How TV Finally Got Realistic About Abortions

This story was originally published on January 22, 2018.

In 1973, the Supreme Court declared Roe v. Wade the law of the land. Their landmark decision decriminalized abortion and forbid states from passing legislation that placed an “undue burden” on those seeking abortions. But Roe v. Wade hasn’t stopped anti-choice legislators from infiltrating the government and twisting the law to make it more difficult to access reproductive healthcare and abortion. As state and federal governments continue interceding into wombs, those who’ve had abortions have begun publicly sharing their stories, in an effort to destigmatize the procedure and give other people the confidence to make the best decision for their bodies.

Television has long led the way by showing women who exercise their reproductive autonomy by taking birth control, having casual sex, and having abortions. That’s not to say that TV has always offered accurate and nuanced depictions of abortion: In 2014, researchers Katrina Kimport and Gretchen Sisson analyzed 385 abortion-related plotlines in TV and movies and found that abortion is deadlier onscreen than it is in real-life. Plus, most of the characters on TV who have abortions are middle-class and white, which does not reflect the reality that women of color have the majority of abortions.

Despite these missteps, TV has slowly been making progress in accurately depicting abortions. As state governments continue their assaults on reproductive rights, TV getting abortion right matters more than ever. Here are seven TV shows that rose up to meet the challenge.

1. Maude, “Maude’s Dilemma”

In 1972, the year before the Supreme Court legalized abortion, Maude became the first show to follow a character making a decision about having an abortion. Though Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) lived in New York, a state that had legalized the procedure, women had abortions privately; it wasn’t fodder for prime-time television. Maude changed that when Findlay, a 47-year-old grandmother, decided that she didn’t want to raise more children and chose to have an abortion.

During a panel at a Netflix-sponsored event in June, Norman Lear, the creator of Maude as well as The Jeffersons, All In the Family, and The Golden Girls, said that CBS wasn’t fond of the storyline and initially planned to yank it from the air. “[The head of CBS standards and practices] called me when he got the [outline] and said, ‘You’re out of your mind. You’re kidding,’” Lear recalled. They had a good reason to be hesitant: After the two-part “Maude’s Dilemma” episode aired, religious groups protested outside of CBS’s headquarters and sent thousands of letters to the network.

That episode, however, laid the groundwork for normalizing abortion onscreen.

2. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone”

Over the past four seasons, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has covered a wide terrain of issues, including mental illness, but the CW drama broke new ground when it chronicled Paula Proctor’s (Donna Lynne Champlin) decision to have an abortion. Paula works as a paralegal at Whitefeather & Associates, the law firm protagonist Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) begins working at when she moves from New York to West Covina, California. Paula discovers that she’s pregnant by her husband, Scott Proctor (Steve Monroe), after she decides to apply to law school. Though she and her husband already have two sons, Paula decides to prioritize her career and have an abortion.

Not only does Scott support Paula’s decision, he is the person who encourages her to do what’s best for herself and her career. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t show the actual procedure, but confirms that Paula’s had an abortion after a pizza delivery driver rings their doorbell, and her son says, “Mom, I’ll get it since you just had an abortion.” What’s remarkable about this portrayal of abortion is that it was very undramatic. There was no hand-wringing or shame associated with the procedure.

3. Jane the Virgin, “Chapter 45” and “Chapter 46”

Jaime Camil as Rogelio de la Vega and Andrea Navedo as Xiomara Villanueva on Jane the Virgin

From left to right: Jaime Camil as Rogelio de la Vega and Andrea Navedo as Xiomara Villanueva on Jane the Virgin (Photo credit: The CW)

Given its title, it’s no surprise that the CW’s Jane the Virgin has grappled extensively with sex, relationships, and pregnancy. After all, the show revolves around Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), a virgin who’s accidentally inseminated with her boss’s sperm and decides to keep the child. However, the hit drama decided to go in a different direction when Jane’s mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), discovers that she’s pregnant in the Season 2 finale. Though Xiomara loves Rogelio (Jaime Camil), Jane’s father who she’s rekindled a relationship with, she doesn’t want to have more children while he does. She makes that very clear, so she doesn’t agonize about having an abortion when she discovers that she’s pregnant.

Between the Season 2 finale and the Season 3 premiere, Xiomara has a medication abortion, making her the first Latina to have an abortion on a primetime, network television show. She’s also the second grandmother, after Maude, to have an abortion onscreen, according to sociologist Gretchen Sisson. While Xiomara’s daughter is supportive of her decision, her deeply religious mother, Alba (Ivonne Coll), is vocal about her disappointment and disagreement. Eventually, Alba and Xiomara have a conversation about the abortion, and come to a peaceful resolution.

Jennie Snyder-Urman, Jane the Virgin’s showrunner, told Vanity Fair that she consulted with Planned Parenthood while creating the episode. She also thought it was important for the show to highlight the issue, since Jane didn’t consider terminating her pregnancy. “We had a character who felt one way, and we had a character who felt another way—so we had a real opportunity to understand and empathize with both of their points of view,” Snyder-Urman said. “We tried really hard to have a balance—to give Alba a chance to say what she wanted to say, to give Xio and them [a chance] to show that the family’s love is going to get them past the fact that they don’t agree on everything.”

4. Scandal, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on Scandal

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on Scandal (Photo credit: ABC)

When Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) had an abortion on Scandal, there was no dialogue. On an hour-long drama that’s prided itself on delivering effortless monologues, Pope’s medical procedure was performed while “Silent Night” played. Her decision to terminate her pregnancy wasn’t spoken of before that moment and hasn’t been discussed after, that one-minute scene greatly resonated because it came after an entire episode focused on the importance of access to reproductive healthcare.

In a twist that’s too fantastical-to-be-real, Republican Senator Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) filibusters to protect funding for Planned Parenthood, so Pope’s abortion underscored the importance of reproductive healthcare access. As with many of the other onscreen characters who’ve had abortions, Pope didn’t think twice about her decision, and neither does President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), the man she was pregnant by. Though Pope didn’t tell him she was pregnant, he fully supports her when he discovers that she had an abortion. “I support your choice… not that you need it,” Grants tell her.

When the episode aired, Planned Parenthood issued a statement applauding showrunner Shonda Rhimes and the ABC network for shedding light on such an important subject. “We applaud Shonda Rhimes tonight—and every Thursday night — for proving that when women are telling our stories, the world will pause and watch,” the statement read in part. “We just hope those in Congress—and throughout the nation—who are steadfast on rolling the clock back on reproductive health care access are taking note.”

5. GLOW, “Maybe It’s the Disco”

GLOW, much like Netflix’s other female-centered comedy, Orange is the New Black, centers a group of aimless women united through circumstance. On GLOW, the ladies are actresses-slash-wrestlers who are working with a dodgy promoter to create a female-version of the WWF (now called the WWE). Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is just as down-on-her-luck as the rest of the group, and knows that having a child with her friend Debbie’s (Betty Gilpin) husband won’t bode well for her fledgling career.

Ruth realizes that her period is late when the other wrestlers are passing around tampons in the locker room. After taking a pregnancy test, Ruth asks Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), the wrestling show’s director, to take her to a Planned Parenthood for an abortion. It’s very matter-of-fact with no emotions exchanged between them, just as it is for many people who have abortions. “Yeah. It’s not the right time,” Ruth tells Sam in the waiting room. “Not the right baby.” GLOW takes it a step further by showing Ruth going into a room to have the abortion, and the episode ends with her looking at the ceiling as a doctor performs the procedure.

Planned Parenthood praised GLOW for “highlighting the need for every woman to have full, accurate information about all of her options so she can make the best decision for herself.” In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Brie said that she was immediately on-board with portraying the abortion. “It’s really important, especially right now, to highlight that women should be able to make that choice and that it doesn’t have to be the end of the world,” she said. “What I especially love about that episode is that it’s a very easy choice for Ruth to make, whether or not the emotional repercussions will continue throughout her life. They might or they might not. This is a show about women’s bodies and about them taking control of their own bodies, and that’s highlighted beautifully in that episode.”

6. Girls, “Close Up”

It’s unsurprising that Girls, a HBO drama about millennial white women navigating friendship and career in Brooklyn, explored abortion. After all, the show prided itself on its realness, and abortion is a very real option for young women who are sexually active, but aren’t ready to raise children. What’s surprising, though, is that none of Girls’ main characters had abortions. Instead, the show’s abortion storyline started very simply with two co-starring characters.

“I can’t go for a run because I had an abortion yesterday,” Mimi-Rose Howard (Gillian Jacobs) very calmly tells her boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver). Adam, ever the petulant child, throws a tantrum because Mimi-Rose, who shares an apartment with him, didn’t tell him that she planned to terminate a pregnancy he didn’t know about. “It was a ball of cells,” she tells him, after he asks if it was a boy or a girl. “It was smaller than a seed pearl. It didn’t have a penis or a vagina.”

Their relationship soon disintegrates and Mimi-Rose never offers an explanation for choosing to have an abortion. That seems to be the point though. It was her decision, she made it, and that’s that.

7. Grey’s Anatomy, “Unaccompanied Minor” and “Free Falling”

Grey’s Anatomy has been flirting around with abortion since the beginning. When surgeon Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) discovered that she was pregnant during the first season, showrunner Shonda Rhimes wanted to write an abortion into the storyline. However, Yang had an ectopic pregnancy instead of an abortion because “the network freaked out a little bit.” “No one told me I couldn’t do it, but they could not point to an instance in which anyone had,” Rhimes told TIME in 2014. “And I sort of panicked a little bit in that moment and thought maybe this isn’t the right time for the character, we barely know her… I didn’t want it to become like what the show was about.”

Rhimes and her writers made a different decision when Cristina becomes pregnant in the seventh season. She tells her husband, Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd), that she wants to terminate the pregnancy because she’s dedicated to being a surgeon. Initially, Owen doesn’t accept Cristina’s decision, and he refuses to accompany her to any doctor’s appointments. Eventually, he changes his mind, and goes with her when she has the abortion. While these change of hearts are rare, showing a husband who’s supportive is important because 14 percent of people who have abortions are married and 31 percent are living with their partner.

by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.

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