Mourning After

11.23.11

‘The Walking Dead’s’ Abortion Misstep

AMC’s zombie hit stumbled into the abortion debate recently, provoking fury in the blogosphere. It was all in the name of “artistic creative license,” the executive producer tells Kate Aurthur.

Googling “The Walking Dead” and “abortion” yields hundreds of results from the past week—sites ranging from Jezebel to the ACLU have written about a plot turn in the Nov. 20 episode. And they’re all really mad about it.

In the course of AMC’s successful post-apocalyptic zombie drama, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies)—one of the survivors—has had sex with two men, one of whom is her husband. She has found out she is pregnant and, because they’re in zombie hell, decides to end the pregnancy. In the recent Season 2 episode in question, she takes a bunch of tablets labeled “morning-after pills.” But, like so many TV characters before her when faced with this decision, she changes her mind and throws them up. (She can form a club with Andrea from Beverly Hills, 90210, Miranda from Sex and the City, Ryan’s girlfriend Theresa on The O.C., and many others.)

What got the Internet upset is the misinformation the show spread by showing Lori taking a handful of morning-after pills when she is weeks’ pregnant with the aim to no longer be pregnant. The Walking Dead is adding to the confusion between emergency contraception such as Plan B (which is, indeed, a morning-after pill, and prevents a woman’s egg from being fertilized) and RU-486 (which is administered by doctors and does cause abortion).

“Aren’t they supposed to have fact checkers to catch this kind of thing?” asked the ACLU blog.

“Seriously, Walking Dead writers: Do you just not know how emergency contraception works, or did you assume we didn’t?” posed Flavorwire.

And the SEO headline in Slate’s XX Factor was: “The Walking Dead characters mistakenly think the morning after pill causes abortion. Do the writers?”

All good questions. Did anybody ask AMC? Or the writers? According to Marnie Black, the network’s senior vice president of publicity, the network did not receive a single inquiry from a journalist.

Here is what Glen Mazzara, The Walking Dead’s executive producer and show runner, has to say about it (the show’s publicist emailed this to me):

“The producers and writers of The Walking Dead are fully aware that the morning-after pill would not induce an abortion or miscarriage. We exercised our artistic creative license to explore a storyline with one of our characters, not to make any pro-life or pro-choice political statement. We sincerely hope that people are not turning to the fictional world of The Walking Dead for accurate medical information.”

Mazzara’s statement could be dissatisfying for those among us who think that anything in culture, whether it’s fictional or not, is political, and for others among us who know that lots of people do extrapolate medical information from scripted television.

What is certain is that abortion—which is still legal—continues, perhaps more than any other, to be a fraught issue in popular culture. The debate plays out insanely in Breaking Dawn: Part I, the most recent Twilight movie, in which the characters who want Bella to have an abortion use the word “fetus” and the ones who don’t say “he” and “baby.” And pro-choice viewers of The Walking Dead might raise a suspicious eyebrow at an interview the show’s writer/executive producer/comic writer Robert Kirkman did with Entertainment Weekly in which he said, “If there’s ever been an argument for abortion I think the thought of bringing a child into a world infested with zombies is definitely something that at least warrants a discussion.” (That’s the only argument for abortion—and for a mere discussion?)

What’s also troubling is that this discussion coincided with a storyline in which Lori’s hosts—at an idyllic farm seemingly untouched by the zombie apocalypse—are discovered to be keeping a group of “walkers” alive in a nearby barn. When asked why, one of the characters responded, “They’re people.” The show’s heroes, however, accused of “murdering” such people, had a much more limited definition of what life is. “These aren’t people,” responded Glen (Steven Yeun). The timing is especially disturbing, as Lori and her husband debated whether to bring a child into this messed-up world. While the words “fetus” and “embryo” aren’t uttered, the “walkers” may as well be standing in here for Lori’s unborn child.

Is it murder? Has The Walking Dead become a parable about the sanctity of all life, hidden behind the window dressing of a horror story?

In 2004 I wrote a story for The New York Times about the abortion taboo on television. I talked to Josh Schwartz, the creator of The O.C., about his show’s non-abortion storyline, and his decision not to have any of the characters use the actual word “abortion.”

“There's something about the word ‘abortion,’” he told me. “That the show would sink under the weight of it.'”

The Walking Dead clearly learned that very lesson this week in the land of the blogger apocalypse.

Jace Lacob has contributed to this report.