What TV Show "Girls" Got Wrong About Abortion and Why It Matters
(Eds. Note: We want to give a courteous warning. Not only is this article about the topic of abortion, but it also includes frank language that might not be appropriate for all ages. Reader discretion is advised)
The TV show Girls airs on HBO, and it is a funny, snarky show with a lack of self-awareness that is either horrifying or endearing. In that way, it perfectly reflects its creator and writer, Lena Dunham, a comedian born to fantastically wealthy parents, who does not see the irony of ranting against normative heterosexuality and white privilege while pretending that you can portray the mundane lives of young, single women in Brooklyn without ever discussing money. On the same night as the Oscars, it covered the topic of abortion. Its perspective was, of course, heartbreakingly wrong, but perhaps not surprising.
First, let’s tackle how one of the characters (played by the excellent Gillian Jacobs) defended her choice to get an abortion in response to an unwanted pregnancy. “It was a ball of cells. It was smaller than a seed pearl. It didn’t have a penis or vagina.”
IT WAS A BALL OF CELLS
This is somewhat of a meaningless defense of getting an abortion. In some sense, I suppose, we are all just balls of cells, but of course no one would defend the murder of full-grown human being (or, you know, a baby that’s one minute old) by claiming “it was a ball of cells.” The question is whether this “ball of cells” is different, in a significant sense, from any other “ball of cells” that we would call human. The problem for Girls is that the answer they would probably give (“Yes, which is why it isn’t murder”) is actually a reason that supports those who hold a pro-life perspective. The “ball of cells” is in fact completely different from any other “ball of cells” and, more importantly, completely different than the “ball of cells” that led to its conception. It has a separate DNA, a separate genetic code, a separate identity from its parents. It is not a part of the mother (or father) upon which they have complete control and autonomy (like, say, an appendix or a gallbladder). It is a completely different “ball of cells” altogether.
This argument harkens back to the days where pro-choice advocates would argue “it’s not a baby, it’s just a clump of cells.” But, of course, science has shown that argument to be untenable and unsupportable, which is why most pro-choice advocates don’t use it in their arguments. Rehashing old arguments from the 1980’s and 90’s is probably not the best route to take for a show fancies itself a harbringer of liberal culture. We are no longer determining the point at which life begins, because science has already settled the question. We are only determining what justifications exist for ending human life before it can survive independent of another human being (usually its mother).
IT WAS SMALLER THAN A SEED PEARL
Again, this argument seems nonsensical, even if it’s true (I have no idea how big a seed pearl is, but it sounds pretty tiny). Our value and worth as human beings cannot possibly be determined by our size. And if it is, who gets to decide the size necessary to assign human rights? If you are as big as a raisin, are you afforded dignity? Or do you need to be as big as an apple? Is infanticide justified for underdeveloped babies, and should we start using the measurements given at birth to qualify babies for human worth? Clearly I'm being somewhat silly, but surely we need a more cohesive argument in order to justify abortion. If we are determining the rights and value of human life based on its size, any conclusion we come do is necessarily arbitrary.
IT DIDN’T HAVE A PENIS OR VAGINA
It was somewhat striking that a critic of normative sexual ethics would assign the value of human dignity based on normative reproductive systems. But, it should also be clear that as a society, we cannot do so. If the absence of either a penis or a vagina is grounds for the termination of life, then there are a number of people who are born with aphallia or testicular agenisis who are in danger of being murdered without legal repercussions. In the worldview espoused in Girls, it is difficult to see how we could legally justify a prohibition against the murder of eunuchs. Again, I’m being somewhat facetious, but only to point out that it is striking that one of the most popular advocates for abortion cannot come up with a cohesive, supporting argument.
More than the specifics of the argument, though, what was perhaps most inauthentic about the episode was its attempts to de-stigmatize the personal aspect of abortion. That's why I am even writing a response to the portrayal. Girls merely reflected a shift in pro-choice rhetoric in the last year or two. There is a part of the pro-choice movement that has become frustrated with the notion that, as a movement, their goals should be to make abortion “safe, legal and rare.” They are frustrated with those who are pro-choice and defend a woman’s right to do so in some circumstances, but acknowledge that it is a difficult, personal decision that no one wants to make and can be heartbreakingly difficult to do so. They want abortion to be no-big-deal, the type of thing you casually tell your boyfriend is the reason you cannot go for a jog with him, no different than if you had a cold or were tired. Unlike most episodes of Girls, the episode felt inauthentic because it was not authentic.
Anywhere between 10-40% of women regret their decision one week after getting an abortion (this is a staggeringly high percentage). The risk of PTSD (or PASS) in women increases about 60% after an abortion. Studies have linked abortion with a rise of the prescription of psychotropic drugs, nervous disorders, inability to sleep, sexual dysfunction and feelings of guilt. Furthermore, there are plenty of both anecdotal and empirical evidence that the decision, whether it is eventually regretted or not, is a difficult and painful decision.
The notion that abortion is not a difficult decision is understandably a notion that some want to perpetuate and popularize. They are losing the battle over the legality of abortion, and perhaps the only way they can gain ground back is if people stop thinking about it at all. But we shouldn’t fall prey to the notion that the parents we are ministering to are cold, heartless advocates of abortion-on-demand. They usually are not. That’s why our pro-life advocacy must be marked by compassion and empathy. Most of the people we are ministering to are facing a difficult and life-changing decision, and they are conflicted about it. Our ministry to them should reflect this reality, and should seek to draw them in, not push them towards the hardness of heart that Lena Dunham wishes they already had.
We are not going to stop calling abortion a difficult decision, because compassion and empathy say that we must, however easy the decision seems to us. But we should stop saying that this episode of Girls was about abortion. It wasn’t. It was about one privileged, elitist perspective on the issue of abortion, more a reflection of what happens when you grow up in a rich and secluded high-rise loft in Manhattan with very little interaction with the real world than it was of reality in Brooklyn. You know, just like the rest of the show.