sits on the board of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles (OMG love her even more!!!) In an interview with Vulture, Rhimes discussed her motivation, abortion providers, and the taboo of abortion and abortion storylines:

“You know, it’s interesting because it’s true, I feel like it doesn’t happen often and they don’t talk about it and it feels ridiculous to me because it is a legal choice in our country. But what I was trying to do is, I wanted to portray that character honestly. I really wanted Cristina Yang to stay true to who Cristina Yang is. And I feel like that is a character who has never really wanted to be a mother.”

“I think for me the point is it’s a painful choice that a lot of women have made in their lives and we just wanted to portray it honestly and with a really good conversation that I think started in the season finale and carries over in this episode. And see what happens after. I try to discuss this a lot. Addison on Private Practiceis an abortion provider. There are only a certain number of abortion providers in the country and she is one of them. And she is a character who in the past had had an abortion and we talk about this issue a lot. And I felt like it made sense; I wouldn’t be doing it randomly, it made sense for the character of Cristina Yang.”

The plotline did make sense for Cristina. Throughout the series, she has vocalized her choice to not have children. I’m an unmarried woman in her 30s who’s chosen to not get married (although maybe someday) and not have children. I’ve never wanted kids and I’ve never wanted to be a mother. Yet I can’t tell you how many times (seriously A LOT) I’ve been told by people that I will eventually change my mind and have children. As if my choice is some cute and trendy passing phase. Thanks for telling me about my life, assholes.

We should stop mandating people’s life choices and start respecting them instead.

As I’ve written before, “through movies, TV series and ads, the media perpetually tells us all women want children. If they don’t, they must be damaged, deluding themselves or they just haven’t found the right man yet. Because you know silly ladies, our lives revolve around men. Tabloid magazines repeatedly report on female actors’ baby bumps. As Susan J. Douglas argues in Enlightened Sexism, “bump patrols” reduce women to their reproductive organs, reinforcing the stereotype that women aren’t real women unless they procreate.”

In fact, the only shows that come to mind where a female character chooses not to have children are Samantha and Carrie on Sex and the City, Elaine on Seinfeld, Emily on The Bob Newhart Show, Jane Timony on Prime Suspect (the original with Helen Mirren), Robin on How I Met Your Mother and Cristina Yang. Of those characters, Samantha(off-screen), Carrie (off-screen), Jane and Cristina choose abortion.

As RH Reality Check’s Martha Kempner points out, there weren’t any “extenuating circumstances” involving Cristina’s pregnancy. She wasn’t in medical danger; the fetus wasn’t in any danger. Cristina chose abortion because she didn’t want to be pregnant.

When asked if writing an abortion storyline is advocacy, Rhimes said that she doesn’t have an agenda but wants to “do what’s right for the characters.”

 “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.”

The majority of us in this country support abortion and reproductive rights. 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Yet depicting an abortion because a main character doesn’t want to be pregnant feels radical. But it shouldn’t be. If 30% of women get an abortion, then it’s an experience that should be depicted in media and pop culture. We need more films and TV shows to follow suit and showcase the full scope of women’s lives and women’s choices. And that includes abortion.

No one has the right to tell another person what they should or shouldn’t do with their body. Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t stigmatize Cristina’s abortion. Instead it shows the detriment of not supporting those you love exercise their reproductive rights. Cristina knew herself and made a choice. The series conveys how women are so often silenced when they try to assert autonomy over their body…and the stinging pain when people closest to you don’t respect and support your decision.

One Comment

  • Posted May 17, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for ‘getting it’ as Cristina would say! It’s so rare to find someone, anyone, being so vocal about this side of the argument, and I thank you for that :) I also don’t ever see myself having children, not because I ‘hate kids’ or some such nonsense but merely because I simply don’t want any. It is well within my rights to make this choice for myself and live my life without having any children. It doesn’t make me any less of a woman, in spite of what many may say. You might find the horrible excuse for a novel by emily giffin called baby proof interesting because it really makes it seem like becoming a mother is inevitable :/

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