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The "Keeping My Baby" Meme -- part two

Posted by Joshua Glenn  January 7, 2008 11:11 AM

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Click here to read part one of this series.
Click here to read part three of this series.

THE EIGHTIES (1984-93)

The political backlash against Roe v. Wade reaches its height as the Eighties begin. From 1983 on, during the three terms of Presidents Reagan and Bush, the US Solicitor General will routinely urge the Supreme Court, on behalf of the federal government, to abandon Roe v. Wade entirely. Also, when appointing Supreme Court Justices, Reagan and Bush will use opposition to Roe as a litmus test; Justices O'Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, and Thomas do not support the "strict scrutiny" standard of review established by Roe. The annual rate of legal abortions, which had steadily increased from 1973 until 1985, now levels off. Then, in 1986, the keeping-my-baby meme appears in pop culture. All of a sudden, instead of insisting that their lovers, pregnant with an unwanted child, get abortions, male TV characters insist that their lovers keep the baby; or else pregnant single women decide their baby will be OK without a father, and go it alone. The meme is a puzzler for liberals and conservatives alike. Should liberals who want teens to have access to contraception and abortion criticize single mothers? Should conservatives who want teens to be abstinent until marriage applaud girls who don't have abortions?


* A woman in Australia delivers the first baby born from a frozen embryo.

* Sharp rise in abortion clinic bombings (10) and arson (16 cases) as of 1984. (1 arson case in 1981; 4 arson cases and 1 bombing in 1982; 2 arson cases in 1983.)

* In a February episode of "Dallas," Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) learns of her miscarriage. (Her marriage with J.R. was an open one during season 7; I'm not sure whose baby it was.)

* In a September episode of "Fame," Leroy fears that his girlfriend is pregnant.

* "Racing With the Moon" -- Sean Penn and Elizabeth McGovern. Info TK.

* The Republican Party adopts an unyielding anti-abortion platform, demanding recognition of the rights of the unborn and an anti-abortion litmus test for judicial appointments.

* President Reagan is reelected, defeating the pro-choice Democratic ticket of former Vice President Walter Mondale and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro.


* In a March episode of "Hill Street Blues," an anti-abortion agitator sends a woman into premature labor.


* During the summer, Madonna releases her first controversial song, "Papa Don't Preach," which reverses the values of Michael Jackson's 1983 hit, "Billie Jean." The single reaches No. 1 in the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK; and No. 2 in Japan; and it is nominated for a Grammy.

He says that he's going to marry me
We can raise a little family
Maybe we'll be all right
It's a sacrifice

But my friends keep telling me to give it up
Saying I'm too young, I ought to live it up
What I need right now is some good advice, please

Madonna is criticized by parents and women's organizations for appearing to glorify teenage pregnancy; anti-abortion organizations urged Madonna to speak out against abortion. Madonna claims that she just wants "Papa Don't Preach" to be "a celebration of life, not a national controversy."

* In a January episode of "St. Elsewhere," an anti-abortionist targets the hospital for bomb threats; and Morrison tries to explain abortion to Pru.

* Ashley Abbott (Eileen Davidson) aborts Victor Newman's (Eric Braeden) child on the soap opera "The Young & The Restless" without telling him. He is furious when he finds out, and Ashley has a mental breakdown.

* "The Fly"

* Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Ma.) and other leading pro-choice senators fail in an attempt to block President Reagan's promotion of Associate Justice William Rehnquist to chief justice. Ultra-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia is appointed to the Supreme Court.


* President Reagan announces at a meeting of anti-abortion activists that "a program which does provide counseling and referral for abortion services as a method of family planning will not be eligible for Title 10 funds." Later that year, Reagan appoints a federal task force to encourage adoption as an alternative to abortion.

* Nomination of anti-abortion Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court is rejected by the U.S. Senate, 58-42. Pro-choice groups conducted a fierce campaign, which resulted in his defeat. This seat ultimately goes to Anthony Kennedy, who in 1992 will vote to reaffirm the core holdings of Roe v Wade.

* In the final scene of the music video version of "Papa Don't Preach," Danny Aiello, who plays Madonna's stern father, overcomes his mortification and anger and takes his (supposedly teenage) daughter into his forgiving arms. The video wins several awards that year. PS: Capitalizing on the controversy, Aiello will quickly record an answer song, written from the father's perspective: "Papa Only Wants The Best."

* UPDATE: On January 10, The cinetrix posted an excellent rant about the abortion in "Dirty Dancing" to her blog, Pullquote. Excerpt:

Granted, it is back alley, botched, and bloody. Overall, the outlook is pretty grim for Penny Johnson, the blonde dance instructor knocked up by a callow law student at the resort, at least until [Jennifer] Grey's Baby runs and gets her doctor dad. He adheres to his Hippocratic oath and helps her, even though abortion wasn't legal in 1963 and wouldn't be for another decade. Penny's no round-heels. She tearfully confides that she thought the cad loved her. Still, the film makes it clear that an illicit abortion is much better than the alternative: She doesn't die, keeps her job, and avoids potentially slipping into poverty as a single mother.... The cinetrix can just imagine the Dirty Dancing remake of today: Penny would keep the baby and Johnny would help raise it and everyone would live happilyeveraftertheend.

-- Thanks, reader Sy I.


* Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, a quasi-religious political action organization, is formed.

* President Reagan appoints Justice Anthony Kennedy to replace Justice Powell, a supporter of Roe v. Wade. It is widely anticipated that Justice Kennedy's arrival heralds the beginning of a five-Justice majority on the Court that would overrule Roe at the earliest opportunity.

* Used car salesman Randall Terry forms Operation Rescue, a violent anti-abortion group that proceeds to terrorize clinics.

* UPDATE: In the movie "For Keeps," Darcy (Molly Ringwald) and her long-term boyfriend, Stan (Randall Batinkoff), are seniors in high school who have both already been accepted to good universities. As soon as they start sleeping together, however, Darcy gets pregnant. Darcy's mother, who was abandoned by her husband, urges Darcy to have an abortion; Stan's Catholic parents urge her to give the baby up for adoption. But Darcy and Stan decide to give up college, instead! -- Via reader Alyssa B.

* In the 5th episode of "Murphy Brown," a mother abandons her children to the care of the titular character (Candice Bergen), a childless, middle-aged journalist. Brown goes all out to help them out. In the following episode, Brown feels maternal pangs after visiting with a pregnant friend. She considers in vitro fertilization and talks a male colleague into being the donor; it doesn't pan out. Foreshadowing?

* Anti-abortion Republican candidates Vice President George Bush and Dan Quayle defeat pro-choice Democratic candidates Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen.

* RU-486, a pill that induces abortion, becomes available in France but its manufacturer refuses distribution in the US and the Bush Administration imposes an import ban to prevent American women from accessing the drug.


* "A chill wind blows," writes US Supreme Court Justice Blackmun when, for the first time in the 16 years since Roe v. Wade, only a minority of Justices vote to affirm Roe as a 5-4 opinion in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which upholds a Missouri law prohibiting the use of public employees and public facilities for the purpose of performing abortions that are not medically necessary. Some states see the decision as an invitation to test Roe v. Wade. Louisiana and Utah enact statutes criminalizing virtually all abortions, but the ban statutes are blocked by federal judges.

* In a February episode of "thirtysomething," Gary and Susannah try to figure out what to do when they finds out that she's pregnant. In an April episode, Hope (Mel Harris) suffers a miscarriage. In several daydream sequences after the miscarriage, Hope imagines children's birthday parties, complete with images like spilled milk.

* "Roe vs. Wade," a TV movie starring Holly Hunter -- info TK

* In April, an estimated 300,000 pro-choice supporters hold a rally in Washington, D.C.

* In a May season finale of "L.A. Law," Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry) finds out that she's pregnant. (During that season, Kelsey and Markowicz tried and failed to conceive, then tried and failed to adopt.) In a November episode, Kelsey agrees to help a friend sue abortion opponents harassing women at health clinics, and in December, Kelsey defends a malpractice suit filed by a patient whose baby died during delivery; then, I think she has her baby.

* In the final (July) episode of season 3 of the NBC/Lifetime dramedy "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" (created by Jay Tarses), the titular Dodd (Blair Brown), a divorced, late-30s bohemian yuppie living in New York, admits to herself that she might be pregnant. and she doesn't know who the father is. She pictures herself in a "mom" dress, very pregnant, singing "It could happen to you."

"Molly Dodd"

In April, an estimated 300,000 anti-abortion supporters hold a rally in Washington, D.C.

* In the first episodes (April) of season 4 of "Molly Dodd," Dodd takes a home pregnancy test whose results send her into a panic; a doctor confirms that she is pregnant. Dodd agonizes over which of her two lovers the father of her child might be, and tries to imagine what the child will be like. When she finally gets to see the doctor, she learns that she'll have to wait another five months before they'll be able to identify the father. (Abortion is not mentioned, as far as I know.) Pregnancy gags all season long. In the season finale, she gets a message from the doctor about who the father is.


* With the retirement of Justices Brennan and Marshall, the announced hostility to Roe v. Wade of Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justices White, O'Connor, and Kennedy, and the presumed hostility to Roe of Justices Souter and Thomas, the overturn of Roe is a serious threat. Anti-abortion state legislatures continue to pass restrictions on abortion. In Rust v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Bush Administration's regulations that prohibit routine counseling and referral for abortion in 4,000 clinics that receive federal Title Ten family planning funds.

* The U.S. Senate confirms the nomination of anti-abortion Judge Thomas to the Supreme Court by a vote of 52-48.

* During the final season of "Molly Dodd," Dodd has the baby, and gets engaged to the father. But somehow -- I haven't seen any of these episodes -- she remains unmarried. The show's late-30s bohemian yuppie character, and its blend of romantic comedy and melodrama would influence "Caroline in the City," "Ally McBeal," and "Sex and the City."

* In a May 1991 episode of "Murphy Brown" (the final episode of season 3) Brown is trying to decide which man she wants to be with -- Jake, who wants to get married; or her ex-lover, Jerry -- when she takes takes a home pregnancy test, and discovers that the results are positive. Jake is the father. Then, in a two-part episode (the first of season 4), broadcast on September 16, Brown tells Jake the news. Jake tells Murphy he has decided he isn't ready to settle down, and they both agree they can't do it together. Murphy decides to exercise her right to choose... and her choice is motherhood!

* High-schooler Brenda Walsh (Shannen Doherty) loses her virginity to Dylan McKay (Luke Perry) in a May 1991 episode of "Beverly Hills 90210." In the very next episode, the last of the 1st season, Brenda tells Dylan that she may be pregnant. In July, during a special "summer season" of the show, Brenda finds out that she's not actually pregnant, and temporarily breaks up with Dylan, feeling that she's not ready for a sexual relationship. (They get back together during the 2d season.)

* "Life Choice," the 12th episode of NBC's legal drama "Law & Order," concerns the death of a young woman who is killed when an abortion clinic is bombed. Police officers Sgt. Max Greevey (George Dzundza) and Det. Mike Logan (Chris Noth) find themselves disagreeing over the issue of abortion. Meanwhile, in the DA's office, Adam Schiff (Steven Hill) questions whether Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty)'s views on abortion will interfere with his work.

* In the horror/sci-fi movie "The Unborn," an infertile woman (Virginia, played by Brooke Adams) and her husband join an experimental in-vitro fertilization program developed by Dr. Richard Meyerling (James Karen). The trial succeeds, but Virginia discovers that something weird is happening with the fetus. Turns out she is part of an experiment conducted by an insane doctor.

* "Absolute Strangers," a TV movie, is based on a true story about a husband who tries to keep his comatose wife alive by allowing doctors to terminate her pregnancy. Hearing about this, anti-abortion protesters start a legal campaign to gain legal custody of the fetus.

* "Switch," starring Ellen Barkin -- a sexist man gets his just desserts when his angry ex-girlfriends murder him and he is reincarnated as a woman.


* The Bush Administration threatens to veto legislation that would require federal funding of research that encourages or depends on abortion, including transplantation of tissue harvested from aborted fetuses.

* Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The Supreme Court, while affirming Roe's "core holding" that states may not ban abortions or interfere with a woman's ultimate decision to terminate a pregnancy, nevertheless upholds a laundry list of abortion restrictions (parental consent, anti-abortion counseling, and a waiting period), only invalidating spousal notification.

* NOW's March for Women's Lives brings an estimated 750,000 to Washington in support of abortion rights.

* In the 4th season premiere episode of "Murphy Brown," Murphy tries to deal with being pregnant. See video clip.

* On May 18, during the "Murphy Brown" season finale, Murphy goes into labor. At the hospital, Murphy tells her newborn child that she won't be like the other mothers, but she'll try not to make too many mistakes. She sings "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" to her child; then she cries. See video clip.

* Pro-choice Democratic candidates Gov. Bill Clinton and Sen. Al Gore defeat President George Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle.

"Murphy Brown"

* On May 19, Vice President Dan Quayle gives a speech on the subject of the Los Angeles riots; he blames the violence on a decay of moral values and family structure in American society. In an aside, he cites "Murphy Brown" as an example of how popular culture contributes to this "poverty of values," saying: "It doesn't help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown -- a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman -- mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'" Quayle drew a firestorm of criticism from feminist and liberal organizations and was ridiculed by late-night talk-show hosts for this remark; but conservative talk of the "collapse of family" has been going on ever since.

* In a June 1992 Houston Chronicle article, asked why the word "abortion" is never uttered by Brown -- or anyone else -- on the show, "Murphy Brown" producer Diane English said, "[Brown] would have used the word many times, but I wanted a lot of people to watch, and certain words have become inflammatory and get in the way of people hearing what we wanted her to say."

* In a two-part season opener for "Murphy Brown" (September 21), Brown watches Quayle's comments on television, responds in character on her new show, and later hires a truck to dump a thousand potatoes on Quayle's doorstep.

* "As the World Turns" career woman Ellie Snyder (Renee Props) learns that she is expecting a malformed child. She can't handle this news, and gets a (legal) abortion without telling her husband, Kirk (Tom Wiggin). Kirk finds out, and tells her that he would have wanted the child; he suggests that they immediately try to have another child. Ellie says no, and that's the end of their marriage. (NB: Ellie Snyder vanishes from the soap opera after 1992; but Kirk lasts until 1998.)

* In a February episode of "90210," Kelly (Jennie Garth)'s mother Jackie tells her daughter that she's pregnant; David's father Mel is the father. They decide to keep the baby.

* "A Private Matter," a TV movie telling the true story of Romper Room host "Miss Sherri" Finkbine (played by Sissy Spacek), who, after the devastating effects of thalidomide were discovered in the early 1960s, sparked a firestorm of controversy with her determination to obtain an abortion.

* "Maria's Child" -- TV movie. Maria (Yolanda Vazquez) is a dancer who becomes pregnant, unexpectedly, and has to decide whether or not to keep the baby. When her live-in boyfriend, who is not the father, admits to cheating on her, she kicks him out. Still unable to decide what to do, she imagines a dialogue with the fetus.


* President Clinton issues five executive orders reversing Title 10 regulations banning abortion referral by federal employees, repealing the Mexico City Policy restricting federal funding of international organizations that work to reverse countries' abortion laws, negating the ban on funding for fetal tissue transplants, ordering military hospitals to perform abortions, and asking the FDA to "review" the import ban on RU 486. Later that year, the Clinton Administration announces that the International Planned Parenthood Federation will receive $75 million over the next five years.

* President Clinton appoints feminist Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the US Supreme Court.

* On March 10, Dr. David Gunn of Pensacola, Florida is assassinated during an anti-abortion protest. He had been the subject of wanted-style posters distributed by Operation Rescue in the summer of the year before. (The song "Get Your Gunn" from Marilyn Manson's 1994 album, Portrait of an American Family, is about the killing.) In the next six years anti-abortion extremists will kill two other doctors, one abortion clinic escort, one security guard, and two receptionists.

* In a May episode of the nighttime soap "Melrose Place," Billy (Andrew Shue) and Alison (Courtney Thorne-Smith)'s relationship is torn apart when Amanda (Heather Locklear) discovers that she is pregnant with Billy's child. In the following episode, Amanda suffers a miscarriage.

"Melrose Place"

Katherine DePasquale would write, about this plot twist:

We have in Amanda a woman who, by her own account, is more invested in her career than anyone or anything else in her life, and she spouts the usual platitudes about the rights of a woman to choose and her inability to deal with a baby at this point in her life. Before Amanda has actually made a decision -- although, given the history of the "Melrose" writers, it seems likely that she would end up "deciding" to keep it -- she is suddenly beset with cramps and rushed to the hospital with... a miscarriage. This is surprising in itself --a nd seems to suggest that the judgment from on high for even considering an abortion is to "lose" the baby -- but what comes next is even more shocking: Amanda finds out, within an episode or two, that she is now, in fact, sterile.

DePasquale goes on to argue: "On some subconscious level, the writers feel a need to mete out some punishment for even considering abortion -- partially for the deed itself and partially to juxtapose the "reward" of the timely miscarriage -- and that punishment is sterility."

PS: Many convenient miscarriages to follow, in the Nineties (1994-2003).


Click here to read part one of this series.

Click here to read part three of this series.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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