In 2004, the U.S. distributor for Degrassi: The Next Generation, a Canadian soap opera for teens, decided not to air a two-part episode called “Accidents Will Happen.” Young American fans, myself included, were pretty upset. “We feel that the teens of the U.S. should have the same right to view the episodes as they are seen in Canada,” said one online petition at the time. “We are no different than them so why not show it,” went another. I half-remember unsuccessfully trying to download the episode using a risky file-sharing platform, like Limewire, or maybe it was Kazaa. I probably put a virus on my parents’ desktop computer.
The episode in question is centered around a 14-year-old gymnast named Manny, her unplanned pregnancy, and her subsequent decision to have an abortion. It’s one of several storylines in the cult Canadian franchise’s 38-year history — which includes five main series, The Kids of Degrassi Street; Degrassi Junior High; Degrassi High; Degrassi: The Next Generation; and Degrassi: Next Class — that deal with hot-button, high-stakes issues through the eyes of adolescents, who are almost always played by actual teenagers.
“A lot of Degrassi episodes were pretty controversial,” said Jake Epstein, who played bipolar heartthrob Craig Manning. Craig had unprotected sex with Manny a few episodes earlier, in the garage where his band practices. He had a girlfriend at the time, a vindictive mall goth named Ashley. In the show’s first season, Ashley, an eighth grader, takes ecstasy at a house party. The next year, her friend Paige gets raped by a jock from a rival school. “When we found out [‘Accidents Will Happen’] was not aired in the States, that was a real shocker,” Epstein said. “I was like, This was the one they’re not gonna air?”
“Abortion deserves dramatic representation. It’s something that we run into, and yet it’s like the third rail — you just don’t touch it.” —Shelley Scarrow, former Degrassi writer
Shelley Scarrow, a Toronto-based writer and story editor, wrote “Accidents Will Happen,” and several other of The Next Generation’s most talked about storylines (including one 2005 episode in which teen girls trade sexual favors for multi-colored bracelets). “Every season we would make a list of issues we wanted to tackle,” said Scarrow. “To me, abortion’s one that has to be there. It deserves dramatic representation. It’s something that we run into, and yet it’s like the third rail — you just don’t touch it.” As they tended to do with issue-based episodes, Scarrow and the Degrassi team kept their U.S. distributors — The N, the Viacom-owned Nickelodeon offshoot now known as Teen Nick, whose programming is ostensibly geared towards older children — in the loop from day one. Still, the episode was not permitted to air with the regular run of the show.
In Canada, abortions are covered by universal healthcare, and the dialogue surrounding the topic is not as extreme as in America. “There’s a lot less protesting in the streets,” explained Andrew Townsend, who works as coordinator of teen programming at Planned Parenthood in Toronto. “It’s an issue that people are talking about, but it feels less contentious.”
Today, 13 years after “Accidents Will Happen” was censored, there remains an urgent need for more productive conversations around abortion — especially in the Trump era, when federal support for Planned Parenthood in America is at risk (Vice President Mike Pence is a long-time adversary of the nonprofit, which is the largest single provider of abortions in the nation). By smartly dramatizing the various angles of such a complex issue, Degrassi helps to normalize them.
When Manny discovers that she is pregnant, she’s presented with a bunch of options, mostly from her peers. (“Parents are always on the periphery,” Epstein, who played Craig, the would-be father, said of the show’s tendency to let kids solve their own problems. “So, you turn to your friends, who may or may not give you the right advice.”) Manny’s friend Emma wants her to keep the baby. Paige, an older mean girl, suggests giving birth would ruin her life — and “probably her figure.” Craig comes from a broken home, and he wants Manny to have the baby, so they can start the family he never had.
“Showing that there’s not one way to think about it is important,” said Planned Parenthood’s Townsend. “It’s not an easy situation one way or another. There’s a lot of factors that go into it; people’s minds change.”
Cassie Steele was actually 14 when she played Manny, her nervy naivety affording certain scenes an air of documentary reality. “I’m just trying to do the right thing here. For me, for everyone, I guess,” Manny says to Emma in an especially vulnerable scene. Maybe that’s part of the reason the episode, which is actually pretty tasteful and poignant, might’ve felt controversial to some; this is a real 14-year-old girl with agency. “I didn’t really process the significance of that episode until much later,” Steele told me.
This wasn’t the first (or last) Degrassi episode to feature a teen pregnancy. In season one of Degrassi Junior High, the franchise’s late-’80s iteration, a 14-year-old punk named Spike chose to keep her baby, and years later, her daughter Emma would become one of the The Next Generation’s young protagonists (and Manny’s BFF). A 1989 episode of Degrassi High found a different young woman deciding to have an abortion. But the show’s U.S. distributor, PBS, edited the ending to be more ambiguous, so you never saw the teenager fighting her way through a mess of anti-abortion protesters to enter the clinic.
“Showing that there’s not one way to think about it is important. It’s not an easy situation one way or another.” —Andrew Townsend, coordinator at Planned Parenthood Toronto
Near the end of “Accidents Will Happen,” Emma, a righteous young activist-type, puts aside her personal beliefs for the greater feminist good. “She’s my friend, and it’s her choice,” Emma tells Craig, who refuses to accept Manny’s decision, during a confrontation in their school’s hallway. Craig backs off, and Emma walks away solemnly. This is the show in a nutshell — all arguments and lessons, long walks and broken hearts, freeze frames and falls from grace. But for all its saccharine pulp, Degrassi serves a crucial role in opening up dialogue around the real-life issues that teenagers face.
“Accidents Will Happen” finally aired for American audiences two and a half years later, in August 2006, when it was casually slipped into a special block of episodes hand-picked by cast members (Cassie Steele chose it as one of her favorites). “It made me really proud to be part of something like that,” said Steele, who received numerous handwritten letters from girls who related to the episode. “It was a really touching and fulfilling experience.”
In the decade-plus since, American teen shows are still lagging behind in terms of abortion storylines. There was a 2007 episode of the intimate high-school football drama Friday Night Lights in which a 16-year-old named Becky chooses to terminate her pregnancy, triggering a true-to-life controversy in her small, conservative Texas town. And in 2011, an episode of MTV’s Teen Mom 2 found one of the protagonists ending a pregnancy — though you never actually see her at the doctor’s office. “Anything that [takes] another step towards making it okay to make a show about [abortion] is positive in my estimation,” said former Degrassi writer Scarrow. Although, when asked, she struggled to come up with a realistic portrayal of abortion on a U.S. teen show since. “Nothing seems to be changing,” she added.
Degrassi has always asked an important question: if we can’t talk about it on TV, then how are we ever going to deal with it in real life?
In 2017, it’s still the popular Canadian export that seems to be doing all the heavy lifting: on the latest season of Degrassi: Next Class, which debuted in January on Netflix, a blue-haired cheerleader takes an Uber to a clinic, has an abortion, and then films a video blog about her experience.
In Canada, abortion rates are lower than in the U.S. There are a number of factors to consider, but it’s certainly possible that Canada’s approach to telling abortion stories has a positive effect. “I think with Canadian audiences, when abortion comes up in movies or on TV, the discussion around it seems to be sedate and open and a bit more calm [than they are in the U.S.],” explained Planned Parenthood’s Townsend. “That lets people ask questions, and form their own opinions.”
Linda Schuyler, co-creator of the Degrassi universe, would agree. “There is a school of thought with some parents and some broadcasters that feel that we should be more protectionist of our young children, that we should shield them from information more, and that’s not where I come from as a producer,” she said, basically laying out the formative ideals that have made her shows so groundbreaking — and surprisingly transgressive. Degrassi has always asked an important question: if we can’t talk about it on TV, then how are we ever going to deal with it in real life? “I’m of the very strong opinion that we create healthy teenagers by being open with them.”