COSMOPOLITAN - How Abortion Makes It Onto Television: 10 TV Writers Share Behind-the-Scenes Stories
How Abortion Makes It Onto Television: 10 TV Writers Share Behind-the-Scenes Stories
Despite being a common medical procedure in real life, abortion is still a taboo subject for many of your favorite shows.
By Emma Dibdin
Abortion is a common medical procedure in the United States but you wouldn’t know it watching television, where a woman choosing to terminate a pregnancy has been a hard limit for most broadcasters until recently. (Criminal activity though? That's practically a TV prerequisite.) Here, 10 show creators and writers share their experiences developing 12 abortion storylines, in episodes that aired from 1972 through 2016, including details of their writing process and network pushback.
Their storylines encompass a vast array of situations: teenagers having abortions and women who are already mothers having abortions; abortion in the aftermath of rape and in the context of a loving relationship; abortions that are agonizing decisions and those that are not. The interviewees also reflect on why it’s taken four decades for reproductive rights to make real progress on screen — and why, in a political era where women's bodies are under threat in ways they've not been for decades, TV has a powerful advocacy role to play.
Season 1, Episodes 9 and 10, "Maude’s Dilemma, Parts 1 & 2"
Aired on: CBS
Synopsis: Forty-seven-year-old Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur), the show’s eponymous heroine, announces to her family and friends that she's unexpectedly pregnant. Maude and her husband, Walter (Bill Macy), both assume the other wants to keep the baby — Walter has never had a child before — but once they have a conversation about it, they realize neither of them particularly wants a baby and that abortion is the best decision. Maude’s adult daughter is supportive, reminding her that abortion is now a legal option in New York, where they live. The episode aired in November 1972, two months before Roe v. Wade was decided and made abortion legal throughout the United States.
Norman Lear, creator: "We wanted to do a piece on Maude finding herself pregnant, and facing the idea of having a child at 50, and being unable to bear the thought of it for the sake of the child. She had a daughter already, who agreed with her decision, and a husband. I had a good relationship with Bill Tankersley, the head of program standards and practices for CBS at the time, but when I raised it, he said, 'Come on, you’re kidding.' I said, 'No, I’m not kidding.'"
Ultimately, Lear and his writers agreed to turn the episode into a two-parter and add in a new character solely to create balance. "We invented a friend of Maude's that we never saw again [after that episode]," Lear recalls, "a woman who had four kids and was accidentally pregnant with her fifth kid. She didn’t want another child but in no way would she consider not delivering that child." Since Maude’s friend represented the polar opposite of Maude’s decision, the episode was allowed to air.
"When the episode initially aired, there was no big backlash. I got maybe a half-dozen letters." It was only once the show was in reruns, several months down the line, that the backlash began. "Everybody knew when that episode was going to be re-aired, and by then, the religious right had their guns aligned. They lay down in front of my car in L.A. and [CBS founder] William Paley's car in New York. But that wasn’t 'the American people' speaking. It was a minority."
"I never thought of the storyline as advocating. The whole idea of doing 'messages' — the old phrase used to be, 'Hey, pal, you got a message, take it to Western Union.' So I wasn’t doing messages, but the writers and I were aware of what was happening up the street, what was in the papers, what we were experiencing in our own lives."
It’s bewildering to Lear that, more than 40 years on, so little has changed. "It’s pathetic," he says. "I can’t imagine an excuse for staying away from [the subject of abortion], if it’s well discussed and you understand each point of view. The establishment likes to go along with that old idea that 'nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people,' and I think it’s dead wrong. There’s a sense that people are stupid, and we have to protect them. They’re not! And we don’t!"