The History of Abortion on Network TV, and What It Means for Women Today

This morning, those of us who believe in a woman's right to choose have something to celebrate: the Supreme Court has struck down abortion restrictions in Texas. But victory has become an unfamiliar sensation, as of late. At the end of March, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, a bill so extreme even some pro-life lawmakers opposed it. Around the same time, Donald Trump suggested (and then recanted) that women who receive abortions should be subject “to some kind of punishment.” The last few years have seen the curtailing of abortion rights across the US, from Tennessee to Texas, North Dakota, and most recently Oklahoma.

I’ve watched these explosive conversations and laws unfold across the country with horror, as women’s bodies are used and abused by the political process. Missing from many of these political conversations are women’s voices and missing from the media landscape, from television to film, are representations of women who choose to have abortions, whatever their reasons may be.

When TV shows attempt to stay neutral on the issue of abortion, in order to avoid offending an imagined conservative audience, they in fact take an anti-choice stance. Plot lines in which abortion is not considered as a reasonable option reinforce the spectacle and stigma around the procedure. That's why it's so important when shows like Scandal offer diverse representations of reproductive choices, helping to normalize the scope of possibilities available to women.

Abortion’s absence in entertainment television is nothing new. Broadly's Briana Fasone writes that, “until the 1960s, abortion, which was illegal in 44 states in nearly all situations that didn’t threaten the life of the mother, was absent as a plot line in television.” Fasone details this early history of abortion on TV, which included news reports, a controversial episode of The Defenders, and a Walter Cronkite special. Moreover, pregnancy itself has often been invisible on network television. For decades, women’s pregnant bodies have been largely hidden behind drapey clothes (see: Lucille Ball), tight camera framing, and even the occasional giant popcorn bowl. (I’m looking at you, Scandal.)

Even more obscure are storylines that engage and carry through with abortion in primetime network programming -- the most expensive and conservative landscape in television -- especially when the procedure involves a main character. Here, Scandal made history in its mid-season winter finale, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” showcasing its central character choosing, without fanfare, to have an abortion. Olivia (Kerry Washington) wasn’t the first character to make this choice on television, but she is one of a very select few.

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In the early 1960s, an abortion plot on The Defenders, which supported the rights of women to choose, caused an uproar at CBS. The show lost sponsors. Affiliates in many major markets refused to air the episode. Then, in 1972, there was the Bea Arthur sitcom Maude.

maude abortionIn 1972 -- in line with the shifting tide signaled by the Roe v. Wade decision (1973) -- Bea Arthur’s character Maude had an abortion. Although she was not the first character to have an abortion on TV (shout out to soap operas!), she was the first character to do so in primetime television. Over 30 years later, Maude remains mostly alone in the history of primetime abortions, Dr. Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) on Grey’s Anatomy and Becky (Madison Burges) on Friday Night Lights are two exceptions. (Within this select group, most women on TV who have abortions are, according to KQED's own Lisa Aliferis, “younger, whiter, wealthier and less likely to be raising children than the average American woman who has an abortion.”)

Often when TV does depict abortion, it's a big and controversial deal. For instance, when Becky has an abortion on Friday Night Lights, the whole town becomes hysterical. Becky’s decision even results in Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) being forced by the town to step down from her job as school principal.

While accidental pregnancies are a regular plot twist on network TV, it’s far more common for characters to go ahead and have the baby. This trope wraps sex into the productivity of the nuclear family (television’s bread and butter). You might recognize this plot line from Friends (Ross and Rachel have Emma) or, more recently, The Mindy Project.

Just last year, Mindy Kaling said that her sitcom wouldn’t depict abortion because it is too serious (see Obvious Child for a great counter-argument about how to talk about abortion with humor and warmth). Thus, when Mindy got pregnant during the sitcom’s third season, she kept the baby, like many female characters before her. The show did not give her space to consider any other decision.

Then in November 2015, Olivia Pope had an abortion in a primetime show watched by millions of dedicated fans. Of Olivia’s abortion, Lenika Cruz wrote in The Atlantic, “the camera didn’t ogle, but it didn’t shy away from Olivia’s wide-eyed gaze either. The message? This is normal. This is acceptable. This is Olivia’s choice, and hers alone.” The audacity, she concludes, wasn’t the abortion itself, but that it wasn’t made into a spectacle.

Olivia’s decision to resist patriarchal control over her body also has a broader meaning, given that her boyfriend is the President of the United States: in making her decision without him, she also denies the government any role or say in what she does with her body. Her choice, quite literally, argues that government has no place interfering in women’s bodies and our right to choose our own destiny, for ourselves and any potential children. If anything, taking this a step further, it also argues that government ought to protect this right and stop prohibiting safe access to care, something recent abortion laws have certainly not done.

In one portion, the new Indiana law reads, “information submitted with respect to the disposition of a miscarried or aborted fetus that may be used to identify the parent or parents of a miscarried fetus or a pregnant who had an abortion.” There are several other typos in the bill, so this phrasing may be an accident. Even so, the implications are chilling: that a pregnant woman is no longer an autonomous being -- no longer a woman, even -- but simply a vessel for childbirth. It is a typo that feels too closely in line with the times, in which abortion and even miscarriages are stigmatized and criminalized. Donald Trump’s assertion that a woman who gets an abortion ought to be punished sounds outlandish. But, it is not so far afield from what we’ve already seen happen across the United States.

The erasure of abortion on primetime TV, and television’s tendency to treat it as a spectacle when it does happen, is part and parcel of this violence towards women, which denies us both the choice and ability to decide what we do with our own bodies. This erasure reaffirms the idea that abortions are not normal, modeling once again that they are outside the scope of polite or appropriate TV content.

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By depriving imaginary women the opportunity to make active decisions about their own bodies, so too does television limit the ways in which we imagine ourselves and the choices available to us. We deserve to see a real range of reproductive choices represented -- much like Olivia Pope’s -- in order to normalize women’s right to decide what happens to our own bodies.

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