“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.