Viewing, Reading, Listening: Audiences and Cultural Reception

by Jon Cruz, Justin Lewis; Westview Press, 1994

We have chosen two separate abortion stories that fall under this prime-time umbrella of acceptable representations of the issue. One, an episode of "Cagney and Lacey" originally broadcast in 1985, offers an immigrant Hispanic heroine who seeks an abortion to allow her to finish school and better her family circumstances. The other, a made-for-television movie broadcast in 1990 entitled Roe vs. Wade, details the struggles of the real-life woman Norma McCorvey who unsuccessfully sought an abortion in Texas in 1970 and ultimately challenged the legality of prohibitive abortion laws in the landmark case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972.

The "Cagney and Lacey" episode used in this study embodies television's characteristic pro-choice slant (although pro-life elements are present for balance) and pictures a prototypically acceptable abortion scenario. The main plot involves police sergeant Christine Cagney and her partner police officer Mary Beth Lacey (who is five months pregnant in the episode) being called upon to protect a Latina (and by implication, Catholic) woman, Mrs. Herrera, who is intimidated by angry antiabortionists while attempting to enter an abortion clinic. Soon after, someone bombs the clinic, inadvertently killing a transient old man. Cagney and Lacey), are assigned to uncover the bomber and ultimately discover that a somewhat crazed member of the picketing right-to-life group is responsible.

Mrs. Herrera is depicted as poor (her husband is on disability). While she is conflicted about the abortion, Mrs. Herrera is convinced that her dreams of becoming a well-paid court stenographer will be unattainable should she give birth to a child now. She mentions in particular her fear of going on welfare and her belief that she will be forced to drop out of school if she has the child. Mrs. Herrera's plight makes one of television's strongest arguments in favor of abortion: that the lives of poor women will be ruined beyond repair by the burden of an unwanted child. Another strong argument in favor of abortion is made when Lacey, talking to her husband in bed, tells of her frightening experience as a teenager seeking an illegal abortion, which led her to fly to Puerto Rico to obtain one legally, an expense that, as a self-supporting student at the time, she could ill afford. Lacey also mentions in an argument with Cagney the plight of rape and incest victims. The abortion clinic doctor bemoans the clinic's bombing by referring to twelve-year olds who have sought abortions there because they had nowhere else to turn. But the logic that abortion is most legitimate and necessary in the case of poor women predominates on the show.

In their desire to avoid inflaming activists on either side as the "Maude" episodes had done years earlier ( Montgomery 1989 ), producers of this "Cagney and Lacey" episode consciously sought to achieve a balanced presentation of the abortion issue. Several characters clearly articulate different sorts of pro-life as well as pro-choice arguments ( Condit 1990 ). Balance is also attempted through the presence of an articulate pro-life spokesperson, Mrs. Crenshaw, a white middle-class woman who is head of the pro-life organization sponsoring the demonstration. We also hear Cagney's father, a retired Irish-Catholic police officer who believes abortion is murder.

Despite the overt attempts at balance, the show represents abortion as an acceptable choice but only after careful consideration and under specific conditions, which are present in the case of Mrs. Herrera. The show favors women's right to safe, legal abortions more so than it does arguments in support of the pro-life perspective. This view is supported by Condit ( 1990) and most of the groups, both pro-choice and pro-life, whose members viewed the tape in our study. Yet Mrs. Herrera's abortion is framed in a particular way. She is not an independent, well-employed, middle-class woman as is the Barnard-educated Cagney. Although arguments in favor of the latter's right to abortion are made on the show, the actual abortion subplot it contains concerns a working-class woman rather than the middle-class Cagney, and even her desire for an abortion is portrayed as morally ambiguous. While in the end it appears that Mrs. Herrera has chosen abortion, the act is left unseen; her ambivalence and fears are highlighted, perhaps to maintain viewer sympathy with her. Choice is legitimated but only just: In extreme or seemingly extreme circumstances, a woman may legitimately opt for abortion, provided it is a last resort for one who feels herself emotionally and-possibly most significant--financially backed against the wall.

To date we have conducted focus-group interviews with twenty-nine groups of two to five women, usually in the home of one of the respondents; the total number of respondents to date is eighty-eight. Of these, four working-class pro-choice groups, four working-class pro-life groups, and two middle-class groups from each perspective viewed Roe vs. Wade; four working-class pro-choice groups, two working-class pro-life groups, four middle-class pro-choice groups, and two middle-class pro-life groups viewed "Cagney and Lacey." 9 Interviews began with a series of questions about the respondents' activities as a group, their typical pattern of discussion about moral issues, and their television viewing habits. Later we asked them to describe and discuss their experiences with either their own decisions about unwanted pregnancies or those of friends or relatives. They were encouraged to talk about the considerations that women they know made in order to reach their reproductive decisions and to give us their thoughts as well on the topic. The respondents then viewed either a thirty-minute version of the "Cagney and Lacey" abortion episode from which subplots and commercials had been edited or the first thirty-five minutes of the Roe vs. Wade television movie (using identical wording, we told each group how the story ended following this segment). After viewing the tape, the women were asked specific questions about their reactions to the positions expressed by the characters in the show. Prior to each interview, respondents completed a questionnaire concerning basic demographic information, media-use habits, and general opinions about abortion. The sessions generally lasted from two and a half to three and a half hours. All group interviews were taped and later transcribed and coded.

Working-class pro-choice groups are unified in their almost universal affection for and support of Mrs. Herrera, the lead character in the "Cagney and Lacey" episode. Mrs. Herrera, it seems, is a relatively uncontroversial heroine of a television abortion story. Pregnant within marriage, working hard in school, worried about her husband, and troubled over the morality of abortion, Mrs.Herrera faces her abortion decision in a way that makes her as acceptable to these women as she is to middle-class pro-choice women and even to some pro-life women. Working class pro-choice women particularly find it easy to identify with Mrs. Herrera's struggle to be upwardly mobile. Yes, they agree, it is difficult to finish school while caring for a child and receiving welfare. One woman even recalls her social worker's advice to delay schooling until her children are of school age:

Respondent 1 : Well, in her situation I could see why she'd want to do it. She'd be better off doing it than to have the baby and have to give up everything and then, you know, not be able to take care of her kids in the future. It's really, really hard to go to school when you have kids and people try to make it look like there's a chance and there isn't. There's almost this much chance. ... One in a million people make it. I'm trying right now to go to beauty school and get help from the state, and the lady's just telling me, "Don't even try it." The lady from the welfare office, she's saying, "You won't be able to afford to pay the babysitter, you won't be able to do this." I don't want to give you such a negative aspect, but they told me not to do it.

Other working-class pro-choice women mention the fact that the disabled Mr.Herrera might need care as well, worrying that Mrs. Herrera will be unable to meet the needs of her husband as well as her child. They see her desire for an abortion as understandable in this light. In all, reactions to Mrs.Herrera are relatively untroubled and supportive. Women in these groups find that her situation presents a strong argument justifying legalized abortion.

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