From Maude having an abortion pre-Roe v. Wade to Wonder Woman revealing a secret matriarchal world, women on film have been way ahead of the curve fighting for change for more than a century. With Ladies First, we’re tracing the often-forgotten legacy that these leading ladies left on history.
A 47-year-old grandmother decides she doesn’t want to have another child at her age. A high school student faces an unplanned pregnancy after a summer fling. A twenty-something manicurist decides she’s not ready to have a baby. These aren’t real people, though they easily could be. They’re characters on TV.
For the past five decades, conversations about abortion have played out on our TV screens. In 1973, Maude, a show about an outspoken, middle-aged woman (played by Bea Arthur) living in Tuckahoe, NY, included a storyline in which its title character had the first abortion on primetime network television — two months before the decision in Roe V. Wade effectively legalised the procedure in the United States. In 2007, as President George W. Bush’s administration funnelled $60 million in grants to anti-choice “crisis pregnancy centres,” The L Word’s Kit was tricked into visiting one. Today, as more and more states work to roll back abortion rights, over 20 episodes of TV portraying a character either getting an abortion, or disclosing a past abortion, have aired so far in 2019.
In the past 10 years, portrayals of abortion onscreen have become more common, more medically accurate, and more diverse. Yet there’s a long way to go to reflect the true reality of abortion in the U.S., says Gretchen Sisson, PhD, a research sociologist who tracks depictions of abortion in film and TV in Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH)’s Abortion Onscreen Database. On TV, those getting abortions tend to be younger, whiter, wealthier, and less likely to already be parents than those getting abortions in real life. Medication abortion is underrepresented compared to surgical abortion; negative health outcomes are overrepresented; and there’s still very little depiction of the increasingly common barriers to access.
Today, one in four women in the United States will have an abortion at some point in their lives, and one in three women in the UK will have one before the age of 45, but abortion is still highly stigmatised and increasingly politically challenged. Currently, the Guttmacher Institute considers 29 states hostile towards abortion rights, and only 14 states supportive. “If we can change people’s understandings of who is getting abortions, why they’re getting abortions, and what abortion care looks like, then maybe we can start to address some of the underlying myths that prop up some of these restrictive policies,” Dr. Sisson says.
Here are 47 years of abortion on TV in 15 episodes, from the judgmental to the normalizing.
Maude, “Maude’s Dilemma” (1972)
Two months before Roe V. Wade was decided, Maude became the first TV series to show a legal abortion in a two-part episode called “Maude’s Dilemma.” In the episode, Maude (Bea Arthur) gets pregnant at age 47. Her daughter, Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), urges her to consider an abortion, which was legal in New York at the time, but not nationwide. “When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It’s not anymore,” Carol says. After Maude spends some time trying to guess what her husband Walter (Bill Macy) wants, they end up admitting to each other they don’t want to raise a child into their 60s.
The episode almost didn’t make it to air. At the last minute, CBS threatened to refuse to pay to tape the episodes, but producer Norman Lear told them that if they didn’t, they’d have to find another series to fill that time slot. Lear also offered a compromise in the form of a new character: a woman in her 40s who was pregnant with her fifth child, and happy about it. “Maude’s Dilemma” aired without sponsors, but was carried by almost all of CBS’ affiliates. According to the Los Angeles Times, about 7,000 people sent letters of protest. By the time the episode aired again in reruns, it had become more controversial, thanks to a campaign against the show organised by the United States Catholic Conference. This time, almost 40 affiliates refused to air the reruns, and 17,000 people sent letters of protest.
Lear has always maintained that the backlash was ridiculous. “For me, the question of abortion was proved when we did that episode,” he told Variety in 2015. “Before the religious right had a chance to organise a protest or complaint, America swallowed it. It was not that big of a deal.”
All My Children, “February 1, 1973” (1973)
All My Children became the first TV show to depict an abortion following Roe V. Wade. In the episode, Erica Kane (Susan Lucci) decides to terminate an unplanned pregnancy so she can pursue her modelling career. “It seemed to me exactly what Erica would choose to do,” Lucci tells Refinery29.
The plotline “was very cutting edge. But [showrunner] Agnes Dixon was very cutting edge,” entertainment reporter Lynda Hirsch, who covers soap operas in depth, tells Refinery29. Dixon, who passed away in 2016, chose Erica because she was the villain: “She couldn’t do it with some sweet character, because you’d feel sorry for them,” Hirsch says. While some viewers were shocked by the storyline, others agreed with Erica’s choice. And anti-choice groups were “just furious,” Hirsch says. “But they boycotted for about three weeks then went back to watching, because that’s usually what happens in TV boycotts.”
In a plotline typical of soaps — that unfortunately forwarded the inaccurate idea of abortion as a dangerous procedure — Erica suffers a potentially fatal infection after the abortion and also loses her memory of the event.
The Facts Of Life, “The Source” (1982)
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the legal and societal sentiments towards abortion slowly changed. According to Gallup polls, by 1981, 23% of Americans thought it should be legal in all circumstances, and 16% thought it should be illegal in all circumstances, and 58% thought it should be legal in some circumstances. And despite the 1976 Hyde Amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion care, by the early ‘80s, abortion rights advocates saw several legal wins. As laws changed, so did the programming.
In 1982, The Facts Of Life, produced by Norman Lear’s production company T.A.T. Communications Company, became the first sitcom to show an abortion after Roe V. Wade. Prior to that only dramatic shows had breached the territory. In “The Source,” Natalie (Mindy Cohn) fabricates a story for the school newspaper about an anonymous classmate who got an abortion – only to have a student named Annie (Lisa Lucas) approach her and reveal that she did get an abortion.
Cohn remembers an outpouring of positivity after the episode aired, via fan letters. “These letters said the episode saved these girls’ lives, that they didn’t feel alone,” she says. She wasn’t aware of any backlash, she says; in fact, the episode in which her character loses her virginity was far more controversial.
Degrassi High, “A New Start” (1989)
Since it premiered in 1979, Canada’s Degrassi franchise has never shied away from discussing controversial subjects — and historically, Canada has been more accepting of abortion than the United States. Abortion has been legal in Canada since 1969, and in 1989, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that a foetus is not considered a human being, and therefore has no legal right to life. Also in 1989, the Degrassi franchise aired its first abortion plot in the two-part premiere of the series Degrassi High. “We had done a storyline about a teen mom who kept her baby [Spike in Degrassi Junior High], and we felt, to be fair, we needed to run an abortion storyline as well,” showrunner Linda Schuyler tells Refinery29.
Erica (Angela Deisach) gets pregnant following a summer romance, and her identical twin, Heather (Maureen Deiseach) pressures her sister not to get an abortion. In the end, Heather decides to accompany her sister to the abortion clinic, even if she doesn’t agree with her choice.
The episode aired without controversy in Canada, but in the U.S., PBS requested that the ending be cut to be more ambiguous. “PBS was uncomfortable with us taking her as far as the door of the clinic, and they asked us to cut a few seconds earlier, where she and her sister are standing on the other side of the street before they walk through the protestors,” Schuyler explains. “They didn’t want us to be definitive that Erica was definitely going through it.” Schuyler was just happy the episodes aired in the U.S. at all.
Degrassi faced more network pushback in 2004, when 14-year-old gymnast Manny (Cassie Steele) gets an abortion in an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation. The episode aired in Canada but in the U.S., Nickelodeon’s The N network refused to show it at all. American fans “were really vocal about the fact that it wasn’t fair Canada got to see it and they didn’t,” Schuyler says.
In 2017, Degrassi: Next Class showed yet another notable abortion. This time, the exact same episode aired in the U.S. and Canada — but the crew was concerned that the episode might not resonate with Americans audiences, because Lola is able to access abortion without legal or financial restrictions. “It felt fairly Canadian, to tell you the truth,” Stefan Brogren, who directed the episode (and formerly starred in Degrassi High) tells Refinery29.
Beverly Hills, 90210, “Nancy’s Choice” (1996)
Dr. Sisson calls the late ‘80s and ‘90s the “averted abortion decade,” because while they considered the idea, characters rarely actually had an abortion.“We would see a lot of characters considering getting an abortion, but then they would have a miscarriage or find out that it was a false positive. Somehow, they did not have to make the decision or follow through with the decision,” she explains. TV series including Dallas, 21 Jump Street, A Different World, Melrose Place, and Roseanne had plotlines that fit this description. Beverly Hills, 90210 had a plotline like this in Season 4, but in Season 6, the series actually went through with it.
According to Gallup polls, acceptance of abortion decreased in the ‘90s. In 1992, 34% of Americans thought abortion should be legal in all circumstances, but in 1997, that number had fallen to 22%. In the mid-’90s, several abortion providers, including Dr. David Gunn, Dr. George Tiller, and Dr. John Britton were shot by anti-choice protesters; Dr. Britton died (Dr. Tiller was shot again in 2009, this time fatally). Abortions also began declining in the 1990s, decreasing about 12% between 1990 and 2015.
In the episode, Susan (Emma Caulfield Ford) wins a journalism award for her feature on a woman, “Nancy,” who got an abortion. At the end of the episode, Susan confesses to her boyfriend Brandon (Jason Priestly) that she is Nancy — she got an abortion after becoming pregnant by her ex Jonathan (Carl T. Evans), who wanted her to have the child.
While the episode does have a character — and a supporting one, not a one-episode guest star — get an abortion, she shows a lot of regret over her decision. This isn’t the reality in most cases; a 2000 study found that, two years after a first-trimester abortion, 80% were not depressed, and 72% did not regret the abortion.
Everwood, “Episode 20” (2003)
Everwood’s “Episode 20” featured a two-episode arc in which a teenager, Kate (Kate Mara) gets an abortion after her older boyfriend leaves her. The episode focuses on Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams) as he grapples with whether to provide an abortion — and in the end, he asks a colleague, Dr. Harold Abbott (Tom Amandes), to do it. “If the network had not cared, we would have had Andy do the procedure. Since they did care, we had to make it Dr. Abbott,” writer Vanessa Taylor tells Refinery29.
Although Kate says she’s “not okay” after the abortion and Dr. Abbott goes to church to confess his sins, abortion was so rarely portrayed on TV that many saw the storyline as progressive. “For a freshman ‘family’ show to raise the topic, grapple with it evenhandedly yet decisively, and give Andy’s assistant a fine speech about how ‘men make the mess, women clean it up’ merits notice,” wrote Entertainment Weekly at the time.Even after the “Episode 20” storyline was planned, there was “still some question” over whether or not it would air, and after it did, the WB declined to include it in reruns.
The L Word, “Legend in the Making” (2007)
In the Season 3 finale of the L Word, Kit (Pam Grier) finds out she’s pregnant even though she’s nearing menopause — and in the first episode of Season 4, she tries to get an abortion but ends up at an anti-choice “pregnancy crisis centre.” These centres increasingly received federal funding during the George W. Bush administration: in 2006, 20 states subsidised them.
“I’m fairly unabashed about the fact that I make activist television, first and foremost by telling good stories that are true to character. But given the opportunity, I will get behind an agenda,” Chaiken says. “And I was well aware of this fraudulent industry, these so-called crisis pregnancy centres that masquerade as one thing but are really there to do the opposite thing.”
The L Word was also one of the first shows to show a Black woman getting an abortion, and it also emphasised the how common abortions are — another character tells Kit that she has had two of them.
Friday Night Lights, “I Can’t” (2010)
“When we were shooting the episode, people would come up to me and tell me about someone they knew who had one,” Dora Madison Burge tells Refinery29. The episode really resonated with the audience, she says. Burge attributes the power of the episode to Tami’s response and Connie Britton’s performance. “A lot of people might expect her to swoop in with a big speech that changed my mind, but the choice to have her just listen was very, very powerful.”
Friday Night Lights, on the other hand, drew both praise and controversy with its 2010 episode, “I Can’t.” In the episode, Tami Taylor (Connie Britton) supports 10th grader Becky (Dora Madison Burge) in her choice to have an abortion. Anti-choice groups including the National Right To Life condemned the storyline, but mainstream press largely praised it. New York magazine even called it “the best and most honest portrayal of the heartrending decision to end a teenage pregnancy that we’ve ever seen.” The episode was also noteworthy for showing restrictions to abortion access: Becky has to get through Texas’ mandatory waiting period.
Grey’s Anatomy, “She’s Gone” (2011)
Shonda Rhimes initially planned to have Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) get an abortion in Season 1 of Grey’s Anatomy. But then, following “some very strong conversations with Broadcast Standard and Practices,” as she told Vulture in 2011, Rhimes changed the storyline to an ectopic pregnancy. Abortion restrictions were on the rise; in 2011, 36 states enacted new laws restricting access to safe, legal abortion.
In Season 8, Rhimes returned to the idea, and Cristina chose to have an abortion after another unplanned pregnancy. Rhimes had included other abortion storylines on the Grey’s Anatomy spinoff Private Practice, and she had reached a point in her career where she had more power. “I think that I’ve earned my place in my job versus the very first season of my very first television show. Now we’re in the eighth season of my third television show, it’s not as big of a deal for me to just stand up and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do and I’m not discussing it,’” she told Vulture.
At this point, it was still very rare for any TV character to get an abortion, and the few that did tended to be young and white. According to the Abortion Onscreen Database, Cristina Yang was only the second lead Asian TV character to ever get an abortion on TV, following Manny (Cassie Steele) in the 2004 Degrassi episode.
Scandal, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (2015)
Shonda Rhimes returned to the subject of abortion in an episode of Scandal that explicitly tied policy to lived experiences. In the episode, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) gets an abortion as Mellie (Bellamy Young) filibusters in the Senate, trying to stop a bill that would largely defund Planned Parenthood. When the episode aired, Rhimes tweeted that the budget items were based on real proposals, and Planned Parenthood praised the episode for its advocacy.
In 2017, Rhimes told the Hollywood Reporter that ABC’s Standards and Practices had asked to cut the abortion scene. “I said, ‘Go ahead, alter the scene. We'll just have a lot of articles about how you altered the scene,’” she said. The scene aired as is. And although anti-choice organisations took issue with the episode, particularly its use of Aretha Franklin’s “Silent Night,” fans didn’t.
The episode was one of the first to show a Black lead character getting an abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 39% of people getting abortions in the U.S. are white, while 28% are Black, 25% are Hispanic, and 6% are Asian or Pacific Islander. In 2014, Dr. Sisson analysed TV portrayals of abortion and found that the overwhelming majority were received by white characters. This was in large part because there were few women of colour characters on TV to begin with — Washington was the first black woman to lead a network drama.
Please Like Me, “Pancakes With Faces” (2015)
Australian comedy/drama Please Like Me is one of the few TV series to show a medication abortion — which account for 39% of all abortions in the U.S — rather than a surgical one. “We did a medication abortion because that’s how it would have been done,” creator Josh Thomas tells Refinery29. “But it’s a challenge narrative-wise, because it’s not as straightforward a process.” In a medication abortion, you take one pill — mifepristone — to block your body’s progesterone and keep the pregnancy from progressing. Then, up to 48 hours later, you take another medication — misoprostol — to empty your uterus.
Both the Australian and U.S. network, Pivot, were open to the episode. “I’m Australian, and we don’t have as extreme views about abortion as Americans do,” Thomas says. “It’s not something I thought about that much.” While the episode mostly slid under the radar of anti-choicers, it was praised by entertainment publications and fans. “The show wasn’t popular enough to get any clapback, to be honest,” Thomas jokes.
Jane The Virgin, “Chapter 46” (2016)
In season one of Jane the Virgin, Jane (Gina Rodriguez) considers getting an abortion after she is accidentally artificially inseminated, but decides to have the child. In Season 3, Jane’s mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) has a medication abortion after she gets pregnant following a fling with her on-again, off-again partner’s rival. “For us, it was a chance to portray a less conflicted abortion than what you typically see,” showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman tells Refinery29.
“She was going to know what she was going to do and be very comfortable with her decision,” Urman says of Xiomara. “Instead, we were going to be looking at the drama that happens inside a family when they have differences of opinion.”
The writers consulted with Planned Parenthood, and realised during that process that this would be the first television series to show a Latina lead character getting an abortion. Xo is also in her 40s and already a mother — two other groups who are underrepresented when it comes to abortion on TV. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 59% of women obtaining abortions are already mothers.
Claws, “Cracker Casserole” (2018)
Claws went meta in a Season 2 episode in which manicurist Virginia (Karrueche Tran) decides to get an abortion. While she is at the clinic, we cut to different coworkers and clients sharing their opinions and experiences with abortion. “The nail salon serves as a microcosm… and not everyone is going to be pro-choice” writer Janine Sherman Barrois tells Refinery29.
While support for abortion slowly grew throughout the 2010s — from 24% of Americans supporting legal abortion in any circumstances in 2010 to 29% in 2018 — many states enacted legal barriers to abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 15 states adopted 27 new laws limiting abortion access in 2018, and according to the Center for American Progress, women of colour, particularly Black women, are most effected by these restrictions, because of “lack financial resources and social connections to abortion providers.”
“As an African American writer, I think it’s important to shine a light on the fact that a lot of women of colour are affected by the right to choose and all the laws that are in play,” Barrois tells Refinery29. “For me, as an audience member, I usually don’t see women of colour having to make this choice [on TV].”
Virginia goes to a clinic with her boyfriend Dean (Harold Perrineau) and her coworker Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes), and they have to fight their way through a barrage of protesters to get through the door (Awkwafina’s “My Vag” plays, perfectly, in the background). At the clinic, Dean proposes — and when they leave, Virginia shares her news with the protestors. When they cheer, thinking she changed her mind, she responds, “We still D&C’d that shit, bitch!” Barrois says she wanted to show that Virginia’s decision didn’t depend on her partner: “It doesn’t matter that she got a proposal. At this moment, she made a choice that was right for her and her body.”
Shrill, “Annie, Date” (2019)
When Lindy West’s memoir Shrill was adapted into a TV series, she was sure she wanted an abortion depicted not only in the series, but in the very first episode. In “Annie, Date,” Annie (Aidy Bryant) decides to get an abortion after she gets pregnant by her terrible friend-with-benefits, Ryan (Luka Jones). Annie has been having unprotected sex with Ryan and then taking the morning after pill, and she learns the hard way is less effective on people who weigh over 175 pounds (though the FDA hasn’t confirmed this).
In the pilot, Annie’s abortion is portrayed as empowering: she realises that the pseudo-relationship isn’t good for her and ends things with Ryan. “We could have chosen any number of things to galvanise Annie and kick off her story, and we chose abortion for a reason,” West tells Refinery29. “It was in large part a response to the way that abortion has traditionally been represented in media, and also just treated in general in our society — which is as a secret, something you can’t talk about, something that is shameful in some way.”
Euphoria, “And Salt The Earth Behind You” (2019)
HBO’s mega-popular teen drama features an abortion in its Season 1 finale. After becoming pregnant, Cassie (Sydney Sweeney) tells her boyfriend, McKay (Algee Smith). He says she should have an abortion.
Cassie ultimately agrees, but her character was less than certain at first. “It’s not initially something she wanted to do,” Sweeney told Entertainment Tonight. “But she grew up without a father and she doesn't want the same for her kids… she doesn't feel like the child's going to have the kind of life that she dreams of giving a child.
Cassie’s mother and sister accompany her to the clinic. “I feel this only strengthens their bond,” Alanna Ubach, who plays Cassie’s mother Suze, tells Refinery29. “Cassie can now and forever turn to her mother for any problem she has in the future.”
By 2019, abortion on TV has become commonplace enough that the episode aired without much controversy — Rue’s (Zendaya’s) overdose, which happens in the same episode, was the subject of more headlines. In fact, after the episode in which Cassie decides to get an abortion, the Hollywood Reporter called the storyline a “common high school show trope” in an interview with Sweeney. “I think that teenage pregnancy is something that is 100 percent happening in the world, so when people are like, ‘It's cliché that she gets pregnant,’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, but that's happening out there,’” Sweeney responded.