Degrassi‘s Groundbreaking Abortion Storyline

“Yesterday I was pregnant and now I’m not. And I’d like to talk about it. There’s so many things I wanna do in high school and being a mom is not one of them. It might not be everyone’s choice, but it was mine. And I’m not ashamed.” This is how sixteen-year old Lola Pacini describes her abortion to the world, boldly recording her thoughts on her experience and uploading the video online for all to see.

In a recent episode of the Canadian television series Degrassi: Next Class, Lola (Amanda Arcuri) decides to have an abortion after she discovers she’s pregnant from a one-night stand at a party. To further complicate matters, the father is her best friend Frankie’s older brother Miles, a bisexual guy whose boyfriend was comatose in the hospital at the time of Miles and Lola’s hookup.

The episode begins with Lola taking a pregnancy test in the high school bathroom with her two best friends by her side. As she anxiously awaits her results, she repeatedly tells herself that everything is fine, that she’s not pregnant, that today will be a normal day just like any other. When she steps out of the bathroom stall, she cheerfully tells her friends that the test was negative. Frankie, still oblivious to Miles’ role in this, congratulates her on not being pregnant. But when everyone exits the room and Lola is left by herself, we see that she has lied— her face floods with tears and shock as she shakily holds up a positive pregnancy test.

The episode doesn’t waste anytime mulling over the drama of the situation. There’s no screaming confrontations, tearful confessions, explosive reactions from parents, or worries about how to break the news to the father. Instead, Lola simply wanders by herself through the school hallway, head down. She avoids her classmate Yael, who is pestering her about their history assignment. When an irritated Yael asks what could possibly be more important than a project worth 50 percent of their grade, Lola quickly blurts out, “I’m getting an abortion!”

Seeing that Lola has no one else to accompany her to the clinic, Yael unexpectedly offers to go with her. The two take an Uber to a women’s clinic during their lunch period, where Lola meets with a nurse who quickly lays down the facts about abortion. True to reality, the nurse explains that the procedure takes about five minutes, that there’s very little risk involved and that Lola will still be able to have kids in the future should she choose to—refuting a myth commonly promoted by anti-abortion groups that abortion causes infertility.

This is where the episode really becomes ground-breaking. At this point, most shows would either show the character changing her mind last minute or cut to a later scene. Instead, Next Class does something revolutionary: They actually take the audience into the procedure room with Lola. We are there with her every step of the way as the doctor walks her through the process, from the IV sedation to explaining what an aspirator does. While abortions themselves are rare on television, it’s practically unheard of to show the actual procedure like this.

And that’s it. There’s no tears, no last-minute change of heart, no traumatic aftermath. Instead, Lola simply returns to school to finish her history project, go out for ice cream and joke with her friends about hair problems. To put it simply, she returns to her normal 16-year old life.

Not only does Lola go through with her abortion, but she’s not haunted by her choice either. Instead, she feels empowered to speak out about her decision. Not wanting to treat her abortion like a shameful secret, Lola allows Yael to film her speaking about her experience and upload the video online for her classmates—and the world—to see. “It wasn’t difficult for me,” Lola says of the abortion. “Scary, yeah—but not difficult. And afterwards, I didn’t feel sad.”

Even amongst pro-choicers, there’s often a certain expectation that those who have abortions will feel some sense of regret or guilt deep down.—when relief is actually the most common reaction. “Some girls will… cry for days after and some will feel strong and feel liberated and feel like it wasn’t a big deal,” Arcuri said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press, “and I think it’s a good way to tell a story—that people react differently, Lola’s reaction is justified, it’s normal, it’s OK.”

The last time the Degrassi franchise depicted an abortion storyline was over a decade ago. In a 2004 episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation, fourteen-year old Manny opts to have an abortion after she becomes pregnant from her first time having sex. However, the episode was deemed so “controversial” U.S. networks refused for years to air it.

The last few years have seen a slow, but steady rise in abortion storylines on television. Grey’s Anatomy, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and Jane the Virgin all featured diverse female characters who got abortions for a variety of reasons, from wanting to finish high school to not wanting to have another child in their forties. These characters didn’t necessarily need tragic circumstances like rape or life-threatening conditions for them to make their decisions; they just simply did not want to be pregnant.

But even when abortion is portrayed, television writers often feel the need to somehow show “both sides” to the issue. For example, in Degrassi: the Next Generation, the father is largely unsupportive of Manny’s decision, crying out, “but it’s my baby!” Her best friend Emma is also hostile at first, though she later comes around, telling Manny that she thinks abortion is wrong and that “[Manny’s] child would too.”

Although any instance of abortion on television is groundbreaking, it’s hard to see it as truly progressive if half the time is spent appeasing anti-abortion audiences—as if to assure them that their stance is equally valid. Too often, these episodes turn into a debate instead of simply focusing on the woman’s story. Lola’s storyline is a welcome change in that it avoids a messy political or ethical debate.

When Lola asks Yael what she would do in her situation, Yael simply responds: “I don’t think it really matters right now.” Lola also doesn’t tell her parents or Miles prior to the abortion, a controversial yet powerful decision. In contrast to Degrassi’s last abortion storyline, the focus really is just all on Lola and her choice.

Still, abortion remains rare on television. Writers seem to largely subscribe to the trope of “good girls avoid abortion,” having the character opt to raise the child or give it up for adoption instead. From a storytelling perspective, this might make perfect sense: an abortion storyline can only carry a couple of episodes, while a full-term pregnancy can carry a whole season or even years worth of material if said character chooses to also raise the baby. However, it can be discouraging to see abortion constantly portrayed as such an unthinkable option.

Millions of women make the choice to terminate their pregnancies each year. In an age where reproductive access and rights are under attack, it’s more important than ever for television to acknowledge the reality of abortion.

“We really felt that it was very important, particularly in this day and age when the abortion debate is coming back on the main stage,”Next Class co-creator and executive producer told The Canadian Press, “to demystify it.” The episode does just that. Through the eyes of a shaky sixteen-year old, audiences see that abortion doesn’t have to be scary or traumatic. Rather, it’s a normal, common experience.

In the procedure room scene, Lola asks the doctor if she’s the first sixteen-year old he’s ever “done this to.” With a small, but caring smile, he replies, “you’re not the first today.” If this episode made even one young girl feel less alone, then Next Class did its job.

Kelly Martinez is a journalism student and writer. She currently blogs for “The Odyssey” and specializes in writing about feminism and politics. She lives in San Luis Obipso, CA.

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Comments

  1. This is an excellent abortion storyline, and I wish I could see it too. Although I’m way past my teen years, I’d love to see it anyway. Is Degrassi a prime-time TV series or cable, and when does it typically air? I’m on the East coast, and I do have cable service although not the “premium” channels. Thanks in advance for any information on Degrassi that Ms. can provide.

    • Also Susan says:

      If you’re in the US, it’s all available on Netflix right now – well, the first three seasons of New Class. If you’re in Canada, family has completed the initial run of season 3 but has restarted it last night and all episodes are available on the Family App.

  2. This was an amazing abortion storyline.

    I have one comment about this article though, you wrote:

    “When she steps out of the bathroom stall, she cheerfully tells her friends that the test was negative. Frankie, still oblivious to Miles’ role in this, congratulates her on not being pregnant. But when everyone exits the room and Lola is left by herself, we see that she has lied— her face floods with tears and shock as she shakily holds up a positive pregnancy test.”

    I’m not going back to watch this right now, but what I thought happened was that she said they wouldn’t be planning a baby shower, NOT that she wasn’t pregnant. Those are not exactly the same thing.

    Thanks for covering this!

  3. Adamary Vivanco says:

    This was an extremely groundbreaking and informative article about Lola’s experience with abortion. It is so refreshing to see a show (that I grew up watching as well) change its’ perspective on the issues young women face and the mental struggles we go through once placed in this particular situation. The scene that became such an eye opener to me was when Lola was explained in detail how the procedure would be conducted and told she wasn’t the only 16-year-old young girl to go through this. The decision making that the writers placed on Lola throughout this episode shows how empowering it is to give women, young and old, their own reproductive rights. Regardless of your view point on abortion, the reproductive right we as women have needs to be respected just as it was respected through this scene. For example, just as Yael respected Lola’s immediate decision to get an abortion; she stood by her side every step of the way. Another aspect of this scene that I found warming was the fact that Lola had control over her own reproductive choices. Without this individualize choice, Lola wouldn’t have been able to feel a sense of relief and peace after the procedure. This scene reminded me a lot of a video I saw on Ted Talk (that my professor showed us) about a OBGYN who regardless of his religious belief was for providing abortions to other women. He believed that a female deserved a second chance, no matter the one bad decision that was made; just like it happened to Lola (with the one-night stand). With Lola choosing her own path, she was allowed to continue to live her life and be forgiven of an abrupt mistake she made. Everyone has their own reason to the decisions they make when it come to their body and especially reproductive system. We as a community of women need to stand together and be there for one another instead of judging each other. In all, this is a tricking topic to speak on but it is a topic that I am glad Degrassi has finally started to be so open about because now it gives comfort to not only those who are contemplating on going through this but to those who have already gone through this.

  4. Caitlyn says:

    This was an amazing storyline, done by an equally amazing show. Having watched Degrassi: The Next Generation when I was younger, I remember there being quite a lot of episodes that have to deal with real life situations and teenager problems, and those things being dealt with in a way that you never really do see on television. Although I do think that this episode did things differently, it did it in a good way. Reading this article really interested me and sparked me to go find the episode and actually watch it. In the beginning you can see how terrified she really is about her situation. In my personal opinion I think she did want to tell the father, hence why she asks him for a ride downtown, to which he turns down. I think the episode highlights really well what women in that situation go through when it comes to who to tell, how they feel and how society and others will treat them after the find out her decision. We read about how abortion isn’t legal in any countries around the world and how if caught proceeding with an abortion, the mother and the doctor can face jail time. I do believe everyone has the right to choose what to do in that situation, but I don’t think people should judge others for their choice, like how Lola’s friends did (unconsciously) towards the end of the episode. You never know the context of the person’s choice and they shouldn’t be criticized and judged because of their decision. I think that the Degrassi production team did a great job by taking the audience through Lola’s whole journey from the moment she found out to the moment she went through the procedure. I also like how they debunked major myths like “getting an abortion reduces your chance of getting pregnant later on in life”. This article was very well written and touches on the important topics of abortions in the television world and how this episode sets itself aside by growing through the process with the character, and showing the world that there is nothing to be ashamed about if you make a similar choice. I hope this episode shows girls out there that they are in control of their bodies and have the right to choose to do whatever they want with it and not worry about what other people think.

  5. Kenland Pierre says:

    Degrassi’s abortion storyline was amazing and well needed in today’s society. I hope knowledge of this episode spreads so that more teenage girls can be aware of the episode and watch it. Not only is it educating but it presents real life factors that teens maybe able to relate to. As the article mentions this storyline is different from others because it focuses on Lola’s point of view, perspective, and it’s a decision she’s made on her own without consulting her friends, the baby’s father, or her parents.
    Too often, the media tries to portray the character as a good girl who at the last minute in the examination room changes her mind and decided to have the child or put it up adoption. Not in this case. According to the article if you watch the episode we are taken into the procedure room. The doctor walks her through the process, from the IV sedation to explaining what an aspirator does. They even dispel myth the myth that even if she goes through with the procedure she will still be able to have children in the future. With no tears or change of heart Lola returns back to her everyday normal high school teenager life.
    With feminism on the rise and the fight for equal rights, I feel as though this an also empower woman to not feel ashamed if they are in this predicament. Or maybe even better guide someone and give them the nudge to make a decision such as this one. In my option I am a strong believer of it’s my body and I can do with it what I want. Just because the other helped make the child doesn’t mean they have the right to weigh in on someone’s decision. At the end of the day it’s her body hat carries the baby for nine months.
    I myself am definitely looking into watching this episode to hope to gain the insight it is trying to give us the audience.

  6. Anaila Nodarse says:

    I think that the producers of Degrassi: Next Class handled this very real issue in an extraordinary way. They refused to follow the typical “after school special” story line of abortion, where the girl has a change of heart at the last minute and ends up living happily ever after, and portrayed a strong, empowered woman making a life-changing decision based on her own needs and desires, and not based on what others would think. The procedure was straight forward and easy, despite many of the demonizing portrayals and myths, making abortions a nightmare situation. One of the things that I found interesting was the fact that she did not seek out anyone’s opinion. I think this was such a great choice because it further emphasizes the individuality of that decision. In the end, that decision affects no one else but the woman herself. The example of how the abortion arch was played in the earlier version of Degrassi: The Next Generation, in which Emma imposes her opinion on Manny, when in reality Emma wouldn’t be the one that would deal with the consequences. In fact, when Lola asks Yael what she would do she responds with “I don’t think it really matters right now”. Lola realizes that it is her life and she would have to face the consequences of whatever she decided and ultimately makes her decision based on that. I think this stuck out to me because of my personal experience. When I got pregnant at 20 years old, in an unhappy relationship, I desperately asked my friends if I should get an abortion, hoping that they would take the responsibility away from me and was confronted with a lot of “I don’t know” or “that’s not my decision to make”. I was so angry but at the end of the day, when I decided to keep the baby I was happy with the decision because I knew that that was my decision and not influenced by someone else. Now I am happy to say that I have walked away from that relationship and am raising a beautiful baby boy and the whole situation has made me so much stronger and would not have had it any other way. But what is right for me doesn’t mean it is right for someone else. Therefore, I liked that the character seemed to lack regret about her decision. It made it clear that we each have a right to decide over our own lives and that everyone is different.

  7. lauren zorio says:

    “Millions of women make the choice to terminate their pregnancies each year. In an age where reproductive access and rights are under attack, it’s more important than ever for television to acknowledge the reality of abortion.” WOW! I can not agree more with that statement. I personally have not seen this episode of Degrassi yet but because of this article I am definitely going to go look at it. I believe that it is so important for women to be shown the truth about abortions. In todays day and age abortion is a huge issue for women all over the world. Hundreds of women every day struggle in the decision of having an abortion or not, while many women are not even given the option. I think that this episode of degrassi is very powerful as im sure it made thousands of women around the world feel better, it reassured them that it is okay. In the world we live in there are many people who are completely against women having their own choice and will do and say anything to convince us women that it is wrong. As it states in the article is important that women know what other women go through in an abortion how it is, the options they have and how women can handle it. Although this episode is impactful to us women it important that we remember that not all us women are given this opportunity to make our own choice. In the article it states that it was not difficult for her only scary, but for many women all around the world it is difficult and its important that we are aware of that. Many women around the world are forbidden to have abortions and will be tortured or even killed in some cultures if they want an abortion. Therefore its important that we keep in mind what is an easy procedure here for us women in the U.S, women in some other countries are going to unsafe extremes to not have a child.

  8. Carolina Rodriguez says:

    I think that this storyline is an amazing alternative way to view abortion as opposed to what we are used to seeing on the media. There are many different ways that people view abortions and many different opinions on the subject. I used to be one who felt very strongly over one side of the topic, leaning towards the thought that abortion was wrong. I felt this way mainly because it was what I had been taught growing up in a Christian home. As I grew up I became more open-minded, putting myself in the positions of these young women. It wasn’t until I personally experienced someone dear to me go through this situation that I realized that ultimately, it should be the woman’s decision as to what she wants to do with her pregnancy. No matter your opinion on the subject, there is no possible way that you could act as if you know what is best for the person who is going through this. There are other aspects in life that can make it possible or impossible for someone to be a good mother. Many teenage girls who get pregnant can not support or care for a child to the best of their ability and some may just not think that it is the right time in their lives to have a child. I have read many stories and articles viewing abortion as a wrong thing to do, but it is nice to see storylines as this one, which in my personal opinion, are much more realistic. Being a young woman in college struggling to juggle school and work along with other responsibilities, I could understand why a young woman would feel relief in the situation of having an abortion after finding out that she is pregnant. This storyline sends a powerful message that women are in control of what they chose to do with their bodies and their life and it helps shine a more positive and independent light of the matter of abortion. I believe that there are many young women who could benefit from reading this article.
    Thank you.

  9. Brandy D says:

    Degrassi was always controversial when I was growing up. They always talked about real world problems that teenagers face these days. I remember one of the first episodes I watched was about a girl getting raped. It had the same empowering feel that this episode had. The girl was not the usual “victim” as depicted in other shows. She was strong and she didn’t hide what happened. That was where I first heard someone say “she was asking for it”. But instead of being embarrassed or ashamed she took him to court. Yes, empowering is the word I would use.
    Degrassi is still controversial I see and I particularly enjoyed this episode and once again the girl, Lola, was not the “victim”. She was brave. I believe the following quote is important because it is real.
    “And that’s it. There’s no tears, no last-minute change of heart, no traumatic aftermath. Instead, Lola simply returns to school to finish her history project, go out for ice cream and joke with her friends about hair problems. To put it simply, she returns to her normal 16-year old life”. In the past, movies and TV shows depict a woman making the controversial decision of abortion and rarely going through with it, and if they do then the woman appears devastated by her decision. This is not the case for Lola. Abortion is and always will be a controversial topic, but it is something that needs to be talked about. Adolescents need to be educated about safe sex and their rights. Abortion laws vary per country. 40 percent of countries permit induced abortion without restriction as to reason, while 10 percent allow it for mental health reasons, 21 percent allow for mental health reasons and only 26 percent will allow abortion to only save the life of the child or mother (Burn 52). The problem with restricting legal abortions is it has not been proven to prevent abortions. It only encourages illegal and unsafe abortions to occur. Abortion rights go hand in hand with women rights. The statistics alone still show how far we have come and have much further we have to go. In many countries women lack the right to not only abortion, but basic health care. They are also still considered property to be married off to the highest bidder and are not allowed education in many countries. Even in the United States, there is still a gender wage gap where women make 20 percent less than a man (Burn 18). It is time “Women’s Rights” classes are a option in high schools and not just an elective in college.

  10. K. Carey says:

    I used to watch Degrassi a few years ago, and I always loved the show because I thought it was one of the few on television that actually aired real teenage issues, and weren’t afraid of what the media had to say. Seeing that they did an abortion storyline doesn’t surprise me too much, because they did one back when I use to watch it (almost 10 years ago), although I am surprised by reading that they went into as much detail as they did. Every woman has the right to do as they wish with their body, and it’s unfortunate that abortion seems to be a taboo when it comes to the media. No one wants to be open about it, and when it is getting publicity it seems to be only from something negative (e.g., rape or abusive relationship). It really is a common procedure that’s done on a daily basis, but in America the way it’s portrayed or talked about, it makes you (the woman) feel ashamed for getting it. Women shouldn’t be punished for having sex, and that’s really how I see it. Everyone knows teenagers have sex no matter how you “prepare” them whether from parents, school (sex ed.) etc, they are hormonal and curious and because of that, I don’t think they should be punished by having to stop their education to raise a kid. It was a little risky for them to air this episode, although that use to be one of my favorite reasons for watching the show the risk that they took with their storylines kept you wanting more. This episode was very thoughtful, and I think it will definitely help other girls out there to know that they are not alone, and know that it really isn’t that bad. I’ve heard so many negatives about abortion, including that it reduces your chances of having children in the future which is a myth, but I think people get information like that from less fortunate countries around the world where the procedure itself is unsafe, and can cause a higher risk including infertility. I think this episode is taking the right steps into the direction we should be going into!

  11. I am horrified!

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