Far from Reality TV: The Changing Story of Abortion on Television
Last year, shows like 'Scandal' and 'The Good Wife' tackled the issue of abortion head-on—but they're not without precedent. American TV shows have been struggling with the issue since far before Roe v. Wade.
Illustration by Rose Wong
In case you somehow missed it: Olivia Pope had an abortion. This story line in Scandal's midseason finale ignited a conversation about the issue—a conversation that seemed to rise above standard chatter (frenzied live tweet exchanges and the morning-after avalanche of recaps, complete with manic comments). The consensus was that Olivia's abortion was realistic, without melodrama, and audaciously unremarkable. The actual procedure lasted less than a minute and wasn't prefaced by a debate—or conversation—between Olivia (Kerry Washington) and her boyfriend Fitz, the president of the United States.
For those who tuned into television in the 1970s—when Bea Arthur's 47-year-old Maude decided to terminate an unexpected pregnancy on Norman Lear's hit CBS sitcom with the same name—it may seem remarkable that we were shocked by showrunner Shonda Rhimes's realistic depiction of abortion. Yet the shock makes sense when you trace the curious history of abortion on the small screen—and when you consider the alarmingly frail state of reproductive rights today: In a recent editorial that can be read as a primer for understanding abortion restrictions known as TRAP laws, the New York Times called 2015 the year of reproductive rights rollbacks. Has there been a more important time for television to deftly address the issue?
Abortions are rarely featured on prime time, and they usually don't involve a main character actually going through with it.
Scandal was not the only network show to address abortion in the past season. On CBS, The Good Wife—which has tackled abortion a few times in its run—featured a story arc ripped from the headlines: feminist lawyer Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) must go against her beliefs to represent a client seeking to keep online a damning video of a doctor discussing harvesting fetal tissue from abortions. (Another newsworthy layer in Scandal's winter finale: As Olivia lies on the operating table, Mellie Grant, former First Lady turned freshman senator, conducts a 16-hour filibuster to save Planned Parenthood.)
The recent episodes of Scandal and Good Wife represent a rare case of network television addressing abortion head-on. With some exceptions, abortions are rarely featured on prime time, and they usually don't involve a main character actually going through with it. A last-minute miscarriage, sure. A last-minute change of heart—even better!
Are we witnessing a seismic shift in the way abortion is treated on TV? Possibly. Even if it's too soon to tell, it's worth considering how we got here.
If Americans can't handle pregnancy...
Americans spent much of the fifties in love with Lucy. Since its debut on CBS in 1951, I Love Lucy was a ratings sensation, spending most of its six-season run as the highest-rated series on television. (To put it in perspective: 29 million people watched President Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration, according to the Encyclopedia of Television, but when Lucy gave birth to little Ricky in an episode that aired the following day, it drew 44 million viewers—more than 70 percent of U.S. households with a television.)
What Americans apparently did not love was pregnancy. When Lucille Ball's real-life pregnancy was written into the second season, CBS executives closely monitored how the show acknowledged her condition. Mind you: the show eschewed any suggestion of sex by presenting Lucy sleeping in a twin bed next to her husband Desi. The word "expectant" was used instead of the ostensibly vulgar "pregnant."
If audiences couldn't handle "pregnancy"—or if they were treated like they couldn't—they weren't going to be exposed to scenes about terminating one: Until the 1960s, abortion, which was illegal in 44 states in nearly all situations that didn't threaten the life the mother, was absent as a plot line in television.
A national dilemma
Abortion was first explicitly addressed on television in two documentaries. The first prime-time program on abortion was a 15-minute dramatic recreation entitled "Abortions: A Look into the Illegal Abortion Racket" on the 1955 syndicated program Confidential File. But it took another decade for the subject to be explored in a substantial way.
In 1965, Walter Cronkite—the most trusted man in America—narrated the first network broadcast on the issue. "Abortion and the Law," a one-hour segment on the critically acclaimed CBS Reports, went so far as to make the case for decriminalizing abortion. "The illegal termination of pregnancy has reached epidemic proportions in this country," Cronkite said in the feature's introduction, noting that abortion laws were broken an estimated one million times a year, or 3,000 times a day. "The conflict between the law and reality has resulted in a national dilemma," he proclaimed.
The Defenders, a drama that ran on CBS from 1961 to 1965, was the first prime-time series to tackle the issue. The show featured a progressive father-son defense attorney team, Lawrence and Kenneth Preston (E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, respectively), taking on cases concerning civil rights, capital punishment, pornography, and so on. The show's most controversial episode, which aired at the end of season one, is "The Benefactor," in which the Prestons defend a doctor on trial for performing an illegal abortion. (In 2008, "The Benefactor" was revived when an episode of Mad Men, also entitled "The Benefactor," featured a story line related to the real-life controversy surrounding the 1962 episode.)
"And then there's Maude"
In November 1972—just two months before Roe v. Wade became one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions by legalizing abortion in the United States—Maude was in its first season. A spinoff of Norman Lear's All in the Family (1971-79), Maude fearlessly addressed issues like menopause, alcoholism, depression, racism, and birth control. Maude Findlay was a savvy, strong-willed, silver-tonged broad—a proud feminist living with her fourth husband Walter (Bill Macy), and her divorced daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau). Anyone who watched the sitcom remembers its catchy theme song "And Then There's Maude," comparing the title character to Lady Godiva, Joan of Arc, Isadora Duncan, and Betsey Ross.
In the show's ninth episode, Maude unexpectedly becomes pregnant. In a two-parter entitled "Maude's Dilemma" (you can watch both parts here) she decides to terminate the pregnancy. Maude's decision brought the battle over reproductive rights into the homes of millions of Americans: An estimated 65 million people watched at least one of the episodes. It was the first—and ultimately one of the few—prime-time series to brazenly champion choice.
In "Maude's Dilemma" it's immediately clear that Maude doesn't want to have the baby: she's simply too old. Although she lives in New York, where abortion is legal, the decision of whether to terminate the pregnancy is a difficult one—one that Maude discusses with Water, Carol, and her best friend Vivian (Rue McClanahan).
"Look, there's only one sensible way out of this," Carol tells a distressed Maude. "You don't have to have that baby."
"Well, what will I do?" Maude responds. "Trade it in for a volleyball on Let's Make a Deal?"
It's a terrific moment. Throughout the episode, writer Susan Harris, who went on to create Golden Girls for Arthur and McClanahan, uses humor to diffuse some of the more serious moments. "We're free, and we finally have the right to decide what we can do with our bodies," Carol tells Maude at one point.
Over a game of gin rummy, Maude and Walter agree not to go through with the pregnancy. "For you, Maude, for me," Walter says, "in the privacy of our own lives, you're doing the right thing."
We're free, and we finally have the right to decide what we can do with our bodies.
A retreat from realism
The radical realism of "Maude's Dilemma" was largely an anomaly: the eighties saw few, if any, Maudes. It didn't take long for Harris's groundbreaking story to fade into oblivion. Consider a 1985 episode of The Facts of Life (1979-88, NBC) aptly titled "A New Life." Blair, a preppy college student, is visited by her mother Monica, who informs her that she's pregnant and does not want to have a baby. Blair begs her to reconsider—she's always wanted a younger sibling!—and Monica is actually persuaded by this naïve rationalization. Monica keeps the baby. It's a complete reversal of "Maude's Dilemma," in which an adult Carol, the single mom of an eight-year-old, offers warranted practical advice to her distressed mother.
While few female leads of the 1980s had abortions, the subject was examined—sometimes explicitly, other times implicitly (if not flippantly)—in a handful of popular shows. The presence of abortion in story lines meant audiences could at least see how common the decision to have one was. Shows like Hill Street Blues (1981-87, NBC), St. Elsewhere (1982-88, NBC), thirtysomething (1987-1991, ABC), and 21 Jump Street (1987-1991, Fox) all dealt with the issue at some point during their run.
A few series even attempted to rise to the standards set by Lear and Harris. On Buffalo Bill, a quirky sitcom that premiered in 1983, lead character Jo-Jo White (Joanna Cassidy) becomes pregnant and, in a two-parter called "Jo Jo's Problem," has an abortion. But the story line may have cost the clever series its slot on TV: Buffalo Bill was cancelled not long after the episode aired. "I think [the abortion] had more to do with us being taken off the air than anything else," said Buffalo Bill creator Jay Tarses in 1989. "We were just inundated with pictures of dead fetuses. I just felt like, 'My God, what have I done here?' They made me feel like a murderer."
Cagney & Lacey
The strange saga of abortion in eighties television can be understood by considering Cagney & Lacey as a case study. The police procedural, which ran on CBS from 1981 to 1988, starred Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless as Manhattan police detectives. Mary Beth Lacey (Daly) is a married working mother, while Christine Cagney (Gless) is a single woman more focused on her career.
In Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991)—a seminal study about the backlash against feminist advances of the 1970s—writer Susan Faludi offers a behind-the-scenes account of the problems CBS executives had with the show. According to Faludi, all hell broke loose over a 1984 episode in which Cagney was to become pregnant and consider having an abortion. "The script provided that she would miscarry in the closing scene so she would never actually have to make the decision, but this was still too unsavory for CBS programming executives," Faludi writes. The writers ultimately caved: in the final episode, ironically entitled "Choices," Cagney only mistakenly thinks she is pregnant (and is then scolded by Lacey for being irresponsible).
To its credit, Cagney & Lacey tackled abortion again in a 1985 episode called "The Clinic" about the bombing of an abortion clinic. At the end of the episode, it is Lacey who reveals to her husband that she had become pregnant as a teenager and traveled to Puerto Rico to obtain an abortion. Not surprisingly, the episode sparked much outrage.
Roseanne Barr's series about a working-class Midwestern family—Roseanne (1988-97, ABC)—was an anomaly: a rare glimpse into "blue-collar" America when the sitcom landscape was dominated by upper middle class families headed by Bill Cosby, Danny Tanner, and even Murphy Brown. In 1994, the series audaciously dealt with abortion in its "Thanksgiving '94" episode, in which a pregnant Roseanne learns there may be something wrong with her baby and must decide whether to carry it to term. The episode features Roseanne discussing the situation with her family, including her own grandmother, Nana Mary (Shelley Winters), who reveals, rather offhandedly, that she had two abortions.
When it came to abortion in the 1990s, most network shows were not audacious as Roseanne. Throughout the decade, and into the new millennium, the "change of heart" trope —in addition to the "convenient miscarriage" trope—were go-to methods of getting around an abortion. (See: Melrose Place; Beverly Hills, 90210; Felicity; and Dawson's Creek.)
As premium cable television became more popular, writers began addressing abortion in bolder ways. In 2001, HBO's immensely popular Sex and the City dealt with the issue when workaholic Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with her ex. In "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda," Miranda initially decides to have an abortion, but ultimately changes her mind—a decision that is more realistic (her biological clock is ticking) than sentimental. The true poignancy of the episode, however, is revealed in a subplot involving Carrie and her boyfriend Aiden. When Aiden asks her if she's ever had an abortion, she initially lies. She comes clean at the end of the episode.
Carrie: I lied to you. I did have an abortion. The condom broke. Ok, that's another lie. There was no condom.
Aiden: What's with all the lying?
Carrie: I'm afraid you're gonna judge me. For being 18 and sleeping with a guy without a condom and getting pregnant and never telling him. There, that's the whole truth. Except that I was 22. I should've known better.
It's the most affecting moment in the episode, revealing the shame women bear long after their procedure.
In the new millennium, network television, perhaps taking its cue from cable, began handling abortion in a more realistic way again. In a 2003 episode of Everwood, for example, a teenage girl (Kate Mara) decides to terminate her pregnancy and actually goes through with it. However, as critic Ken Tucker astutely points out, the show "hedges its bets": Mara plays only a minor character and the episode concludes with the doctor who performed the procedure going to confession and asking for forgiveness. Still, a 2010 episode of Friday Night Lights didn't hold back at all: the drama showed a teenage character's realistic decision to end a pregnancy after discussing her options with a guidance counselor (the magnetic Connie Britton as Tami Taylor).
Beyond prime-time TV
"A mass audience just doesn't gather anymore," said media expert Amanda Lotz when we spoke about abortion in the era of on-demand television. "I think that really has affected the way an issue like abortion has been portrayed because you can speak to the choir in a way that you couldn't before."
While Lena Dunham, whose HBO drama Girls has broached the topic of abortion a few times, may worry about ratings, she isn't producing a series for the masses. In the second episode of its premiere season—"Vagina Panic"—Jessa (Jemima Kirk) believes she is pregnant and without hesitation decides to have an abortion. (Her friends rally around her by meeting at the clinic to throw her a "beautiful abortion," but as it turns out, it's a false alarm and Jessa doesn't even show up to the appointment.) The word "abortion" is used 11 times in the episode. (It was used only three times in Sex and the City's "Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda.") Abortion came up again last February, in the fourth season, when Adam's girlfriend Mimi reveals she had an abortion without telling him because she didn't want his input. She also mentions she has had other abortions in the past.
Abortion on television today is not completely realistic: [TV] characters who have abortions are younger, whiter, and wealthier than most women in real life.
Recently, researchers with the group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health conducted a "census" of abortion in popular culture from 1916 to 2014. The results were published in the journal Contraception, and they reveal that abortion is more commonly portrayed than one might assume: It was featured in nearly 400 storylines in television and film (most following Roe) and 87 on prime-time television.
In 2015 alone, a plethora of television shows—Jane the Virgin (The CW), Jessica Jones (Netflix), The Knick (Cinemax), Call the Midwife (PBS), etc.— discussed abortion or incorporated the issue into an important part of an episode.
While the issue has been explored in popular culture more than many viewers realize, abortion on television today is not completely realistic. The study also found that characters that had abortions were younger, whiter, and wealthier than most women in real life. Moreover, the reasons for fictional characters seeking abortions centered on immaturity and lack of desire to parent, which contrasts with the more common reasons women get abortions: financial hardship or mistimed pregnancy.
While we've come a long way since I Love Lucy, history is still unfolding.