Last night on Grey’s Anatomy, Cristina Yang, the driven, ambitious surgeon who had gotten pregnant at the end of last season, went ahead and had an abortion. That’s right! Someone actually had an abortion — not a miscarriage, not an ectopic pregnancy, not a last-minute change of heart — on national television. The lengths TV shows will go to avoid having characters go through with abortions have become something of a running, not that funny joke, for all the obvious political reasons. Everyone from Julia Salinger on Party of Five to Cristina Yang herself, back in Grey’s second season, have talked about wanting to have one, only to have some less controversial pregnancy-ending plot twist intervene. But not last night! Grey’s Anatomy may have brought us ghost sex, ill-advised musical episodes, and endless bed swapping, but it was brave enough to do what almost no other series will: show this one particular, totally legal medical procedure on TV.
At the end of last season, Cristina told her husband Owen that she wanted to have an abortion. Cristina more than loves her job as a surgeon, it’s who she is, how she defines herself, and what she wants to dedicate her life to: A child would make that impossible. Owen wants to have the baby, and at the beginning of last night’s episodes, they’re estranged. Cristina had made, and bailed, on a number of doctor’s appointments, psychologically unable to go through with it without his okay. But over the course of last night’s two hours, in a rare reversal, Owen changed his mind, and Cristina didn’t.
First, Cristina gave Meredith a long speech about how she needs someone, anyone, to see her side and accept that she really, truly does not want to have a baby. This is already pretty radical: It’s common TV wisdom that whatever your reservations, once you see your child, you’ll not only love it, you’ll never regret having it. Cristina disagrees.
Then, Meredith gave Owen a talking-to, pointing out that Cristina is only being true to herself — she’s never said she wanted kids — and he should stop trying to make her into someone else. Meredith even went a step further, saying that as the daughter of a woman who didn’t love her, she knows just how awful it can be — and that Owen shouldn’t put his wife or his child through that.
Meredith’s speech seemed to get through to Owen, and after a number of crazy surgeries and a baby-napping (this is Grey’s, after all), Owen goes to Cristina, asks her when the appointment is and, … goes with her to the doctor. During the appointment, the doctor ponderously says, “I’m going to ask you one more time, are you absolutely sure this is what you want to do?” (Showing an abortion is one thing; making it guilt free, that would be a whole other.) Cristina says yes. And then, instead of the usual last-minute flip flop, the abortion actually happens.
Grey’s has explored the edges of this territory before. Cristina wanted to get an abortion in season two, before that ectopic pregnancy; Addison has talked about having had an abortion, after getting pregnant with Mark. But last night’s storyline constituted a much bolder step, if one perfectly in keeping with character: There’s probably no woman on TV right now more single-mindedly dedicated to her career than Cristina. It has long been her defining characteristic. If it occasionally makes her into a caricature, it has also unquestionably established that she would have an abortion in this circumstance. The writers didn’t have to get her pregnant at all, but once they did, this was the only plausible resolution for her.
Still, many shows before Grey’s have shied away from doing what’s right for the character when it comes to abortions. Grey’s is a very popular television show; it’s possible Shonda Rhimes’s pull with ABC is what allowed her to get this story green-lit, in which case, more power to her. Grey’s may not be in the same league as TV’s other auteurist dramas, but it is the work of Rhimes’s very particular sensibility. Sometimes that can be infuriating — all the mistresses! All the voice-overs! — but last night it worked in the shows favor. Grey’s Anatomy, you are temporarily forgiven for the ghost sex.