American TV’s Uneasy History of Dealing With Abortion Rights

Often (but not always) shying away from the USA’s most emotional topic

TV writers love a good pregnancy scare. It’s a lazy way to jostle a relationship, facilitate character growth, and create room for Important Discussions about “the options.” Typically, if all signs point to abortion, everything resolves with the arrival of that pesky late period, an unexpected desire to become a mother, or sometimes, a last-minute miscarriage. But not always.

Trivia buffs know Bea Arthur’s Maude was the first lady of primetime to get an (off-screen) abortion, and throughout the 80s and 90s, TV danced around the idea of pregnancy termination, and sometimes, it actually happened, so long as no main characters ever made a choice that could drive away viewers or advertising dollars. This allowed everyone to generically experience something important, and as with every topic showcased in Very Special Episodes, never broach the subject again.

In the 2000s, as alternative channels like HBO transitioned into original programming, their lack of censorship granted them freedom to explore previously taboo talking points. Aside from gleefully showcasing ample bosoms and tight bottoms while saying very naughty words, dramas like Six Feet Under took deep, albeit maudlin, dives into hot-button issues like the right to choose, sometimes switching it up to focus on the man’s perspective.

Eventually, more adult fare worked its way onto the major networks. At ABC, Shonda Rimes earned enough power to showcase empowered, competent women choosing the correct reproductive avenue for themselves, censors be damned. Both Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal feature leads experiencing unwanted pregnancies without relying on a handy sidestep of their personal choices via last-minute changes of heart or any of the typical easy outs.

Somehow, in the mid 2010s, the CW evolved into far more than that place that keeps Jared Padalecki employed, to offer strong programming led by, starring, and aimed at women. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a married, middle-aged woman with children faces an unexpected pregnancy, which she terminates. Her sad but non-judgmental husband offers her space, support, and his love.

Around the same time, a stellar look at accidental pregnancy quite surprisingly popped up on Jane the Virgin. Though it’s a telenovela built on the premise of the accidental artificial insemination of a virgin, in the midst of its wacky hijinks, there are moments of powerful representation and truth. This storyline provides a distinctly different offering in the TV abortion pantheon because the leads are practicing Catholics, from modest financial means, and Latinas. That’s a heavy suitcase to unpack in less than an hour, and somehow, the outlandishness of the series allows exactly the right kind of space for the gravitas at hand, and approaches the subject with care. To this day, it may be the most thoughtful, well-done episode about abortion to ever hit the tv screen.

Jane the Virgin’s handling of such a delicate matter ultimately makes a strong case for tolerance. Though each person’s faith, conscience, and morality provides a unique lens to examine the scope of a woman’s reproductive rights, the show ultimately concludes it’s okay to be against or for abortion, but it’s even more important to respect each other as women with personal agency. This includes the right to choose what’s best for us, no matter our unique station, situation, or the opinions of others. If it’s true television shapes our collective values and thus, our society, who knew a lovely little show on the CW could offer up such unexpected hope for the future?

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Paula Shaffer

Paula Shaffer has worked on shows for a variety of networks including ABC, Hulu, A&E, HGTV, and WeTV. Her family zom-com script, Chompers, was a selected work of the Stowe Story Labs Feature Campus in 2021, and a 2022 semi-finalist in the Emerging Screenwriters contest, which led to placement on the Coverfly Red List.

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