To quote Gloria Feldt, “Media portrayals, real or fictional, don’t merely inform us — they form us.” In this series, I will be examining five films – classic, mainstream, independent, foreign, and pre-Roe – and five television shows – soap opera, pre-Roe, drama, critically lauded, and teen-oriented – that address unexpected pregnancy, to examine how past portrayals can influence and reflect society’s view of abortion.
It’s impossible to discuss abortion in pop culture and not bring up “Maude,” the popular sitcom that ran from 1972-1978. Two months into the show’s first season, the two-part “Maude’s Dilemma” dealt with Maude’s unexpected pregnancy at age 47. She decides to have an abortion, which at the time was legal in New York, where the show was set. (The procedure was also legal in a handful of other states and the District of Columbia.) When CBS aired the episodes again the following summer, a number of affiliates refused to air the program. In an interview about the storyline, series creator Norman Lear said that the original airings did not generate any controversy or negative reaction from viewers.
In the same interview, Lear talks about the process of deciding Maude would choose abortion. He and the other writers discussed false positives and ectopic pregnancies, he explained, but decided not to take “the easy way” out. Given the time constraints of a half-hour show, the topic is discussed in remarkable depth and with an openness that is still refreshing almost 40 years later. In perhaps the most moving scene of the storyline, Maude’s adult daughter Carol reminds her mother, “We’re free … It’s a simple operation now, but when you were growing up it was illegal, and it was dangerous and it was sinister and you’ve never gotten over that. … It’s not your fault. When you were young abortion was a dirty word. It’s not anymore.”
(Befitting its Norman Lear pedigree, however, the episode is also funny as hell, thanks in large part to the talented Bea Arthur, who plays Maude. The scene in which she tells her best friend, played by the incomparable Rue MacClanahan, about the pregnancy is a master class in comedy, particularly the expression on MacClanahan’s face.)
I’ve had a lot of conversations with young abortion-rights advocates who bemoan the perceived tendency of the older generation to dwell on the days when abortion was illegal. There’s some validity to this complaint; after all, as the cliché says, you have to stop looking back to move forward (or something along those lines). But for a lot of people, those same stigmas about abortion persist today, particularly that abortion is sinister and that the very word is something to be ashamed of. Crisis pregnancy clinics have been particularly adept at spinning those falsehoods, and the ongoing controversies over how those clinics represent themselves shows that a lot of people are perfectly comfortable with allowing purported health care workers to terrify and mislead women.
But perhaps the part of this episode that still resonates the loudest, and still makes it mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the history of abortion in pop culture, is what Maude’s husband, Walter, tells her after she decides to have an abortion:
“For you Maude, for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.”
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.