TV's twisted abortion history: How the conversation changed about choice

It took decades to get from "Maude" to "Scandal," where abortion is just one choice among many a woman can make

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 10, 2017 11:00PM (EDT)

Kerry Washington in "Scandal"   (ABC)
Kerry Washington in "Scandal" (ABC)

Last fall when a "Jane the Virgin" episode aired with Xiomara revealing she recently had an abortion, it wasn't just a perfectly logical choice for a character whom viewers had come to know over the show's ever eventful three seasons. It was a subtle callback to a landmark television moment nearly five decades earlier.

In 1972 another fictional 40-something woman — a married suburban housewife — was shown, finding herself unexpectedly knocked up. Played by the formidable Bea Arthur, Maude Findlay is perhaps not the typical face of abortion. She is an educated, affluent woman with a family of her own, privileged to live in New York, where the procedure has already been legal months before the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Yet her choice, presented in a two-part episode of "Maude," was more than another topical issue for the show's creator Norman Lear to tackle; it seemed at the time to be the logical start of television's having an open conversation about subjects that affect millions of women — namely, pregnancy and the options around its termination. What followed instead were decades of near total silence. So when Xo on "Jane the Virgin" — another smart, ambitious grandmother enjoying a new phase of her life — decides that a baby is not in her future plans, the episode feels both revelatory and retro.

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Back when Maude was first shown facing her choice, having an abortion at all was a new concept. "We're free. We finally have the right to decide what we can do with our own bodies," Maude's grown daughter Carol — a mother of a young son herself — tells her in the episode. "It's a simple operation now. But when you were growing up, it was illegal. And was it dangerous and it was sinister, and you've never gotten over that. . . . When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It's not any more." 

As Norman Lear later recalled, he knew that "Maude would be absolutely torn, but that she'd come down on the side, given her age, of not having a child."

Reflecting on it now, Gretchen Sisson, a University of California, San Francisco sociologist and one of the lead investigators of the Abortion Onscreen research program, said Maude's abortion episode "was really important because it was treated in a very respectful way, that this was clearly the right choice for her. But it still really focused the plotline on her decision-making in this sort of heavy-handed way of thinking about it. That said, it was a telling example for the time, when abortion was just starting to be more legal and acceptable, that this was how we were thinking about it." Listen to the full conversation:

When the "Maude" episode first aired in the fall of 1972, it created a stir. But when it was in reruns the following summer — after the Roe v. Wade decision of early 1973 — the response was exponentially more heated. Nearly 40 affiliates opted to not air it, no corporate sponsors bought commercials, and CBS received a deluge of protest letters. The message was clear, and the message stuck: Abortion was prime-time poison.

Reproductive reality did still crop up from time to time in the bolder terrain of soap operas. In 1973 "All My Children's" Erica Kane became the first post-Roe v. Wade character to have an abortion. (This being daytime TV, several years later the show's producers decided her fetus had been transferred to another woman, and Erica's son, all grown up, traipsed into Pine Valley.) But after sundown, the mere mention of the word became virtually taboo. Throughout the '80s and '90s, when the subject did rear its head, it was likely to take the form of an admission of a long-ago act — like Mary Beth Lacey on "Cagney & Lacey" copping to having had a clandestine procedure when she was a teen — or a problem for a peripheral character, like an Eastland School student harboring a shameful secret in a single-episode appearance on "The Facts of Life."

Recalling the "Maude" abortion in a 1992 Chicago Tribune article, episode writer Susan Harris acknowledged, "We have a very interesting climate today, with the influence of the religious right. The economy is different today, and the networks would feel less likely that they could take a stand." 

A year later it would be MTV and the burgeoning format of reality TV that would crack open the door a little wider. Tami, a 23-year-old housemate on "The Real World: Los Angeles" shocks her fellow cast members on an episode by announcing to the group, "In case everybody didn't know by now, I'm pregnant." She add, "I've made a decision that I'm going to terminate the pregnancy, and it was a really hard decision for me to make."

The episode goes on to show her going for the procedure, recovering in bed afterward and concluding, "It was the best decision for me at this point in my life." Like plenty of real women who have had abortions when they were young, Tami Roman then went on to have a career and children. And though Roman has since said that she hoped the episode would educated young people on the consequences of unprotected sex, she appears to be among the estimated 95 percent of women who have abortions who say they don't regret their decision.

Throughout the 1990s and into the new century, the idea of abortion began to slowly become more pervasive on television — even if the act itself still rarely occurred. HBO's landmark 1996 film "If These Walls Could Talk" became the bold exception, depicting three generations of women facing the decision to terminate a pregnancy. It is somber and grim. And while the film did raise awareness that abortion is something women literally die for, it doesn't depict it as something a woman could just do and then comfortably move on from.

Meanwhile, on popular TV series, choice continued to seem barely like a choice at all. On "Friends," Rachel's unplanned pregnancy is met with a simple "You really gonna do this?" from Monica and a casual assent from Rachel. On "Sex and the City," Miranda gets as far as going to the clinic for an abortion — after her friends Carrie and Samantha admit to having had the procedure years earlier — before backing out. On "Felicity," Amy Smart's Noel has a similar last-minute change of heart.

On "Dawson's Creek," the teenaged Dawson essentially guilt trips his mother into reneging on her plans for an abortion. And when the teenaged Claire actually has an abortion on "Six Feet Under" in 2003, it is followed by a dreamlike vision of her baby — yes, baby — in the afterlife. The same year "Everwood" gently got around the issue by having one of Dr. Brown's colleagues do his duty and perform an abortion on a teen (played by a young Kate Mara) — and then confess his act to his priest. In 2010 when "Family Guy" attempted to take on abortion in its typically equal-opportunity offender way, the episode was deemed too incendiary for American broadcast television and went unaired. (You can now stream it on Netflix.)

Tara Rose, creator of the Remember the Abortion Episode? site, described TV's relationship to abortion in the context of our culture's "concentrated effort to stigmatize" it.

"The far right has been doing a good job of that over the past few decades," she said, "and doing it in this way of constantly reminding people that abortion is supposedly scary and dangerous and immoral and something you should be afraid to discuss openly. They'll react very fiercely to an open discussion of abortion on television."

She added, "Then TV writers felt like, 'We want to talk about abortion but thinly. We can do it by making the character really sad or remorseful. We have to have people argue about it; it has to be contested.' And usually they have to decide against it or have a miscarriage. You can't actually show a character go through with an abortion. It happened a few times, but it was pretty unusual until very recently."

But as real-world abortion rates have have been declining, choice over the past few decades has begun to become a more acceptable and commonplace television topic. Even while "The Mindy Project" — a show that takes place around an obstetrics practice! — has turned a deliberate blind eye to the subject, shows like "Friday Night Lights," "Grey's Anatomy," "Parenthood" and "Girls" have all offered their different takes on the subject.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough, though, came in a 2015  "Scandal" episode when protagonist Olivia Pope has her procedure on screen to the strains of "Silent Night." It is a bold and long overdue moment. In the 43 years since Maude's abortion, television had managed to consistently depict — with increasing graphic detail — sex, death, violence and substance use, while a commonplace medical procedure had remained shrouded in mystery. Yet it wasn't just the depiction of Olivia's abortion that felt like a major shift. It was the way she then goes on with her life. The way it doesn't bring her down or haunt her because as declared in a later episode, "I'm not ashamed. At all."

Sisson credited the 2014 film "Obvious Child" with being a game changer in the conversation about on-screen abortion, and she also credited "Scandal" creator Shonda Rhimes with shifting the way the topic is treated on TV.

"Her increasing commitment to portraying abortion, on 'Grey's Anatomy,' on 'Private Practice,' on 'Scandal,' has changed the game in a lot of ways," Sisson said. "As far as actually including abortion on prime-time network television, that's been a big change. And an important one."

By 2016, both "Jane the Virgin's" Xo and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's" beleaguered working mom Paula have abortions — further reminding audiences that unplanned pregnancy isn't something that happens only to reckless teens. Instead, 60 percent of women who have abortions already have children.

"What we've seen in the past two years that's really different is a focus on using abortion in stories that are really about something else," Sisson said. "On 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,' Paula's unexpected pregnancy puts her in crisis to make a decision about her future career trajectory. The story really isn't about the abortion."

The comedies "BoJack Horseman" and "You're the Worst," meanwhile, have recently used their abortion storylines to deftly skewer the institutionalized and intimate shaming that women endure for exercising their bodily autonomy. "My body, my choice," says Lindsay on "You're the Worst," overconfidently adding, "This is why Margaret Thatcher went to prison."

This spring "The Fosters," which three years ago boldly explored a character's heartbreaking but life-saving late-term abortion, portrayed teenaged Emma as having one. "Do you think I should feel bad?" she asks a friend who's accompanied her to the procedure. She has doubts and conflicted feelings, like any normal person would. But she also knows what the right choice for her is — and that she alone gets to make it.

While the oft-repeated claim that 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion before the age of 45  is — thanks to factors including lowered teen-pregnancy rates — likely not currently accurate, the fact remains that abortion is a common experience. And now with reproductive rights more scarily under attack than ever, at least television continues to present it as a viable option. What actual impact that kind of representation has, or will have, is yet unclear.

"The hope is that it decreases the stigma and silence around abortion," said attorney, journalist and author of the new book "The H Spot" Jill Filipovic. "Abortion is a normal part of women’s lives. Whether you are pro-life, pro-choice or somewhere in between, the reality is women have abortions."

Rose said she hopes to see TV do more, too. "I'd like to think that shows will start talking more about abortion access, talk about the obstacles because there are so many of them — and it's probably going to get worse."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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