In July 2022, a story came to light of a pregnant 10-year-old who had been denied an abortion in Ohio.
The outcry was immediate. Not only are 10, 11 and 12-year-olds not remotely prepared to be parents, but there is real, physical danger in carrying a pregnancy so young.
The fetus takes calcium and other nutrients from the pregnant person, something incredibly dangerous in a still-growing body.
Very young pregnancies are high risk for dangerously high blood pressure and eclampsia. Most seriously, a pre-teen’s pelvis is not developed enough to give birth, and the consequences of this are often either deadly or disabling.
Within this social context, EastEnders’ decision to show 12-year-old Lily Slater deciding not to have abortion, without ever addressing the very real dangers of her pregnancy, feels deeply socially irresponsible.
While it can be argued this happens (although pre-teen pregnancy remains such a rare occurrence in this country that it is rarely researched, with the Nuffield Trust stating that only about 5% of under-18 conceptions are to girls aged 14 or under) EastEnders had the opportunity – in a world in which people are actively arguing that pre-teens can and should be forced to carry pregnancies to term – to highlight the importance of abortion access for young people in Lily’s situation.
Not only did they choose not to do this, but Lily even directly parroted common anti-choice talking points, calling it ‘a little life’, and remarking on how its eyes could already react to light, as part of her decision.
They did this without balancing it with information on either the very real physical and emotional consequences of her continuing the pregnancy or the benefits of having an abortion.
In fact, Martin and Jack have been actively shut down within the show for attempting to address some of those issues.
This is emblematic of a wider issue within the genre of soap opera. Despite being progressive in many areas, and often lauded as being key to normalising previously controversial issues – especially in areas around sex, sexuality and relationships – soaps generally push a conservative view of abortion.
Of the ‘big three’ soaps, Lily is at least the fifth character in less than a year to have a dramatic last minute change of heart about having an abortion: Janine, also in EastEnders, Summer in Coronation Street, and both Amelia and Charity in Emmerdale, have all had similar stories.
In fact, there appear to be more examples of these sorts of changes of heart than there are of characters actually going ahead with an abortion and, crucially, not regretting it.
Let us never forget that Sharon was ‘punished’ with infertility for having an abortion in the early noughties.
The proliferation of these storylines feeds directly into an anti-choice narrative: that abortion is a terrible thing that people end up not being able to go through with – ‘I can’t kill my baby!’ – rather than a morally neutral medical procedure that is the correct decision for many people.
This is simply not reflective of the reality of abortion. The World Health Organisation reports that 29% of all pregnancies end in induced abortions, and the Nuffield Trust reports that 53% of teenage pregnancies in the UK result in an abortion.
A five-year study of 667 people who had received an abortion in the US found that the majority did not experience so-called ‘abortion regret’: 95% believed it had been the correct decision for them.
The reality is clear: abortions are not only much more common than soaps would have you believe, particularly with teen pregnancies, but the overwhelming majority of people do not regret their abortions.
While the portrayal of abortion in soaps is likely more for dramatic purposes than to push a certain narrative – a last minute change of heart is a staple of soap opera, and a pregnancy has more dramatic potential than an unregretted abortion – soaps do not exist in a vacuum.
These are stories being broadcast, daily, into millions of homes, and how they choose to depict certain issues has a huge impact on cultural attitudes.
As a 2020 report by NARAL Pro-Choice America and Global Strategy Group (GSG) stated: ‘Media plays a fundamental role in framing and influencing the discussion around abortion and what they choose to cover, how they choose to cover it, and who they choose to include in coverage, matters.’
If pregnancy is what the story requires, there are ways to do this that don’t feed anti-abortion narratives. It’s beyond time to end the trope of the last minute change-of-heart in the abortion clinic.
And if the story dictates that a 12-year-old must remain pregnant, then have her discover her pregnancy when it’s too late, such as Sarah-Lou in Coronation Street, and explore the impact of not being able to access an abortion.
More broadly, it’s important that we see more realistic depictions of abortion in soaps. Lola’s abortion in 2020 is a fantastic example – it was roundly shown as being the best decision for her, with no long-term regrets – but this should be the rule, not the exception.
Soaps have been, and still are, an important instrument of progressive and cultural change in this country.
But when it comes to abortion, they simply have to do better.
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