On any given evening, you can turn on the TV and surf past images that not too long ago were considered too shocking, too politically contentious, or too offensive for national broadcast: interracial couples; visibly pregnant women; graphic violence; sex; homosexuality; foul language; even dancing, singing animated feces. Thanks to the rise of reality TV, it’s become acceptable to broadcast graphic, gruesome images of real or realistic medical procedures (rhinoplasties, gastric bypasses, and autopsies) and gross-out bodily functions (people eating bugs, worms, and rats; people vomiting).
You’ll undoubtedly witness characters both fictional and real dealing with complicated love triangles, sex, birth, death, betrayal, and more moral conundrums than you can shake your remote at. You might even catch a comedic skit that openly mocks Jesus and God. But there’s one thing you’re almost guaranteed not to see on TV, despite the reality of it being one of the most common medical procedures in the United States: abortion. As many commentators have pointed out, as all of the old you-can’t-do-that-on-television taboos— sexual content, violence, cursing, nudity, homosexuality—have fallen away, abortion is the one hot-button issue that simply remains too hot for TV.
Robert Thompson, Director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and Television at Syracuse University, describes abortion as being “conspicuous by its absence,” while in a November 2004 New York Times article Kate Arthur calls it an “aberration.” While the public and political discourse around issues like gay rights has dramatically increased over the past 30 years—and subsequently become increasingly visible in popular culture—the discourse around abortion and reproductive rights has actually narrowed, to the point where it has become more difficult to introduce the issue of abortion on a TV show than it once was.
The debut of reproductive rights
Way back in 1964—nearly a decade before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationally—a main character on the soap opera “Another World” got pregnant and had what was referred to as an “illegal operation,” which left her sterile. Shortly after the 1973 Roe decision, Susan Lucci’s “All My Children” character had soap opera’s first legal abortion, with none of the health or psychosocial aftereffects (sterility, insanity, murder, etc.) that would come to characterize soap abortions in the future. But the best-known and most widely viewed pop culture abortion took place in 1972 on “Maude,” the “All in the Family” spin-off starring Bea Arthur as the titular liberal feminist. When 47-year-old Maude, who was married and had a grown daughter, became unexpectedly pregnant, she opted for an abortion, which was legal in New York State at the time. (In a sign of just how different the times were, “Maude”’s producers cooked up the abortion storyline in response to a challenge from the group Zero Population Growth, which was sponsoring a $10,000 prize for sitcoms that tackled the issue of population control.)
In the wake of Roe v. Wade, and as the basic tenets of second-wave feminism seeped into the American mainstream in the ’70s and ’80s, serious adult-oriented dramas like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Cagney & Lacey” featured abortions every season or so, as did the occasional soap opera. In the real world, the annual number of abortions steadily increased until 1985, when the abortion rate leveled off. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, in the face of a growing number of legal challenges to Roe, a smattering of storylines revisited the specter of illegal abortions, as if to remind us of what was at stake. On Vietnam War-era drama “China Beach,” a young nurse named Holly has an illegal abortion; the show’s moral center, leading character Colleen McMurphy, is a staunch Catholic who disapproves of Holly’s actions. Popular shows “thirtysomething” and “Cagney & Lacey” addressed the issue more obliquely, often using flashbacks to provide some distance from the controversial event or using an extraordinary event—like a bombing of an abortion clinic on “Cagney”—to touch on the issue.
Moral dilemmas and false alarms
With the rise of the primetime teen soap (“Beverly Hills 90210,” “Party of Five,” “Dawson’s Creek”) in the mid-’90s, it was inevitable that sexually active teen and young adult characters would be confronted with pregnancy, often in the guise of the Very Special Episode. Enter the convenient miscarriage. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, some 13 percent of unwanted pregnancies end in miscarriage, but on TV that number is much, much higher. The convenient miscarriage goes something like this: Sympathetic lead character gets knocked up. SLC agonizes over what to do, sometimes going so far as to visit an abortion clinic. SLC decides that although she believes in a woman’s right to choose (her boyfriend or best friend most likely feels significantly different, however), she’s going to keep her baby. Moral dilemma resolved, SLC spontaneously miscarries; SLC is sad but realizes that in the end she wasn’t really ready to be a mother anyway. (Alternatively, the pregnancy turns out to be a false alarm, an even tidier wrap-up to the dilemma.) The convenient miscarriage/false alarm remains the most popular strategy for dodging abortion, as it allows TV producers to congratulate themselves for tackling the tough topics without having to take an actual stand.
Recently, however, a handful of shows have approached the issue head-on, even allowing characters to go through with the abortion. But there is always a measure of conflict and moral crisis: A 2003 episode of the WB show “Everwood” turned the issue around, to focus on the moral dilemma of the doctor (the show’s lead character) over whether he can in good conscience perform an abortion; in the end, he decides he can’t do it, and passes the case to a colleague, who does the procedure then heads off to a priest to confess his sins. Over on HBO, an episode of “Six Feet Under” depicted teenage lead Claire matter-of-factly getting an abortion, without endless agonizing or moral anguish—but in a subsequent episode her aborted fetus pays her a visit, appearing as a cute infant (a plot device that wasn’t all that unusual, as dead people appear as hallucinations or ghosts on the show all the time). And last summer, a two-part episode of the made-in-Canada teen soap “Degrassi: The Next Generation” made headlines when 14-year-old lead character Manny gets pregnant, has an abortion (saying, “I’m just trying to do the right thing here. For me. For everyone, I guess”), and doesn’t express any regret afterward. Alas, U.S. viewers won’t get to see the show: The Viacom-owned cable channel N, which airs “Degrassi” in the United States, refused to air it.
Today’s four-letter word
While Maude’s abortion was truly groundbreaking, it inadvertently galvanized the anti-choice movement. When CBS reran the episode six months later, some 40 affiliates refused to air it, and national advertisers shied away from buying ad time, establishing a pattern that remains in effect today. Even more significantly, after the episode first aired anti-abortion leaders took their case to the Federal Communications Commission, arguing that the fairness doctrine—which mandated equal time for opposing views—ought to cover not just editorials and public affairs but entertainment programming too. Because “Maude” had an abortion on CBS, they argued, they should have the right to reply on CBS. They lost the case, but won the attention of the networks. In 1987, the fairness doctrine itself was struck down; but by that point, it didn’t matter: The networks had established a pattern of covering their asses by presenting some semblance of balance as way of diffusing potentially volatile subjects. In the landmark episode, Maude agonizes over the decision, but her daughter reassures her, speaking in the language of the growing feminist movement: “When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It’s not anymore.”
But more than 30 years later, as many of the tenets of the women’s liberation movement have become accepted parts of mainstream American culture, abortion is a messy, if not exactly dirty, word. Back in 1992, when the sitcom “Murphy Brown” was hailed for its overt feminism and its titular character found herself unmarried and unexpectedly pregnant, the a-word was never uttered. Diane English, the show’s producer, said in a June 1992 Houston Chronicle article, “She would have used the word many times, but I wanted a lot of people to watch, and certain words have become inflammatory and get in the way of people hearing what we wanted her to say.” In the end, Brown had the baby, igniting the ire of Vice President Dan Quayle and disappointing many feminists.
During the battle for abortion rights that culminated in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, public declarations were an integral tactic of the movement. In an effort to overcome the shame and silence surrounding abortion, women organized public speak-outs, at which they talked openly and honestly about their illegal abortions. Abortion is a fact of life, they asserted, and it affects women of all colors, class and religious or political belief. Over the years, however, as the anti-abortion movement has grown stronger and more organized, the pro-choice movement has struggled to regain this clarity of speech. Young women who were born after Roe continually assert that abortion is a private decision, a private choice that needn’t be broadcast—an attitude that is at once true but also extremely politically naive.
Veteran TV producer Diane English acknowledged this back in February 2001, when she wondered aloud to The New York Times: “Maybe women…only had to think about their Manolo Blahniks for the past eight years under the Clinton Administra-tion. If women start to wonder if they will lose the right to have an abortion, perhaps that attitude may change during the next four years.” Sadly, it seems like it may take another four years for women to get scared—and angry—enough to demand that popular culture reflect their concerns.
Abortion in the real world
The current state of abortion on TV reflects both mainstream American attitudes toward abortion and contemporary feminists’ discord over pro-choice strategies. While poll after poll indicates that a majority of Americans support the upholding of Roe v. Wade, it’s also clear that a majority of Americans have deep concerns and moral conflicts about abortion. This ambivalence is reflected in the pro-choice movement, too, as nationally recognized feminist leaders speak of the need to recognize the agony and shame that accompany abortion. Given this roiling mass of conflicting feelings and politics, it’s no wonder that an hour-long drama can’t get a handle on the issue.
As Syracuse University’s Thompson points out, “A lot of people strongly feel that there’s too much sex on TV, but they will have no trouble watching an episode of ‘Blind Date’ or ‘Desperate Housewives’ in their own home. With abortion, those feelings aren’t so easily eliminated in one’s TV viewing. No [networks] want to run the risk of powerfully offending people on either side [of the issue].”
As a result, what we see on TV isn’t likely to satisfy anyone, no matter where they stand. Producers strive for a form of balance by always ensuring that there’s a dissenting voice of some sort—a friend, relative, or authority figure who ardently asserts their anti-abortion stance. To pro-choice folks, TV’s take on abortion seems unnecessarily harsh, moralizing and punitive. With the exception of the unaired “Degrassi” episode, you never see a character undertake an abortion the way many women you know do: With the utter confidence that she’s doing the right thing in a difficult situation. To abortion foes, TV is littered with anti-fetus propaganda that leans heavily on the choice angle while refusing to come out and declare that abortion is murder. It’s a no-win situation.
Out in the real world, feminists and reproductive-rights activists are working to rescue the language of moral values from the radical right, and using it in this thorniest of issues to present the decision to have an abortion as a deeply moral one. To name just a few examples, Jennifer Baumgardner’s new documentary I Had an Abortion and national news articles by feminist activist Amy Richards and novelist Ayelet Waldman detail their difficult abortion choices. For now, it’s unlikely that TV viewers will ever see one of the “Desperate Housewives” unapologetically opting for a second-trimester abortion when she realizes her fetus has profound genetic anomalies, or one of the lissome gals on “The O.C.” sporting an “I Had an Abortion” baby tee, proclaiming that ending her pregnancy was the best decision she ever made.
The trashy, ephemeral landscape of pop culture may seem like an unimportant front in the battle for women’s rights, given the injustices that befall real live women and girls every day around the world. But as the 2004 election has shown, the United States is in the midst of an all-out culture war, in which public language and pop images are playing a crucial role in shaping the terms of the debate. In the struggle to capture the hearts and minds of Americans, the reproductive-rights movement—like the rest of the progressive movement—needs to find new ways to present its case openly and frankly. Like death and taxes, abortion is one of the world’s certainties—no matter the legal status, there will always be unintended pregnancies, and there will always be women who seek to terminate those pregnancies. After all, of the 6 million pregnancies each year in this country, half are unintended; some 47 percent of those unintended pregnancies result in abortion. And has history has shown us, not talking about it won’t make it go away.
Rachel Fudge is the senior editor of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. This article was originally published in Clamor Magazine.