Is abortion no longer too taboo for TV?

Joan-Holloway-Becky-SprolesImage Credit: AMC; Bill Records/NBCYoung mothers are all the rage on TV these days, whether their real lives are being wrenchingly chronicled on Teen Mom, their struggles are being melodramatized on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, or they’re dancing with stars (hello, Bristol Palin). But addressing ­unwanted pregnancy on the small screen inevitably raises a much trickier issue: abortion. And, well, it’s about time.

Sure, Maude featured its title character ending her unwanted pregnancy during its very first season on the air in 1972. But controversy-wary networks fell mostly silent on the issue in the ’80s and ’90s. In fact, even five years ago, the mere word abortion on TV — much less the act — would ignite uproar. Lately, though, the medium has been depicting the taboo topic in several story arcs. What’s even more surprising? The lack of public outcry (aside from Fox, which preemptively pulled a Family Guy episode addressing the ­issue last year). A few weeks ago on Mad Men, Joan (Christina Hendricks) went to a clinic alone to seemingly end her unplanned extramarital pregnancy. And earlier this summer, NBC aired an episode of Friday Night Lights in which high school freshman Becky (Madison Burge) went through with the procedure after receiving oblique counsel from principal Tami Taylor (Connie Britton). FNL’s exec producer Jason Katims says the story line provoked minimal network drama: “I honestly felt surprised that there wasn’t more of a conversation about it.”

Becky was, in fact, the first major TV character to go through with terminating a pregnancy since 14-year-old Manny (Cassie Steele) on Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2004. (The N, which aired the series in the U.S., ­refused to broadcast the episode until 2006.) And other networks are broaching the topic as well: This year, ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager saw its second pregnant character, Adrian (Francia Raisa), seriously consider abortion before changing her mind. A thorough discussion about the pros and cons of choice was involved, again with no interference from the network, says exec producer Brenda Hampton. “The important thing, to me,” Hampton says, “was that she gave it thought.”

And that’s the real message here: A TV series can present abortion with emotional honesty and nuance, rather than ignoring a politically contentious fact of life altogether. That there was so little uproar around the episodes proves we may be ready for a real discussion that television can lead — if it so chooses.

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  • Jackie

    I think the best examples of TV shows that handled the abortion issue well were “21 Jump Street”, “Jack & Bobby”, and “Everwood”. I think if the issue is handled with tact, there’s no reason for a TV show to cause an uproar.

  • MCS

    I think that just like homosexuality, bringing it onto our televisions is the way to break the taboo. The more it comes up on tv, the closer we will be to having serious discussions about the topic, whether the show gives a pro or anti viewpoint. Some shows like FNL and Mad Men did it really well. I thought Family Guy did it in rather poor taste (though Fox probably didnt need to pull it completely), but it is Family Guy so poor taste is expected. If you were offended by that episode, it’s on you buddy.

    • tomm

      Gays and abportion are not the same thing, even though fraidy cats think that.

      I know that if science can determine if a baby is gay or maybe inclined to be ‘liberal’, Rightists will then say , ‘well in these cases, its OK’. Pray never happens.

      Point is one can be pro-life and pro gay rights.

      • Ellis

        Wow, tomm, that was an extremely closed-minded statement from someone who is apparently on the “open-minded” side of the fence. Maybe some “Rightists” are that hippocritical, but *SHOCKER* there are extemeists on the Left as well. People like you, who perpetuate the thought gap between left wingers and right wingers by making judgemental statements about people on the opposing side. Yes, someone can be pro-life and pro gay rights. He/she can also be both or neither. Point is, if he/she is taking a stance on either issue based on personal beliefs and opinions, who are you to judge them?

  • Elizabeth

    Nothing short of a snuff film is taboo for television anymore.

    • MCS

      I was gonna say necrophilia but then I remembered that Nip/Tuck episode.

  • Jon

    It certainly shouldn’t be taboo in this day and age. I know America is full of hyper-sensitive types, but pretending the issue doesn’t exist doesn’t help anyone.

    • Hi

      I agree…now let’s put a character on the OTHER side of abortion as well. How about we ALSO air a teen or character who has a strong conviction about abortion and pushes a pro-life agenda!

      If we’re not gonna “pretend the issue doesn’t exist” then lets at least air BOTH sides of the argument!

      • Peter

        Hey, you’re right. Let’s have a show where a woman is impregnated by her rapist, or a young girl is impregnated by her father. Then, the “pro-life” character can tell them that it’s God’s plan.

      • rkor

        Forgive me for even knowing this, but Secret Life does have a character with strong opinions on abortion and very actively pushing the pro-life agenda.

        I feel dirty for just knowing that.

      • Miz Liz

        “now let’s put a character on the OTHER side of abortion as well.”
        The whole point of this article is that this HAS been the status quo of TV… A character being able to make a mature decision to choose to end her pregnancy has not been done on TV w/out major backlash until recently… The “OTHER” side has been portrayed in exhaustion.

      • Shell

        That was done on Degrassi Junior High back in the late 80s, with teenage twin sisters – one was considering an abortion and her twin was opposed to it. The non-pregnant twin suffered from anxiety and guilt after her sister went through with it. That show was way ahead of its time.

      • Woot

        Also happened on Degrassi the Next Generation. Manny wanted an abortion, but her best friend was pro life (because her mom had her at age 14.)

      • Steve

        @Peter – can you be any more assinine? Way to argue the exception. What an idiot.

      • Peter

        Steve, if you ask any true pro-lifer about their positions on abortion in case of rape or incest, they will truthfully tell you NO exceptions. So, if one is truly pro-life they have to tell women and girls impregnated by rapists and incestuous relatives that they MUST carry the pregnancy to full term. My guess, Steve, is that you don’t have the intestinal fortitude to say such a thing to the face of a woman in that position. Instead, it’s much easier for you to insult people on a chat board of an entertainment magazine.

      • Alissa

        this was also done on House, a girl was raped and impregnated, and didn’t want to abort the baby because she felt it was murder. her and House had a whole discussion about it (I will say, the girl was mindblowingly annoying, but it was because of her acting). she did end up getting an abortion, but still.

      • Guest

        Having a character get an abortion isn’t pushing an pro-life agenda. Just like when a character who gets pregnant and says “No, that’s not an option” isn’t pushing an anti-choice agenda.

      • Joel

        As someone who is pro-life, I can honestly say that my reasons for thinking an abortion is wrong after rape or incest is that the child is a victim too. Carry the child to full-term and then put it up for adoption if you must, if you can’t bear to be reminded of the rape, but don’t punish the child. Besides (and I know this is fiction but go with me here), on SVU, Benson was conceived via a rape. You never know what kind of person someone conceived from tragedy can accomplish.

      • Steve

        Peter, you entirely missed the point which is that you argued the exception, probably because you: lack intelligence, and/or 2) don’t have the intestinal fortitude to comment or discuss intelligently.

      • drama drama drama

        Really tired of people foisting their choices and beliefs on others. And of people suggesting that a woman who conceives through rape becomes an accomplice to her rapist if she aborts the pregnancy, or that giving the baby up for adoption somehow erases the reminder. Pregnancy itself changes a woman, most permanently, but at least for 38 weeks. You think morning sickness back pains and stretch marks are not punishment, not a reminder of rape? You think a woman forgets about a baby out there that is half her and half him just because some other people agreed to raise it? Don’t be so dense, and don’t presume to have the answer that makes it all better, because the truth is, whether she aborts or not, she is never going to forget being raped or being pregnant. Just tell her you’re content to make her decision for her, just like her rapist was decided that she should be his sex toy. It’s fine to believe what you believe, but don’t guilt trip people who have gone through something you can only imagine (or watch on tv–by the way, Olivia’s mother the rape victim did not fare so well, she was a violent and abusive drunk). If a woman you know is raped and ever has to deal with this decision, please do her a favor and keep your mouth shut except to say “I’m here for you.”

    • josh

      and baby murder is good tv then ???????? how sick are people nowadays

      • Clt

        When did they have a baby murder?

      • drama drama drama

        but you know when I watch gladiator and braveheart, with people watching executions and torturing etc, it reminds me josh that people have always been pretty sick!

  • Josh

    Anyone else find Secret Life of An AMerican Teenager disturbing?? Because the plot of the show is “Being a teenage mother is hard…on your love life”

    • Elizabeth

      That show is awful, top to bottom. The dialogue, the acting… painful!!

    • seriously

      it’s such a terrible, unrealistic show. if i had a teenager i would hate for her or him to watch it. not because of the sex but because of the way they all seem to put these high school relationships as the main focus of their futures. kids have sex in high school and some kids get pregnant but almost never do those kids stay together and get engaged. or get proposed to by another person who wants to become a “family” with them while still in high school. if the show did have the character have an abortion i would have way more respect for it than i do now. be responsible and show teens real life and real options. not a fairy tale engagement resulting from teen pregnancy.

    • Kaylie

      I agree. The Secret Life is so wrong. It really pisses me off how Adrienne had clearly thought out her options and decided upon an abortion and then at the last moment completely changed her mind! It was so stupid and unrealistic. The show is so unrealistic. Not every family is going to be there to support their teenage daughter when she gets pregnant. The premise had promise but the writing and acting is sooo bad!

  • Carrie

    Degrassi is no stranger to abortion – remember Erica and Heather the twins from the original series? Erica had an abortion and Liz (Spike’s friend) freaked out on her. It was in contrast to Spike having her baby.

  • topazbean

    I wonder if it’s a result of the ruling over the FCC’s code for network TV. It might still be in place but it has no credibility anymore, so perhaps broadcasters are more comfortable with dealing with difficult subjects (though granted Mad Men was on cable). But I have to say – was it really that big a deal before? I’m speaking as a Brit so I don’t fully get the squeamishness in the US about dealing with tough and issues subjects in TV drama, but that does seem faintly ridiculous to me.

  • Lucy Van Pelt

    Carrie: I remember the original “Degrassi” and the abortion storyline. It was very intense. She had to deal with protestors outside the clinic, and her twin sister didn’t approve at all (which couldn’t have made things easier).

    I think these depiction on TV do lead to conversations … in people’s living rooms. Isn’t that the point?

    • karenbelgrad

      And don’t forget that Tessa “F-in” Campanelli had one too!

    • Carrie

      I thought Degrassi was amazing – it covered Spike’s decision to have Emma and Erica’s abortion. Liz tried to push Spike against Erica and even that was handled well. I thought it showed both sides of the spectrum not just with abortion, but with teen pregnancy too.

    • B-

      Manny’s abortion on “Degrassi: The Next Generation” was also handled well. It was a two-parter and Manny got pregnant because she trusted Craig to handle protection and he didn’t. So after Paige pretty much called her stupid for not protecting herself, Manny was getting morning sickness and couldn’t handle not being able to do normal HS stuff. Her best friend Emma was against it. And Manny ultimately did it. I watched the show with my cousin and her mother and we discussed it afterward. It opened up a great conversation.

  • Karate Pants

    There are two ways that a TV show can go wrong when deciding to tackle the topic of abortion:
    1) exploit it or sensationalize it for shock value or ratings;
    2) handle it in a mocking or joking way.
    Kudos to the shows that are doing it right, and opening up the discussion for those who need it.

  • Fireflystare221

    I am glad that this is a topic being explored more on TV. I do wish they would address it more on 16 and Pregnant though. I find it a bit odd that it hasn’t been discussed more.

    • mscisluv

      I thought that too but then realized that, if the girls did decide to terminate their pregnancies, there wouldn’t be much of a show.

      • spnfan87

        While it’s true that, if a girl actually did choose to terminate, they would not be able to follow her during pregnancy, they have followed at least one girl after an adoption to see its aftermath, so I don’t see why they couldn’t do something similar. Also, no girl actually has to terminate a pregnancy for the issue to be discussed; I, like Fireflystare, am surprised that the topic has not even been broached at all (to my knowledge; I’ve only seen season 1). Perhaps its because the girls are so young, making an already sensitive topic even more sensitive to viewers?

      • LL

        Most likely the girls would be literally in danger of being hounded to death by anti-choicers if their decision was documented on television. Welcome to Saudi America.

  • Jess

    I thought Sex and the City did a good job of addressing abortion as well. I liked how it was being dealt with in the present with Miranda trying to decide to either have one or not (and tell Steve about it) and also showed the feelings of someone who had had one years before with Carrie (and her struggle to admit to Aiden she had one).

    @Carrie – I think that episode of Degrassi was the one that stood out most for me because it did deal so well with the issues surrounding abortion.

    • jk

      For some reason the Miranda situation really bothered me. She had unprotected sex with someone who was an important person in her life, she was in her mid-30s and financially able to care for a baby, and she wasn’t someone who absolutely didn’t want to have children – she just kept saying it “wasn’t the right time for her.” Well, you’re a grown-ass woman, you should be responsible enough with birth control to not have to deal with this situation if you don’t want to.
      But yeah, I liked the way they addressed Carrie’s feelings, it put abortion into perspective as something that will possibly affect the woman long after the deed is done.

      • Hope

        it DOES affect the woman years, decades later. but that is rarely talked about. people would rather liken it to some uncomfortable dental procedure that is forgotten the next day, but it’s not like that at all (i know).

      • J

        She didn’t want a baby – regardless of what her situation was, if she didn’t want it she shouldn’t have to have it. A baby should never be a punishment for bad judgement or being irresponsible.

      • Amy

        And aborting the child isn’t punishment for the baby? That’s the problem with pro-choiceers. You all want to think pro-lifers are so backwards and unenlighted. I can’t think of anything more primitive and barbaric than sucking the brain out of an unborn child and making the rest of us pay for it.

      • LL

        @Amy: Don’t be a dunce. It’s not a “baby”. It’s a blob of cells completely dependent on the female host. Even late-term abortions are still rare and no the unborn’s life should not supersede the mother’s. NO ONE should have the right to restrict her personal autonomy.

  • Courtney

    get over it it’s not that big a deal like it was in the old days. when especially if you were an actress an unwed pregnancy could derail your career. and pregnancy has been written in to prime time shows since the 1960’s any way bewitched for example wrote in two of Elizabeth Montgomery’s 3 pregnancies all though the sexes of the kids were inverted when she had her second son Robert Samantha and Darrin had Tabitha and when she had her daughter Rebecca the stephens’s had a son named Adam

    • sassyfras

      Punctuation is your friend.

  • Trey

    I think it is more a testament to how few people watch these two shows. Good as they may be, not many people knew the storylines to begin with.

    • Suman

      a baby has a heartbeat while in the reohtms stomach and you are taking that heartbeat away so it is taking its life which is killing. why? because you werent ready. the baby didnt ask to be here, and it is painful for the baby, if you watch a abortion video the baby tries its best to get away but the mother gets medicine for pain. It is 2011 wake up! there is now BIRTHCONTROL,CONDOMS etc. If you dont want it use adoption. if you killed a baby while of of your stomach its MUDERING. god help you

  • Sammy

    Abortion is murder/the taking of an innocent life. There are social welfare agencies, couples wanting to adopt (just look at ads in papers.) Don’t take a life
    just ask the Lord when all is said and done. God because of His love will forgive but where is our love for the least of us.

    • Peter

      Sammy, how many children have you personally adopted?

      • Sammy

        Pter, Peter: the federal government does fund Planned Parenthood. Just be thankful your parents didn’t abort you-God Bless Them. And by the way when I am done adopting babies, you’ll be the first one I’ll let know
        My peace to you..

      • Peter

        Sammy, the Hyde Amendment specifically forbids government funds from funding abortions. You do understand that Planned Parenthood does MUCH more than abortions, don’t you? Whatever funds PP gets from the federal government are accounted for and any audit would find that they are not in violation of the Hyde Amendment. No Republican administration has ever found PP violating this. They just like to keep the falsehood going in order for their sheep like followers ginned up for elections.

    • Sammy Should Know

      Leave judgment to God, not to Sammy.

    • Miz Liz

      Sammy… Way to not understand the topic, your own religion, and humanity. Well done. You are a terrible person.

      • Amy

        @ Miz Liz: Ummm, let me just say before you pass judgement on anyone, that some people actaully do feel very strongly about this for good reason. Until you’re a couple waiting to adopt (not the easiest thing in the world) and are forced to endure knowing that your tax dollars are paying for abortions you may want to refrain from commenting in such a cold manner. Everyone has their reasons, albeit not stated in a very articulate fashion. Not enough attention is given to the fact that so many couples want desperately to adopt, including my husband and myself, and would gladly care for a baby unwanted by a birthmother. The situation could be solved for both parties. I’m sure an unwanted pregnancy is a frightening thing to go through, but it could lead to something truly beautiful and a blessing. Someone who is merely trying to encourage good to come of an unwanted pregnancy does not deserve your condescention. What makes you better than anyone else?

      • Peter

        Our tax dollars aren’t being used for abortions. It’s called the Hyde Amendment. However, things like facts and objective reality don’t dissuade the anti-abortion zealots from their self-appointed rounds.

        Either way, either get to adopting as many kids as you can or shut the hell up and stay out of other people’s lives.

      • Sammy

        Why because I don’t believe in killing babies who incidentally from the moment of conception have a soul.

      • Peter

        Find me a “soul” on the sonogram.

        You Taliban types run to your Tea Party rallies claiming to want the government out of your life, but then you want the same government to monitor the genitalia of all American women.

      • Miz Liz

        Amy – I’m not better than any of the other jerks on EW, but atleast I’m not a self-righteous, religious zealot (and a**hole.)
        Listen… I’m sympathetic as the next about not being able to conceive (as I AM sympathetic to the plight of women and their sexual health) but I have to say that as a woman you should know better … You don’t have a choice as to whether or not you can have children, right? Then YOU of all people should know just how important HAVING THAT CHOICE IS.

      • Sammy

        Your mom did not abort you.
        Do you think it fair to deny
        a developing baby life?
        Do not support abortion…you were given a chance at life…do good with it. My peace to you. You may understand when you get older.

      • Miz Liz

        That’s the worst Haiku…EVER.

      • Steve

        Hey Peter, really? Are you really that foolish? Find a soul on a sonogram? Really? So you’re saying that the soul doesn’t exist, and the reason it doesn’t is because it doesn’t show up on a sonogram, or an x-ray, or a ct scan or an mri.
        And why don’t you state all the facts about the Hyde Amendment, instead of convenient partial facts?

      • Miz Liz

        No Steve, what Peter is saying is that, like it or not, gaining a “soul” at conception is a theory based in emotional, religious dogma – NOT FACT. He refers to sonograms because sonograms measure hard lined, black and white facts.
        He’s basically saying “prove it,” and you replied with a very expected and close minded retort. And you zealots can stamp your feet and hold your breath til you are blue in the face, but it will NEVER EVER make a soul at conception fact.
        Basically… Just as it is my opinion that all pro-lifers are indoctrinated zombies, it is YOUR OPINION that souls are achieved at conception.

    • kim

      I would love to thank the lord- if such a thing even existed. It must be nice to live in a fantasy world with so very many delusions.

      • Sammy

        I believe one day you will find there is a God and perhaps will need to call upon Him. Until then
        be kind and you may hear God’s whisper in your ear. Peace to you.

  • rj631

    Scrubs did a really great episode a while back in season 6 addressing this issue. JD got Kim pregnant and they were trying to decide what to do. I thought they handled it really well.

    • @rj631

      Yeah, lying about a miscarriage and hiding a pregnancy from the baby’s father is a fantastic way to handle it.

      • Katja

        I think rj was referring to how they felt like they couldn’t even broach the topic when discussing their unexpected pregnancy, but then Jordan very calmly told them about the abortion she had had. The fake miscarriage and all that happened later.

      • rj631

        Yeah, to defend myself, I was referring to the episode when they actually discussed abortion. You know, the topic at hand?

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