So, last week, for those of you who weren’t paying attention, I was cross with the BBC. Yes, cross, I tell you, as they filled the news with World Cup non-stories, and issued vacuous non-statements about North Korea. But this week, it’s time to level things up. Because they also did a good thing last week, which was to broadcast an episode of Family Guy, Partial Terms of Endearment, on BBC3. This episode wasn’t screened at all in the US, because it is about Lois having an abortion. She becomes a surrogate mother for a friend, but the friend then dies in a car crash. So Lois heads to the Family Planning Centre with her husband, Peter, where she makes a reasoned and thoughtful decision to have an abortion. Peter’s all in favour of an abortion, too, until he is shown a pro-life video by protestors outside the centre.
This is all — in case I have made it sound rather joyless — incredibly funny. The video that Peter watches is a heroic pastiche: “Science,” proclaims the spokesman, “has proven that within hours of conception, a human foetus has started a college fund and has already made your first mother’s day card out of macaroni and glitter”. At this point, it cuts to a picture of a foetus holding a handmade card which reads, “Mom, don’t kill me! I wuv you.” Sorry to declare myself sole arbiter of good and bad jokes, but that’s a corker. Peter is converted to the pro-life cause. “If God wanted us to kill babies,” he tells Lois, “he would have made them all Chinese girls”.
It’s no surprise this episode hasn’t aired in the States, although it is expected to be included in the DVD release of the series. But it hammers home the fact that abortions used to happen in popular culture, just as it happens in life. No longer: films like Knocked Up, Waitress, and Juno all deal with unwanted pregnancy, and all tie themselves into knots trying to explain why smart women wouldn’t even consider an abortion (either in Knocked Up, where Katherine Heigl is a career woman who despises the guy with whom she has an ill-advised one-night stand, or in Waitress, where Keri Russell is married to a wife-beating lout whom she loathes). It’s a huge narrative flaw that Ellen Page’s sassy, fearless, pro-choice teen, Juno, would be so overwhelmed by the mention of baby fingernails that she would cancel her abortion immediately, and have a child she didn’t want.
It seems that we can’t be expected to like fictional women if they do what factual women do all the time: terminate an unwanted pregnancy. But things weren’t always this way; Dirty Dancing has an abortion storyline, and it’s regarded as a classic chick-flick. Pop culture has simply become more judgemental — and less realistic — as pro-lifers have become more vociferous.
So three cheers to Family Guy, for having the courage of many of our convictions. And an extra cheer for the BBC, for letting us watch it.