It's been 40 years since Bea Arthur's outspoken liberal Maude Findlay was the first television character to have an abortion in a 1972 episode of Maude, but televising the divisive issue still courts controversy. On Sunday night's episode of Girls, Jemima Kirke's free-spirited global nomad made an abortion appointment, but conflicted feelings kept her from showing up for it. Indeed, while the hot-button issue surfaces frequently on TV these days, says Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon, characters rarely go through with abortions. "Four decades after Roe v. Wade, are we ever going to able to talk about abortion on television and have more to say than, "Maude had one?" Here, a history of how TV series have dealt with the issue, from Maude to Girls:
Maude: At age 47, Maude finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Her daughter reminds her that abortion is now legal. After some lengthy soul-searching and teary discussions with her husband, Maude decides to have an abortion. The episode draws millions of protest letters, but is a ratings hit. Still, "controversy-wary networks fell mostly silent on the issue" in the decades that followed, says Entertainment Weekly.
Degrassi High: After having sex with her first serious boyfriend, Erica (Angela Deisach) discovers she's pregnant. She keeps it a secret from everyone except her sister, who accompanies her to the clinic, guiding Erica through a crowd of rowdy anti-abortion protesters. When the episode of the Canadian series airs in the U.S., the protesters are edited out, and it's ambiguous whether Erica even had the procedure.
Melrose Place: Jane (Josie Bissett) learns that she is pregnant, but doesn't tell Michael (Thomas Calabro) because he'd previously said he doesn't want kids. She decides to secretly have an abortion, but backs out at the last minute. Michael is initially furious, but then the two bond over the joy of their expectant child.
Beverly Hills: 90210: Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) discovers she's pregnant during her freshman year of college, but doesn't want to tell boyfriend Jesse because she wants to have an abortion and he's Catholic. When she does tell him, he breaks up with her. Another female character takes Andrea to the clinic, but Andrea backs out, deciding to keep the baby. Jesse ultimately proposes to her.
Felicity: When Ruby (Amy Smart) finds out she's pregnant, she plans to have an abortion, but ends up fleeing the clinic in tears, unable to go through with it. Because the father, Noel (Scott Foley), is terrified by the prospect of fatherhood, she makes peace with raising the baby alone. Eventually, Noel decides he would regret not being part of the baby's life and returns to Ruby — only to discover that he's not the father after all.
Dawson's Creek: Dawson's mom becomes pregnant, and decides she's too old to have a newborn. Dawson (James van der Beek) is upset and runs to his new girlfriend, who tells him about an unwanted pregnancy she had that would have ended in an abortion if she had not miscarried. Dawson is inspired to give an impassioned speech to his mother about what a good mom she is. She decides to keep the baby.
Sex and the City: Workaholic Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) becomes unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand with her ex, and decides to have an abortion. The ordeal is treated with great sensitivity, says Hillary Busis at Entertainment Weekly. "Miranda acts outwardly confident about her decision, but secretly isn't sure she's doing the right thing." Her girlfriends share stories about past abortions, and Miranda opts to keep the baby. But for once, it "doesn't feel like a cop-out — the series is supporting a woman's right to choose while acknowledging that abortion is complicated and fraught."
Everwood: 18-year-old Kate (Kate Mara) decides she wants to terminate her two-month pregnancy, and actually goes through with it. But "the show hedges its bets," says Ken Tucker at Entertainment Weekly, as Kate is a minor character, and the doctor who performs the procedure ends the episode by going to confession for forgiveness.
Six Feet Under: 17-year-old Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) discovers she's pregnant and decides to get an abortion. She goes through with it, but in a strange dream sequence, says Williams, Claire gets "a visit from a heavenly fetus."
Degrassi: The Next Generation: When Manny (Cassie Steele) is nervous about becoming a teen mom, she decides to terminate her pregnancy, despite her partner's desire to keep the baby. Her mother accompanies her to the clinic.
Desperate Housewives: Felicity Huffman's Lynette discovers she's pregnant, but reveals to Teri Hatcher's Susan that, with her new job and her husband going back to school, she is considering an abortion. Susan reminds her that children are a gift, talking her out of the abortion. Lynette eventually has twins.
Friday Night Lights: After a one-night stand with Luke, 10th-grader Becky (Madison Burge) becomes pregnant, and, afraid to talk to her mother about it, goes to her guidance counselor Tami Taylor (Connie Britton). After reading literature and learning about her options, Becky has an abortion. It's "the best and most honest portrayal of the heartrending decision to end a teenage pregnancy that we've ever seen," says Andy Greenwald at New York. Later, Luke's religious mother discovers that Mrs. Taylor counseled Becky on the decision, and ultimately gets her fired. Tellingly, there is little outrage over the episode, says Jessica Grose at Slate, hinting that perhaps the subject is no longer taboo.
Mad Men: Joan (Christina Hendricks) goes to a clinic to have an abortion, but ultimately decides to keep her baby. As Joan reveals that she's had two past abortions, her decision to go through with the pregnancy could be a prime example of fictional characters choosing to keep their babies for story reasons, says Eleanor Barkhorn at The Atlantic. "Babies advance plotlines, whereas abortions end them."
Grey's Anatomy: Years after considering an abortion and then miscarrying, Sandra Oh's Cristina Yang gets pregnant again. Her husband Owen (Kevin McKidd) wants her to keep the baby, but Cristina insists that she loves her job too much and wants to dedicate her life to it; a baby would make that impossible. It was "pretty radical," says Willa Paskin at New York. "It's common TV wisdom that whatever your reservations, once you see your child, you'll not only love it, you'll never regret having it."
Girls: After Jessa (Jemima Kirke) reveals she's pregnant, her friends make a big deal about attending the abortion appointment. As hours pass and Jessa doesn't show up, her friends become angry. "How could she ruin the beautiful abortion you threw?" Hannah (Lena Dunham) quips to an exasperated Marni (Allison Williams). A conflicted Jessa is actually at a bar drinking White Russians. While she seduces a random bar patron in the bathroom, it appears she begins to miscarry. Most notable about the episode is the sheer number of times it uses the word "abortion," says Busis, as if it's "trying to desensitize us to the word." Girls used it 11 times; Sex and the City used it three.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Half the world's population lives in these 6 countries
- How a degree from Duke University dashed my dreams of buying a home
- This is why you can't trust the NSA. Ever.
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- What Keeping Up with the Kardashians can teach America about interracial marriage
- ISIS and the echoes of the West's religious terror
- Innocent before proven guilty? The bizarre bipartisan rush to clear Rick Perry
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The real-life events that inspired Game of Thrones' Red Wedding
- 4 things NASA can teach you about a good night's sleep
Subscribe to the Week