It would be difficult to imagine the reaction if Americans turned on their television sets tonight and watched their favorite sitcom's leading characters debate and then decide, without regrets or "lucky" miscarriages, on an abortion. No doubt the various advocacy groups would draw their political swords, some calling for boycotts and federal regulation while others praised the modernization of television programming.
The abortion debate, for better or for worse, is one of the most divisive in America. But, to be honest, it hasn't always been that way. The debate and the divisiveness is by design.
In the 1916 silent movie "Where Are My Children?" a woman dies after a botched abortion. At the same time a sentimental district attorney, who loves children, discovers that his wife has had an abortion in order to preserve her social life. Despite all of this, however, the word "abortion" is never uttered.
That was probably the first time prior to the Sixties — a time when overlapping organizations of women, medical professionals, public health administrators, legal scholars and religious leaders successfully convinced a third of all states to liberalize abortion statutes — that abortion was featured in film or on television. The next time a semi-open segment on the topic happened was during the soap opera "Another World" in 1964. Fictional character Pat Matthews became pregnant by her tomcat boyfriend. He persuades her to have an abortion, although the word was never used. As the characters discuss the "illegal operation," the woman realized that the boyfriend never intended to follow through with his agreement to marry her. Matthews is driven mad and, in a fit of rage, murders the boyfriend.
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Eight years pass between that soap opera storyline and the next time abortion is addressed on television. This time, however, the word is used and there is no dramatic aftermath of the decision to end a pregnancy. In the prime-time sitcom "Maude," the lead character, played by actress Bea Arthur, realizes she is pregnant in her late forties. Although the episode aired prior to the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the sitcom was set in New York, where abortion was already legal. The family — Maude, her husband and grown daughter — have frank and thoughtful discussions about the decision.
"When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It's not anymore," says Maude's daughter as she encourages her mother to have the abortion.
In the second part, when Maude decides not to continue the pregnancy, her husband Walter assures her, "In the privacy of our own lives, you're doing the right thing."
The sitcom, developed as a spin-off of the often thought-provoking "All in the Family," has remained possibly the only time the American public has had an opportunity to watch a realistic conversation about pregnancy and abortion.
As Rachel Fudge noted in a 2005 feature story, the episode of "Maude" was groundbreaking, but it also "inadvertently galvanized the anti-choice movement." It was that episode's unabashed treatment of the issue that led those who oppose abortion to petition the Federal Communications Commission for equal time under the Fairness Doctrine. Although the group did not win their case, the arguments began what many now feel is the application of the Fairness Doctrine, which was abandoned in the 1980s, on entertainment programming.
Once the episode of "Maude" aired, those opposed to abortion had their first flag to rally around. Although the two-part episode had been scheduled to rerun six months later (after Roe had been handed down), letters of protest pushed many CBS affiliates to refuse to re-air it.
In contrast, about 20 years later when similar, although unmarried, sitcom character Murphy Brown faced an unplanned pregnancy, the word abortion was never mentioned. The "dirty word" status was back in full force for television programming, a place it continues to reside to this day.
After Roe v. Wade, the abortion debate became more focused and public. Although both groups discuss the same things, they each choose their exact words carefully. It's a comparison so easily made that those few television shows that do enter into fringe discussions about abortion have ready made pluck and drop stereotypes for their actors.
Most television characters either spontaneously miscarry or discover a false positive pregnancy test. Two shows — ABC's soap opera "General Hospital" and the Canadian produced "DeGrassi" series — have had characters who actually opt for abortion. On "General Hospital," the character receives a moral lecture about the decision from nearly every other character on the show, including the mobsters who make a living by the barrel of their guns. It remains to be seen if the woman who had the abortion will be forced to suffer untold consequences of her decision.
"DeGrassi: The Next Generation," on the other hand, allowed a young woman to have an abortion without regret and without a "God's gonna get ya" follow-up storyline. The character says that she's just trying to make "the best decision." Networks in the U.S. found the story to be so potentially offensive to American audiences that the episode has never aired in this country.
No doubt there is something to be said about the June and Ward Cleaver days of television. Families today are often greeted with images of sexual violence, general violence, infidelity, alcoholism and drug abuse when watching nightly television programming. But throughout all of the changes, despite all of the "awakenings" that have been carried forward by civil-rights movements, abortion continues to be the only truly boycotted discussion on television and in film. When part of a storyline, it is rarely mentioned by name and even more rarely carried out as a solution. More offensively, the other possible pregnancy outcomes — false positives, miscarriage, birth and adoption — are placed before viewers in neat, pretty packages. Rarely do viewers witness the guilt and grief that follow miscarriage. I don't know of any television programs that have placed a woman in grief counseling after giving a child up for adoption.
On television we can watch as our neighbors devour bugs and worms for money. We can see what happens when a person is asked to answer personal questions in front of friends and family while connected to a lie detector. We can peek in the windows of biracial or homosexual couples. We can be an operating room observer as various surgeries are performed. Through our television sets, it seems, we get nearly every possible opinion and viewpoint on nearly every possible topic. Just not abortion.