How TV lied about abortion

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Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) sit side by side on the hospital floor.
Abortion on television rarely focuses on personal agency. In a 2011 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” creator Shonda Rhimes dared to take a step forward. | Michael Desmond/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

For decades, dramatized plot lines about unwanted and unexpected pregnancies helped create our real-world abortion discourse.

In the second season of Mad Men, perpetually desperate Harry Crane needs to prove himself useful to his colleagues at Sterling Cooper. When he hears the CBS drama The Defenders is losing advertisers because of an abortion plot line — a 1962 real-world event — he tries to convince a lipstick company to buy airtime. The Belle Jolie executive balks at “entering the debate,” leaving Harry aghast at the lack of foresight. “Women,” he says incredulously, “will be watching!”

He was right, but so was the Belle Jolie exec.

For decades, abortion on television was largely depicted as a debate in narrative form, one that pitted melodramatic anti- and pro-abortion rights stances against each other through characters audiences knew and loved. Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport, researchers at the University of California San Francisco, argued in 2014 that, over time, these narratives collectively created “common cultural ideas about what pregnancy, abortion, and women seeking abortion are like.” The result, according to Sisson and Kimport, was an inaccurate picture of who seeks abortions, and why.

Fictional abortions were also overdramatized. From the origins of television all the way through the past decade, overwhelmingly male TV writers created plot lines that framed abortion as a moral issue, amping up conflict for maximum emotional journeys. It isn’t hyperbolic to say that television significantly changed the way America understood abortion and, as a result, deeply influenced public policy.

Andrea Press, a communications professor who documented this relationship in a 1991 study, concluded that “when the moral language adopted by television differs from that of viewers, television viewing influences viewers to adopt its terms.” The medium is not a passive bystander in our social debates; it is an active participant, shaping attitudes and action.

In other words, the stories we see on TV help create who we are.

In fact, the beginning of the end of accessible abortion in Texas began with a story. On May 5, 2021, state Rep. Shelby Slawson introduced Senate Bill 8, a law that the Supreme Court allowed to go into effect that bans abortion after six weeks, by telling her mother’s pregnancy story. Doctors had believed the fetus was developing abnormally, but Slawson’s mother chose to carry to term after hearing the fetal heartbeat. Slawson concluded, “Forty-four years later, that little baby girl is standing in this chamber.”

Narratives like these are common in hearings happening in the many state legislatures considering abortion restrictions in 2021. Abortion rights activists have also embraced the power of storytelling as a strategic tool, launching hashtags, Instagram accounts, websites, podcasts, and more to encourage women to share their abortion stories in the hope of swaying the public to their side.

Yet for all those thousands of competing real-life tales, none has been or will be as widely told as the television abortion narrative. Looking back on how abortion came into our living rooms starting in the 1960s and persisted into our audience-fragmented streaming era can teach us how these stories taught, shaped, and contributed to today’s public discourse about abortion.

Abortion barely appeared on TV before 1980, with one big exception

From the first broadcast in 1928 through 1980, only two abortions seem to have happened in all of primetime television. The Defenders was the first series to mention abortion, although the procedure did not include a main character. Then, in 1972, came Maude.

Writers for the Bea Arthur show only included the plot because they wanted to win a $10,000 contest prize for storytelling from an organization called Zero Population Growth. Original drafts focused on vasectomies, but showrunner Norman Lear wanted his main character to carry the humor, so writers switched to the now-legendary tale. An estimated 65 million people, or nearly one-third of the American population at the time, watched as 47-year-old married grandmother Maude discovered she was unexpectedly expecting and debated whether to keep the pregnancy. In the end, Maude had an abortion. Off camera, yes. Never mentioned on the show again? Also yes — but it happened. A main character wouldn’t make that choice again for a very long time.

The 1980s saw an increase in television that embraced more realistic storytelling, bolstered by eager audiences and more relaxed social mores. Issues like breast cancer, domestic violence, single motherhood, rape, working life, dating, and abortion were all explored from 8 to 11 pm. But the business of television relied on advertiser support, and programs couldn’t upset their sponsors or their conservative viewers any more in 1982 than they could in 1962. After all, Catholics buy cars, too.

Since narratives are driven by conflict, in an abortion plot line writers typically used the choice itself to drive the story. This approach created high-stakes, emotionally driven drama around making the decision and framed having an abortion as the worst possible outcome of pregnancy.

It also established an inaccurate profile of a typical abortion seeker by linking the procedure to a particular archetype: typically young, white, and middle-class or affluent women who had no other children and who rarely struggled to find an abortion provider. The real story is vastly different. Many abortion seekers are women of color, religiously affiliated, and already have children, and in recent years most are low-income or below the federal poverty line.

That’s not what we saw on our screens. Instead, for roughly 20 years — from 1980 to 2000, with a few early-aughts examples joining in — three major abortion plot lines dominated TV.

The “Whew! That was close!” plot

Family (1980), Call to Glory (1984), Spenser for Hire (1985), Webster (1985), MacGruder and Loud (1985), Dallas (1985), 21 Jump Street (1988), A Different World (1989), Melrose Place (1992), Roseanne (1990), Party of Five (1996), Grey’s Anatomy (2005)

This trope — in which a character considering an abortion avoids the difficult decision due to either a miscarriage or a false positive — gestured toward pro-abortion-rights viewpoints while simultaneously making sure that no main character actually had to go through with the procedure. Party of Five did a classic version of this plot.

In “Before and After,” which aired in 1996, 16-year-old Julia gets pregnant with her high school boyfriend. Over the next few days, she shares scenes with every other character as each gives their opinion on whether she should have an abortion. Julia’s boyfriend and two brothers are on board with terminating the pregnancy, but her younger sister Claudia is angry because their little brother Owen was also a “mistake.” Julia’s friend Sarah says she can’t support abortion since she is an adoptee who could have been aborted by her birth mother.

Throughout the episode, Julia is deeply emotional while weighing her options but ultimately decides she is too young to become a parent and sacrifice her college plans. And then, just hours before her appointment, she miscarries. When her boyfriend expresses “a tiny bit of relief,” Julia protests. She is relieved, too, but still feels guilty for wanting the abortion at all.

Co-creator of Party of Five Amy Lippman later told New York magazine that the episode’s original script included Julia receiving her abortion, but the show’s network, Fox, vetoed that ending. As Lippman put it, “That was distressing to us because we thought there was real value in showing what a character in that family under those circumstances would do.” Instead, Julia’s story framed a miscarriage or false positive as a relief because it allowed the woman to avoid making the choice at all, preserving her innocence and morality.

The “ … and baby makes drama!” plot

Melrose Place (1992), Murphy Brown (1992), Beverly Hills, 90210 (1994), Roseanne (1994), Felicity (2000), Sex and the City (2001), Scrubs (2006), ER (2006), Weeds (2009), Sons of Anarchy (2010), Mad Men (2010), True Blood (2010)

Characters getting pregnant or having babies can add exciting new avenues for storytelling, and this was especially true for shows that centered more complex, nuanced female characters in the 1990s and early 2000s. Here, TV attempted to have their feminist cake and eat it, too: Familiar characters were given the space to express and explore viewpoints that support abortion rights, but by them eventually relenting to parenthood, showrunners could still have the comedy of watching Murphy Brown navigate having a baby and doing the news. In execution, these plots often created an unintentional binary that sanctified motherhood and villainized abortion.

In “Thanksgiving 1994” and “Maybe Baby,” the ’90s sitcom Roseanne tackled unexpected pregnancy from a perspective that in many ways reflected real life. The show’s title character was a white mother of three from a lower socioeconomic status, and the Guttmacher Institute confirms that in 1994 the majority of abortion seekers already had children, worked, and had not completed college. About half made less than $55,000 per year in today’s dollars.

“Thanksgiving 1994” opens with a bit of foreshadowing as Roseanne establishes her perspective by pranking anti-abortion protesters outside a clinic. The 40-year-old is there to find out the sex of an unexpected pregnancy, but the unclear results of the test signal a potential developmental issue that will need to be confirmed by a second amniocentesis. While Roseanne and her husband Dan had previously agreed that they would abort an abnormal fetus, Roseanne immediately becomes unsure about the decision, telling her sister, “I heard the heartbeat. I always thought I could have the abortion, but now I don’t know if I can.”

Roseanne’s ambivalence causes conflict with Dan, but by the end of “Maybe Baby,” a second test shows a normally developing fetus and abortion is no longer discussed as an option. Baby Jerry arrives the following season, during Roseanne’s Halloween special.

Communication researcher Celeste Condit emphasizes that despite such plots articulating positions of choice, most of them “explicitly highlighted the values of childbearing, family, and mothering in the face of the potential threat to these values abortion represents.” The message is that abortion is the enemy of motherhood, and motherhood is the natural desire of women.

The “both sides” plot

The Facts of Life (1982), Cagney & Lacey (1985), Hill Street Blues (1985), St. Elsewhere (1986), 21 Jump Street (1988), China Beach (1990), Beverly Hills, 90210 (1996)

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, many television shows endorsed a position on a variety of social issues through their characters, making it clear they considered one side “right.” Topics such as race, gender equality, rape, HIV/AIDS, sexuality, addiction, mental illness, and more were all explored in primetime, typically in progressive fashion, and eventually, society moved toward those beliefs.

Whether it was Tom Hanks playing Elyse Keaton’s alcoholic brother on Family Ties, Ellen DeGeneres coming out in “The Puppy Episode” on her eponymous sitcom, Denzel Washington navigating racism as a doctor on St. Elsewhere, Chad Lowe playing an HIV-positive character on Life Goes On, or the late, great Dixie Carter’s Julia Sugarbaker delivering a stinging monologue about workplace sexual harassment on Designing Women, shows were not shy in writing strong, clear messages about where they stood on the biggest social debates of our time.

Except abortion. Those stories went out of their way to show “both sides” in the best possible light.

One of the most vivid examples comes courtesy of the CBS crime procedural Cagney & Lacey, in the show’s 1985 episode “The Clinic.” Detectives Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey — who is pregnant — are charged with helping a married Latina woman, Mrs. Herrera, cross a violent picket line at an abortion clinic. Mrs. Herrera wants an abortion so that she can continue attending business school and avoid needing to rely on government assistance programs. The clinic is bombed by a violent anti-abortion protester, killing another patient. The bomber threatens to kill the two detectives and herself, but stops when she learns that Lacey is pregnant.

On the side of abortion rights: Mrs. Herrera, obviously, but also a doctor who argues for victims of rape, incest, and desperate circumstances. Lacey also firmly supports abortion rights, and is revealed to have had an abortion in Puerto Rico as a teenager.

On the anti-abortion side: Cagney questions the morality of the procedure, and her Catholic father is vehemently against it when they discuss the case. The detectives also meet the leader of an anti-abortion group, presented as reasonable and nonviolent, who compares her work to preventing the Holocaust.

After the episode came under fire from some viewers, the network issued a statement that read in part, “CBS’s program-practices department has carefully reviewed this episode and feels it presents a balanced view of the issue.” Indeed it was! The score was a carefully calibrated 3 to 3, a “both sides” balancing act. The right to disagree with a woman’s choice was depicted as equal in value to the purposeful attempt to stop her from making that choice — a dangerous false equivalency.

TV may finally be rewriting the narrative

These three tropes couched abortion in terms of high moral conflict, making for good stories but inaccurate portrayals. Abortion was frequently represented as medically dangerous, as happening much more rarely than in actuality, and as mostly sought by demographics that don’t match national trends.

Meanwhile, the complex elements of real public discourse were oversimplified into a pro/anti debate, where “reasonable” people on both sides framed the issue in moral terminologies. Abortion was shown as morally ambiguous, a necessary evil, regrettable, a consequence, a binary choice against parenthood, and/or reserved for specific examples of desperate need.

Offscreen, this morality framework helped challenge a pregnant person’s right to the power of choice, creating a blueprint for how to take a private medical decision away from individuals and make it open to debate, because morality can be debated and judged in a way that medicine and access to medicine cannot. Like we saw on Party of Five, everyone gets a turn to give their opinion. Like we saw on Roseanne, it’s assumed all women are hardwired to want motherhood. Like we saw on Cagney & Lacey, “both sides” get equal time. These are the stories we’ve seen and heard over and over again, and now they are canon.

In the early 2000s, some changes did come to abortion storytelling. Bird on Showtime’s Soul Food (2003) and Claire on HBO’s Six Feet Under (2003) both had abortions that were remarkable for their straightforwardness and centering of the characters’ desires. Becky’s abortion on NBC and DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights (2010) was a refreshingly honest look at a teenager’s options in a small town and what impact a supportive adult could have (if only everyone had a Mrs. Coach to guide them!). Notably, however, almost those examples all aired on cable/satellite. Broadcast would largely have to wait for the Power of Shonda Rhimes.

In a 2011 episode of Rhimes’s hit ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Cristina Yang has to struggle to get her partner Owen to understand that she does not want children. She spends most of “Unaccompanied Minor” justifying her position, but by the end, the abortion happens with her partner at her side. Grey’s provided a welcome portrayal of personal agency on primetime. But it was on Scandal that Rhimes radically changed the script.

In the 2015 episode “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Olivia Pope discovers she is pregnant. This being Scandal, the father is the current president of the United States. Olivia does not tell anyone, and we do not see her schedule the procedure. Instead, there is a one-minute scene where she visits a clean, modern medical facility. She wears a hospital gown and hair cap. The camera looks down and focuses on her face as we hear the vacuum aspiration machine work.

The scene is respectful, unapologetic, and medical. Olivia, a Black woman, does not ask for permission or input from anyone, even when the father is the most powerful man in the world. Most critically, Scandal portrayed the procedure and not the decision-making process. The message is clear: A woman’s autonomy is sacrosanct.

Soon, other shows like Girls (2015), Jane the Virgin (2016), GLOW (2017), Empire (2018), Veep (2019), and Shrill (2019) — among many others — also showed abortions by main characters that did not dramatize the decision-making process to increase angst or conflict, a fundamental shift. They also portrayed more realistic abortion seekers — people of color, people who already had children, who were in the working class. The television landscape still isn’t perfect, of course. There are still plenty of shows regurgitating the same tired tropes from the 1980s, but it is better … at least onscreen.

On December 1, the Supreme Court will consider Mississippi’s restrictive abortion law in a case that directly challenges an individual’s right to control their own reproductive choices. It is not an exaggeration to believe that the United States could soon become a post-Roe nation.

Television, the most powerful meaning-making medium of the past 60 years, played a role in getting us here. It also has a role to play moving forward, one that writers and showrunners are increasingly willing to take on — to shape our national understanding of what abortion is, why it matters, and how to protect individuals’ access to reproductive medicine. Because if it is true that stories create us, then there is a future that is being written right now.

Whatever that future is, women will be watching.

Tanya Melendez (she/her) is an Illinois distinguished fellow at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research is centered on television, rhetoric, and public discourse. Find her on Twitter @tanyamel.

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