Abortions on television can be funny. They are sometimes heartbreaking or traumatic. They might help educate a woman watching at home who wants to make an informed decision about her own abortion. They can be all of these things and more – all that’s important is that they are normalised. But if you’ve ever watched a US TV show with an abortion storyline, there’s a good chance that it would play out very differently if it were written today.
Take the latest series of Katori Hall’s hit strip club drama, P-Valley. In an episode that aired on 24 July this year, Mercedes (Brandee Evans) drives her 14-year-old pregnant daughter Terricka (Azaria Carter) to the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, talking through her options on the way. They walk past anti-abortion protestors outside the clinic. “So, you just gonna suck it out?” Terricka asks nervously. “If that’s what you decide,” the nurse replies. After 24 hours, she goes ahead with the procedure. At the time of production this was a realistic, if precarious, reflection of life in a US state where it was legal to get an abortion up to 15 weeks of pregnancy.
By the point of broadcast, the storyline had become an impossibility. The real-life abortion clinic, the one Terricka visits was based on – Jackson Women’s Health Organization – permanently closed its doors on 6 July 2022 after the landmark Roe v Wade case to legalise abortions across the US was overturned. The building has now been sold.
“We always knew this season was going to be a time capsule of America during one of the most turbulent times in our history,” says Hall. “We addressed the pandemic and police brutality in the Black community, but we never could have predicted that we were writing the Mississippi of yesteryear.”
As showrunners are forced to rethink how best to write this new reality, it’s devastating to realise that this month marks 50 years since the first legalised abortion storyline aired on mainstreamUS television in Norman Lear’s popular 70s sitcom Maude. In a trailblazing 1972 double bill, Maude’s Dilemma, the 47-year-old New Yorker (played by a brilliantly wry Bea Arthur) comes home and announces to her family that she’s pregnant. She cries, jokes, ponders aloud and talks to her friend, daughter and partner about her options. “At the age of 62, I’m going to be the mother of an eagle scout,” she deadpans at one point.
It is Maude’s grownup daughter, Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), who points out that abortion had already been legal in New York for two years at that time. “When you were growing up it was illegal and dangerous and sinister,” she tells her mother. “Abortion was a dirty word. It’s not any more.” Eventually, Maude chooses to terminate the pregnancy and is clearly happy with her decision. It was a milestone moment for women on screen, as the episodes aired two months before the supreme court delivered its decision on the Roe v Wade case. Writing it was a bold move by Lear; CBS received thousands of complaints and reported advertisers dropping out. But when asked about it in a recent interview, his reason for doing so was simple: “A woman; it’s her body, and I say that as the father of five daughters.”
“It showed us humour can be a great tool when discussing serious issues,” says Caren Spruch, Planned Parenthood’s national director of arts and entertainment engagement, who collaborates with TV producers and writers to inform the content of their scripts on abortion. Spruch says “tears streamed down my face” while recently rewatching the episodes: “When I heard Maude’s daughter, Carol, say: ‘We finally have the right to decide what we can do with our own bodies,’ the impact of the recent abortion bans hit me in a new way. That’s the power of entertainment, and why we do this work.”
Maude’s Dilemma really was pivotal in portrayals of women on TV. The following year, in US soap All My Children, Erica (Susan Lucci) became the first character to have an abortion after it was finally legalised nationwide. Erica’s abortion did prove controversial, with the backlash proving there was still a long way to go – and then something ludicrous happened: the storyline was retroactively tweaked, with it emerging that Erica’s doctor transplanted her foetus into his own infertile wife. Audiences stomached this turn of events more readily than a woman choosing to terminate a pregnancy.
The real gamechanger came in 1998 with the arrival of Sex and the City, specifically the episode Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda. When Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) announces she’s pregnant over brunch, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) casually and confidently share that they had abortions they don’t regret. Although abortion is legal at that time, the show explores the social stigma still attached to it; Carrie lies to her boyfriend when he asks if she’s ever had one, while Miranda’s doctor repeatedly declares: “No judgment!” after refusing to do the procedure. “I can’t have a baby … I could barely find the time to schedule this appointment,” says Miranda at the clinic, where she later decides to keep the baby – a vital twist, in which a woman has the information and freedom to make a measured decision and change her mind.
Things got better from there. In a 2012 episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls called Vagina Panic, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) throws Jessa (Jemima Kirke) an abortion party – which Jessa doesn’t turn up to because she miscarries while having sex with a stranger in a bar toilet. A few years later, in Netflix female wrestling show Glow, Ruth (Alison Brie) says: “It’s not the right time, not the right baby,” before we see a doctor telling her she’ll feel a pinch when the injection at her cervix numbs her uterus. And in Shonda Rhimes’s political thriller, Scandal, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) unceremoniously gets an abortion to the soundtrack of the Christmas carol Silent Night.
For Hall, who was a child when Maude’s Dilemma aired, it was Olivia’s abortion that was most significant to her own work: “It was a rare occurrence of seeing a Black woman at the centre of an abortion story and I appreciated the lack of melodrama surrounding her decision. It was grounded, precise … it felt so real.”
Such nuanced storytelling is crucial. In 2019, Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health published a report that looked into the representation of abortion in television between 2008 and 2018. It found 96 televised plotlines, with 40% depicting some aspect of the abortion procedure, 59% depicting a surgical abortion procedure (of which about half were legal and half illegal) and 18% portrayed medication abortions. Of course, there’s no set bar for how many storylines should centre on abortion. The important thing is how they’re shown. Why, for example, are there so few medication abortions – when the reality of abortion practice, pre-this year’s Roe v Wade overturn, was that more than half of US abortions are by medication?
With abortion now illegal in at least 13 US states, Hall says: she will “most definitely continue addressing abortion in my writing, as the lives of women is the heart of my work”. She adds that, in the future, “I hope there is a flood of thoughtful and complicated articulations of the issue. I also think stories showing what not having access to this part of healthcare looks like is a necessary chapter, especially in places like the deep south.
“Tell the stories of women who miscarry but can’t get a dead foetus extracted from their wombs, or address the labyrinthine legal process to actually get an abortion due to rape … these are just some of the stories we all need to see. This will only happen if we hold space for more women writers and producers in our industry.”
This isn’t just a US issue. The UK’s abortion act was passed in 1967 (excluding Northern Ireland), five years before Roe v Wade. When abortion was still illegal in 1965, Nell Dunn’s BBC play Up the Junction, part of The Wednesday Play series, told the story of an unmarried woman who endures a horrific miscarriage after getting a backstreet procedure. On the one hand, it showed the brutal reality women faced, but what woman wouldn’t be terrified by this? They saw that they had no option. Another episode of The Wednesday Play in 1968, after abortion was legalised, depicted a pregnant religious woman facing another fear: her Catholic church, which still banned abortion.
After that, miscarriage was sometimes used as a broadcaster-pleasing cop-out arc. In Brookside in 1986, fortysomething Sheila Grant (Sue Johnston) becomes pregnant after being raped – but she miscarries before deciding whether to continue the pregnancy. Though this might not be the most positive portrayal, at least soaps could always be relied upon to explore abortion in a more nuanced way.
Michelle Holloway (Susan Tully) had an abortion on EastEnders in 1988, telling her partner Lofty: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t do anything else.” Delving deeper into the complexities for a more modern audience two decades later, Laurel Thomas (Charlotte Bellamy) and Jai Sharma (Chris Bisson) in Emmerdale decided to terminate a pregnancy after learning the baby would be born with Down’s syndrome. Addressing a viewer petition against the storyline signed by 32,000 people, producer Laura Shaw explained it was “not about right or wrong” but about “people making really, really difficult decisions.”
There’s an urgent need to continue showing these tough talking points: the newly appointed minister for women, Maria Caulfield, is a former member of the all-party parliamentary “pro-life” group and voted against legalising abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019. Last month, she opposed the use of buffer zones around abortion clinics.
Spruch puts it very simply: “Maude and her family showed us that [legal] abortion is safe, normal and common, and why everyone must be able to make this decision for themselves. It’s been 50 years since that aired, but its message is still salient: people should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, lives and futures. Period.”