Roe v. Wade has been in place since 1973, but for many years network TV has generally pretended that abortion is not an oft-chosen, safe option for women. On shows including “Dawson’s Creek,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Felicity,” “Sex and the City,” and “The O.C.,” women confronted with a choice have usually not aborted unwanted pregnancies, or they ultimately suffered a miscarriage before they could decide, or learned they were not pregnant after all, or decided to abort and later died or suffered from complications — a kind of punishment. Networks rely on advertisers, who are notoriously squishy on subjects and plotlines that might cause controversy and even boycotts.
Those same networks and advertisers, by the way, also once refused to allow the word “pregnant” on TV because it implied sex. Not our Lucy!
That said, here are a few of the TV landmarks that have helped the pop cultural landscape reflect the realities of reproductive freedom. Now that the Supreme Court appears to be planning to strike down “Roe v. Wade,” of course, these may become historical oddities.
THE SYMBOL: “The Handmaid’s Tale”
The show seemed to shift from a dystopia exaggerated for effect into a near-reality overnight. Minutes after Politico leaked the Supreme Court’s draft opinion, “Handmaid’s Tale” memes began their red and white march across social media. The show, on which fertile women have lost control of their own bodies under a patriarchal theocracy, serves as a terrifying vision of life before and after “Roe.” It is the scared straight of abortion, the most vivid and horrifying image of forced motherhood and how easily women’s hard-won rights can be taken away.
TO HECK WITH TABOO: “The Defenders”
The episode is said to be one of the first scripted mentions of abortion on TV. In 1962, in an hour called “The Benefactor,” the CBS legal procedural “The Defenders” found the father-and-son team (played by E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed) defending a doctor who performed abortions, which were illegal at the time. Advertisers dropped out — which was depicted on a 2008 episode of “Mad Men” — and some stations (Boston and Providence, among others) refused to air the episode. But the “Defenders” writers nonetheless delivered a passionate defense of choice through the statistic- and ethics-based attorneys’ arguments. Ultimately, in what no longer seems like a dated resolution, the doctor is convicted.
THE GROUNDBREAKER: “Maude”
Despite the fact that some CBS network affiliates wouldn’t run it, the two-parter ushered abortion into the prime-time conversation in November 1972 — months before the Supreme Court issued its 7-2 decision in favor of Roe. It was classic Norman Lear, subverting TV’s past misrepresentations and encouraging the recognition of uncomfortable subjects. At 47, Maude realizes she does not want to raise another child and, living in New York where it was legal, gets an abortion. Rather than end the story with a false pregnancy or a miscarriage, Lear kept the focus on Maude’s choice and follow-through as well as the absence of judgment by those around her. The ratings were strong, but it certainly didn’t inspire more episodes about abortion by other TV writers of the time.
HER OWN CHOICE: Shonda Rhimes
Rhimes gets it. On a 2011 hour of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Sandra Oh’s Cristina has an abortion. Initially, her husband is against it, but she shuts him down. It’s her choice. He later changes his mind and goes with her for the procedure. On a 2015 episode of “Scandal,” about Senate plans to defund Planned Parenthood and therefore restrict access to reproductive health care in general, Olivia Pope has an abortion while Aretha Franklin sings “Silent Night” over the soundtrack. The father happens to be the president, who, when he later learns Olivia has had an abortion, says to her, “I support your choice … not that you need it.” The men of the government, symbolically, are not involved in her body.
NO DRAMA: “Jane the Virgin” & “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in 2016
These were not histrionic Very Special Episodes, despite being on network TV. When “Jane the Virgin” premiered in 2014, some perceived it as an antiabortion show since, after being accidentally artificially inseminated, Jane, a virgin, considered an abortion but then had the baby. But by season three, it was clear the show was more expansive, after Jane’s mother, Xiomara, chooses to have a medication abortion. Xo doesn’t go through big angst; she knows her mind. When she tells her ex that her mother is “making me feel guilty about not feeling guilty,” he delivers the moral of the story: “Get your mother out of your head. If you’re sure about your choice, that’s all that matters.” Also in 2016, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has Rebecca’s best friend, Paula, who already has two children and is preparing to start a law career, accidentally getting pregnant. She is resigned to putting her plans aside and having the child. But her husband reminds her, “There are options, you know.” She decides to have an abortion, no guilt attached.
NON-NETWORK FREEDOM: From “Six Feet Under” to “Sex Education”
Since pay cable and streaming don’t need to answer to advertisers, they have been more likely to feature abortion plots without any both-sides-ism, covert judgment, or network interference. In a 2003 episode, “Six Feet Under” saw 19-year-old Claire get an abortion without much ado. She got pregnant in a soured romance that had already ended, and she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life in the grasp of that mistake. The story line is presented in a pragmatic, matter-of-fact tone, just as it is on “Sex Education” during the first season in 2019. Maeve, 17, realizes she’s pregnant, goes to a provider where she receives counseling, returns for the abortion, pushes past protesters, bonds with another patient who has been through it before, has the relatively quick procedure, and proceeds to live her life.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.