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‘Empire’s’ Abortion Debate Is Muddled, But Improved


Spoilers for “Empire,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Scandal” ahead. 

Sometimes we all need a mulligan.“Empire’s” writers just took one on abortion.

I don’t blame them. The last time abortion arose on Fox’s music-oriented soap opera, the whole storyline felt too pointed. It existed seemingly only as a messenger, which never works well storytelling-wise and works even worse for a subject as personal and polarizing as abortion.

Back in April 2018, “Empire’s” beloved Becky, the A&R executive, found herself pregnant with the baby of Christian rapper J Poppa, whom she had dumped. Becky didn’t want the relationship or the baby, assuming the child would cramp her hard-charging, career-centered lifestyle. So she decided to abort before J Poppa even knew she was pregnant.

For a character who’s not typically portrayed as unfeeling, the whole thing felt incredibly cold, like the decision was a fairly obvious and uncomplicated one. The writers left poor J Poppa praying before joining Becky at Planned Parenthood, telling her that while he didn’t support abortion, he wanted to support her. And that was pretty much the end of that.

In an earlier era, abortion was a narrative non-starter. (See: “Friends.”) That’s not so now. “Empire’s” storyline recalled Cristina Yang’s two career-fueled abortions on “Grey’s Anatomy,” which upset both fathers, and Olivia Pope’s choice to abort the president’s baby without his knowledge while “Silent Night” played on “Scandal.” She didn’t want to have his baby.

Abortion resurfaced on “Empire” last week, when Andre (the Lyon son who previously lost his pregnant wife and unborn child and now runs Empire) nearly lost his new wife and unborn son. Hearing about the new tragedy, Tiana (the star formerly linked with Andre’s youngest brother), sent good wishes to Andre and his wife over Instagram, commenting “all life is precious” on a post.

That innocuous statement ruffled the feathers of Andre’s assistant, Maya, who fretted Tiana’s “pro-life message” could offend fans, urging her to correct the misimpression. But Tiana stood by her words.

In a conversation with fellow recording artist Treasure, Tiana reminded everyone about the abortion that Empire’s previous chief pressured her to get for career purposes. She made an appointment but then couldn’t bear to do it. Still, Tiana later devastatingly lost one of the twins she was carrying.

For a mainstream hit show, the writers did a nice job portraying a woman whose personal experience has made her strongly pro-life. We see how Tiana remembers her loss, and while the pain has receded, it’s still tangible.

Like a true partisan, though, Treasure says “anti-choice” people aren’t “pro-life” as much as “pro-birth.” She challenges Tiana to consider how privileged she was, being a grown woman who could both choose to keep her pregnancy and afford single motherhood if necessary. Treasure also urged Tiana to consider the plight of a 13-year-old raped by her uncle.

Now, the writers could have had Tiana insist the harms preceding this hypothetical 13-year-old’s pregnancy be addressed but also note that such horror stories are thankfully not particularly representative. In Florida, where women are asked why they’re aborting, 2018 data make this hypothetical look like a fairly rare—but still completely horrible!—scenario. Of more than 70,000 abortions, eight women cited incest and 101 mentioned rape as the reason for their abortions.

Treasure mentioning economic issues certainly taps into our culture’s current love of “privilege” hierarchies, but it’s not exactly a mic drop. While it’s certainly possible that Treasure’s hypothetical woman aborts for economic reasons, 53,000 of Florida’s more than 70,000 abortions were described as elective, while only 14,000 women named “social or economic reasons.”

So, yes, some women certainly do abort for economic reasons, but many other women prefer to find ways to make the economics work and keep their babies. And why shouldn’t Tiana speak to her fans about her personal experience with abortion and motherhood? Why shouldn’t she especially engage those having elective abortions about why they might want to choose differently?

In the end, the writers settle the debate by letting Andre’s assistant remind everyone that she’s the product of a prison rape but remains firmly pro-choice, because she believes her birth mother deserved a choice. Maya also chides Treasure, who’s now posted her own pro-choice video to capitalize on the controversy, insisting that abortion is too complicated to resolve on Instagram.

All in all, this was a notably stronger abortion episode for “Empire.” It felt more human and more real to acknowledge that women reach different conclusions on this very sensitive subject and that much of the discussion is influenced by our own experiences or those of the women closest to us.

“Empire” is never going to resolve the abortion policy debate, but as a matter of entertainment, this mulligan episode felt more respectful to viewers. And maybe, just maybe, it gave J Poppa some sense of closure, knowing that he’s not alone.