Many of you may know that I have a slight obsession with MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, which I watch online. It’s a show just like it sounds — reality TV that follows teenagers through pregnancy, birth, and either initial months of parenthood or adoption. It’s supposed to be a PSA of sorts for safe sex.
I got really into reading birth stories/watching birth story videos while pregnant with Nora and am now totally hooked. I watch/read good stories, like those of my friends and those shared on blogs (like this great one), but also consume some contrary to my birth views too, like those on 16 and Pregnant, which provides sort of a voyeuristic view of mostly train-wreck births (lots of unnecessary induction before 40 weeks, almost 100% epidural rates, and c-sections that usually result from such interventions). Very few of the teen moms even attempt breastfeeding, and those that do don’t have the support necessary to maintain. It’s incredibly sad, knowing this is the education on birth that our next generation of mothers is receiving. But, I can’t help myself from watching it and, birth culture aside, the show does provide a valuable look at the realities of teen pregnancy in America — realities of which many teen girls may be unaware. One can hope that its strong advocating of contraceptive use and candid display of teen parenting outcomes will be helpful to reducing the U.S.’s teen birth rates, which despite being at the lowest rate in 70 years is still far higher than many other countries.
Until last December, MTV had never discussed abortion on the show; it was the elephant in the room, a reality too taboo to discuss. Then, on December 28th, that changed with the airing of No Easy Decision which finally addressed the third option in a surprisingly good 40 minute segment.
The show was opened by a statement from Dr. Drew, the therapist who interviews and discusses events with the girls from 16 and Pregnant and its spin-off, Teen Mom. He said,
“About 750,000 girls in the U.S. get pregnant every year. And although nearly a third of these teen pregnancies result in abortion, we’ve never shown this choice on ’16 and Pregnant’ up until now. It can be a polarizing topic, and there’s quite frankly no way to talk about this and please everyone. Although controversial to some, abortion is one of the three viable options, and it’s among the safest, most common medical procedures in the U.S., so we thought it was important for us to discuss.”
He went on to say that 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion in their lifetimes. One in three. And that, “Having an abortion is not uncommon. But talking about it publicly is.” Lynn Harris wrote an excellent review of No Easy Decision on Salon, discussing how wonderfully the show managed to include:
medically accurate information about abortion procedures, the challenge of finding the birth control method that works for you, the positive presence of supportive family and friends, the compassionate voice of a clinic counselor (vs., for one, the cold depiction in “Juno”), the complex emotions of male partners, the cost of abortion ($750, in the case of Natalie, who sold her prom ticket back to school to help put together the funds), the cruelty of parental notification requirements (Natalie called the experience of securing an alternative judicial bypass “begging for permission to make your own decision”), the positive presence of supportive family and friends (in this case, African-American, a sadly rare portrayal), the normality of mixed feelings after the procedure (Markai says, insightfully, that she feels sadness but not regret), and the characterization of abortion as — in Katie’s words — “a parenting decision.”
There’s a new report out today in the Washington Post about the rate at which women are getting abortions and the total number of procedures being performed in the United States, both of which had been falling steadily for nearly two decades, but have now hit a plateau and, in some reports, are beginning to slightly creep up. The survey cited in the Post article found that
the total number of procedures had crept up 0.5 percent by 2008 – from 1.206 million to 1.212 million. The abortion rate […] rose 1 percent in 2008, to 19.6 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. That’s after the rate had peaked in 1981 and had fallen nearly every year since until 2005, when it hit the lowest level since 1974 at 19.4.
In light of these numbers and the 1 in 3 statistic cited by Dr. Drew, the MTV special is definitely valuable to women and girls who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and considering their options. While watching the show, I have often found myself wondering how my life might have been different if it had been around when I was in high school. Because…I am the 1 in 3.
At 17, I found myself pregnant with an unsupportive boyfriend and the ultimatum that I couldn’t be pregnant and remain living in my house. After a phone conversation to see if a family friend and her husband might be interested in adopting the baby resulted in a negative; with continual pressure from my boyfriend and mother; and though my dad told me he would be supportive, the logistics (he lived several states away) were too much for me to process, I ended up having an abortion at 5 weeks 3 days. It was a dizzying, overwhelming experience that would have been a lot for any teen, but was magnified for me given my struggles at the time with anxiety and depression. It took a long time for me to come to terms with the outcome and the experience completely shaped my views of parenting and motherhood. Though I don’t necessarily regret the decision — how could I, knowing that I wouldn’t have Chris and Nora if things had gone differently — I will always be sad about it and will always wonder what if.
If 16 and Pregnant was around would I have not gotten pregnant? Would I have felt more capable of making a different choice, knowing what that choice might have looked like from watching Emily or Chelsea who moved in with their supportive dads? Would I have been able to more completely explore adoption? Would I now have a eight-year-old child? It will be interesting over the next few years to see the impact of 16 and Pregnant on teen pregnancy and birth rates. I hope that someone is tracking that; I hope that the show will make a difference and be more than just entertainment television.
After watching this last MTV special and realizing how common abortion is, I feel compelled to add my story to the dialog. It’s only since becoming a mother to Nora that I’ve really come to terms with this part of my past and have started feeling comfortable enough to share it with others.
That’s a big part of why Nora’s birth was so empowering for me,
and I want other women who might be struggling to know that it does get better. Though I recognize this may be startling news to many of my family members and friends who read my blog, I’m hoping that it will encourage compassion when people think about abortion, as well as the many shades of gray that surround the issue and the aftermath of an abortion, which is never anyone’s first choice.