Can a Reality Show Find the Elusive “Common Ground” on Abortion?

Use quotes to search for exact phrases. Use AND/OR/NOT between keywords or phrases for more precise search results.

Can a Reality Show Find the Elusive “Common Ground” on Abortion?

Anat Shenker-Osorio

The producers of the webshow Bump+ hide a lot about themselves which creates a highly suspect atmosphere for the foundation of a civil and meaningful conversation about abortion.

Eventually, we will all be on a reality show. There will be a military-style draft instituted, as there are simply too many shows that need bodies. Currently, “real” people starve themselves, get cut open, parent octuplets, seek a spouse, turn car parts into couture and show us a slice of life from prison. So ubiquitous has it become you might wonder, is any topic off limits? The answer is yes. Abortion has necessitated a new genre — the based-on-a-reality-show show.

This show is Bump+ — “an attempt to see if one story can succeed where nearly four decades of rhetoric and political posturing have failed.” Actors playing characters on a reality show, complete with fake producer, visible camera crew and confessional interviews, decide whether to carry their pregnancies to term.

Bump+ is the first offering from Yellow Line Studio, which “exists to develop, produce, and distribute quality entertainment that engages and influences the culture in positive ways.” And if I had any idea what that meant, I might agree it was good.

But obfuscation turns out to be integral to the show and the studio that spawned it. The obvious example of this is the conflation between creator and viewer. The audience is encouraged to “participate” — giving commentary on the episodes, offering advice to the characters and telling their stories to help shape the outcome.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

The latest news, delivered straight to your inbox.


In response to Fox News labeling Bump+ an “abortion game show,” producer Lauri Deason was quick to refute the idea that viewers are voting. The line between yea or nay and influencing what happens, however, is pretty blurry. Each episode ends with the words “their choices are up to you.” So, to be fair, it’s not a game show; it’s an abortion-themed choose your own adventure.

When I asked Executive Producer Chris Riley why viewers’ comments would influence the narratives, he responded: “because that’s the nature of our web culture…. People are more apt to tell their story if they feel it has a chance to influence. I understand that can raise concern that this choice is being taken out of the hands of these women, our characters. Each of these women will make their own decisions — [the viewers’ comments represent] a wider circle of friends who offer advice.”

This explanation seems to contrast one of Deason’s objectives:

I hope we’re functioning in some small way as a cultural mirror reflecting the dark side of the reality show phenomenon…I’m relieved and hopeful for our culture when I read in the press that people are outraged and offended by the concept of a show like the fictional one we’ve created. Part of what drew me to this project was my own sense of horror at the idea that anyone (the women or the TV crew) would even think to exploit such a personal and private decision; and yet, three of the first ten comments we got on the trailer were inquiries about casting for the show. (We immediately removed those comments.)…A few people have raised some good points about the consequences of allowing what should be an intimate decision to be shared by millions of strangers – and how the current atmosphere that seems to characterize some of the actual abortion debate looks suspiciously like a real world parallel to that at times. If nothing else, the outrage over Bump+ proves that there are people from both perspectives who actually agree on one point that suggests they share a fundamental respect for women.

If you are seeking to criticize the genre, it hardly seems effective to profit off of one of its key elements — audience participation. As Audre Lorde wisely counseled “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

But most troubling is the lack of clarity in the motivation behind the show itself. Despite multiple attempts to get at what constitutes success in this endeavor, I remain unsure of what Deason means when she says she wants to “influence the culture in positive ways.” Deason’s written response on this is hard to dislike: “I’ll feel successful in terms of the company’s mission if viewers walk away with new or renewed confidence that they don’t have to compromise or abandon their own convictions to listen and respond with compassion to someone else.”

And Riley wrote similarly encouraging things, saying “I think in particular that we’ve already seen evidence in the conversations unfolding on the Bump+ website that the audience…is gaining compassion. They’re listening to people with whom they disagree. They’re trying to understand. And anytime people can have meaningful conversations around a topic that has been as polarizing and even taboo as abortion, a subject we’ve proven ourselves virtually incapable of talking about, I think that’s a plus for our culture.”

If this “experiment” is one of finding common ground — an endeavor Riley commended as represented on this very website — it seems the question of its success should revolve around whether this is possible and how it ought to be attempted. Riley maintains that “if we can tell the stories honestly and fairly, [if] you can conclude that this was paid for by the Pope or Planned Parenthood” than they’ve accomplished what they set out to do.

But is intentional ambiguity about your own beliefs the necessary starting point for civil debate?

Common ground is not a clearly demarcated space. Do we reach this mythical country by wearing our views on our sleeves and fighting it out till we find — Venn-diagram style — the intersections? Or do we, instead, hold back on our existing beliefs and biases?

The latter approach is the one Yellow Line is taking. Riley refuses to disclose his views on abortion. Other key people do the same. However, he maintains — as have others on the show’s website — that the folks involved come from a variety of backgrounds. They would have us understand this to mean they hold a variety of viewpoints.

But “variety” itself seems ill defined. As Mary Elizabeth Williams reported, all of Bump’s top folks teach at John Paul the Great Catholic University. However, you wouldn’t know this from their bios, which read “[Iocco] serves as a university administrator and faculty member” and “[Riley] teaches screenwriting and other media classes at the university level.” Deason doesn’t mention a university connection at all but is an adjunct professor at JP Catholic.

Why all the secrecy about their day jobs? Possibly because this university boasts the motto “Impacting Culture for Christ” and declares “the Catholic influence on the media is near rock bottom, but is enjoying a small but passionate resurgence in Hollywood. New media, which is evolving and maturing daily, is poised to radically change the landscape of the media industry.”

While it’s possible to interpret this as the ‘loving-kindness, accept-people-as-they-are’ version of Catholicism — it’s difficult to credit the school with such a view. In fact, they have proudly taken up Pope John Paul’s directives for Catholic universities, including “offering a convincing witness, within a pluralistic society, to the Church’s teaching, particularly on respect for human life, marriage and family, and the right ordering of public life. As most of us know, “respect for human life” in a dogmatic Catholic view means prohibiting abortion.

While Riley side-stepped potential conflict between the school’s directives and Bump’s+ objectives, JP Catholic states quite clearly: “All teaching faculty commit to harmony with Catholic Church teachings (the pope and bishops) in speech and action. Faculty, staff, students or volunteers who knowingly in public speech or actions take positions against the Catholic Church compromise their relationship with JP Catholic.” (Emphasis theirs) And “public speech” clearly extends beyond the classroom.

This connection to JP Catholic is the norm among Bump’s+ cast and crew. Sixteen out of the 27 people in the show’s credits work for, attend, or have graduated from JP Catholic. All of the show’s writers have studied there including Matthew Salisbury who came up with the idea for the show in a course at — you guessed it — JP Catholic. Two cast members not affiliated with the school clearly identify with the anti-choice movement.

While the top level folks, as their aforementioned bios attest, are circumspect in revealing their personal views — the younger members of this endeavor could learn a bit about Facebook privacy settings. For example, Emily Von Sydow, the associate producer who writes the show’s blog is a Facebook fan of The Not So Silent Majority among other anti-choice organizations. Regarding the charges of secrecy, she asks: “Should artists be required to label their art with their religious and political affiliations? Does a writer, director, or producer (or even a doctor, pilot, or journalist) have a responsibility to explain exactly what they believe to everyone?”

One viewer responds: “if the producers had done a web series (sic) on football or dog-sledding or making a cheesecake, I would argue that their political and religious affiliations are completely irrelevant. However, abortion is *the* polarizing religious, moral, and political issue of our age. When considering a web series (sic) dealing with abortion, knowledge of the point-of-view of the producers is not only of interest to the viewer, I would argue that it is *critical*, particularly if you hope to engage your viewer in honest dialogue.” Perhaps there is something to be said for encouraging viewer responses.

Riley offered, unasked, that he isn’t Catholic. Not surprising, given he’s a graduate of Oral Roberts University where “a Christian worldview is central to everything we do.” Similarly, Lauri Deason graduated from an evangelical center of higher education — William Tyndale College. It’s safe to assume she isn’t Catholic either.

I spoke with the only member of this production who is neither silent about nor right wing in her personal politics. Lauren Holiday, who plays a nurse at the clinic where most of the story takes place, is a lesbian activist who is married to her partner despite California’s schizophrenic attitude toward equality.

Holiday was quite clear that she felt absolutely no bias among Bump’s+ creators, nor hostility from her fellow cast members. In fact, because auditions were held at JP Catholic (surely a dubious practice for a show that professes to have no institutional relationship to the university) she insisted she was on alert for any bias — “I just wouldn’t have been involved in it if I thought they were trying to preach a certain message.”

In contrast to her colleagues, she offered up her views on abortion, stating “I’m pro-choice to me it’s really an issue of privacy…So I’m surprised that people feel like they can weigh in on somebody’s personal decisions, it’s almost a throw back to the old days when women were property.”

What to make, then, of this professed attempt at dialogue? Is it in earnest or the best-ever propaganda?

Turning to the show itself, the answer is still not obvious. There are hints of anti-choice tactics like forcing the women to not only have but stare at the screen during their ultrasounds — as part of their contractual obligation to the reality show. And while the doctor is willing to waive this requirement, in defiance of the producers if necessary, there’s also this exchange between him and Katie, one of the pregnant women:

Katie: Does it hurt?

Doctor: It can be complicated, but I’m not sure I can honestly answer that question.

Katie: Haven’t you…performed…

Katie: Why not?

Doctor: I’m a coward.

Why was this physician selected if he has no real knowledge of this procedure? And then there’s his answer — is it a question of courage to provide a medical service your patient requests? I guess it can be argued that in today’s political climate, bravery is essential.

Complicating any assessment of whether this show comes with an agenda and, if so, what that agenda entails is the intense criticism it has received from the anti-choice crowd. Besides the Fox News beating, conservative commentator Kathleen Parker charges “there are so many unappealing facets wrapped into this one package, it’s difficult to identify the core offense.” On her radio show Dr. Laura tore into Yellow Line CEO and Bump+ Executive Producer Iocco.

The vast majority of the comments on this show — I would estimate 75 percent but haven’t actually counted — are anti-choice. The standard story offered is of abortion regretted; the most frequent refrains are about the unborn. But this is precisely because the show has received much more — almost entirely negative — attention in the “Right to Life” camp. The over-riding sentiment from these folks is: how dare they make a show with decision-making in the foreground — the unborn baby always deserves top-billing. They’re contending, in a sense, that the show cannot foster dialogue and bring down the temperature because its very premise goes against their side’s worldview.

And so I find myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with people whose political objectives I abhor. I too believe the basic premise of the show is at odds with its purported intentions. For me this means, for an issue that — according to the legal logic in Roe v. Wade — is about privacy, the very notion of encouraging input from strangers is antithetical to legalized abortion. On the other side of this debate, I would guess this irreconcilable conflict would sound thus: for an issue involving life, which begins at conception, the circumstances surrounding termination of pregnancy may be meaningful but are never worthy of consideration above life.

The length the producers have gone to hide their affiliations indicates it might not be possible to present stories about abortion without an agenda. They obviously feel it’s necessary to avoid mention of the school where the idea was born and all of the executive and writing staff work or study. This indicates one of two things (1) they are hiding a secret agenda or (2) they fear people will suspect they are hiding a secret agenda.

Either way, highly suspect as the foundation for a civil and meaningful conversation. It is, at the outset, an attempt rooted in obscuring personal truths, and perhaps even outright fabrication.

Treading the middle ground is not just the intent of Bump+ but also the metaphor behind Yellow Line Studio’s name. In this, Riley remarked rather off-handedly that “driving down the middle” you are very likely to get hit by traffic from both sides. Especially, I would add, if you try and conceal yourself from view.