Afraid to Talk About Abortion
Despite being a safe and legal medical procedure, abortion is still considered taboo to discuss in many ways, which is even more problematic with the barriers to abortion access after the overturn of Roe v. Wade just over a year ago.
That’s why it matters that pop culture addresses these issues head-on, because that visibility can help demystify abortion and normalize that it is something that many people go through during their lifetimes.
“As individuals, we often look to pop culture for ways in which we fit into society,” Melissa Grant, chief operating officer of Carafem Health, tells SheKnows. “When pop culture doesn’t accurately portray abortion for what it is — a commonly shared experience for 1 in 4 women of reproductive age — it perpetuates abortion stigma.
While we frequently see sex as a common thread amongst much of popular culture, with hypersexualized messages being shared in multiple forums daily, accurate portrayals of abortion are still rare.”
Often in the past, when an abortion storyline does appear on a TV show, it’s in the form of a cautionary tale, where something terrible happens to the woman who decided to get one (see: Penny in Dirty Dancing).
Thankfully, some of the more recent examples of abortion on TV (and some not-so-recent examples) do a better job of showing the nuances of the decision and procedure, as well as the autonomy of the character who decides to proceed with having an abortion .
Here are a few examples of some of the TV shows that weren’t afraid to address abortion, whether they take place in the nineteenth century, the 1970’s, or in the present day.
In Bridgerton Season 1, Marina Thompson becomes the talk of the ton when she is pregnant by her lover, George Crane, who is off at war, and arrives to live with her cousins, the Featherington family.
Marina meets Colin Bridgerton and forms a close bond, and her family attempts to arrange a marriage with him to cover up the pregnancy.
In the meantime, Marina secretly attempts a self-induced abortion via an herbal mixture. The procedure doesn’t end up being successful, and her plan to marry Colin foils when Lady Whistledown announces Marina’s condition in her gossip pamphlet.
In Season 2, it’s revealed that Marina now is married to George Crane’s brother, Sir Phillip Crane, has given birth to twins, and leads a quiet life.
While this would seem like a cautionary tale of an abortion gone wrong, it’s more of a reflection of the lack of medical technology during the Regency period. Addressing abortion at all in a period piece is a bold and important decision on the part of creator Shonda Rhimes.
In a 2015 episode of the ABC show Scandal, the main character, Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington), gets an abortion — a move that was praised by abortion rights groups like Planned Parenthood.
"It was addressed as a moment in the character's life," Grant explains.
"Viewers did not know she was pregnant and the word abortion was never mentioned, yet people understood exactly what was being depicted. The scene was powerful in its simplicity."
And then there's Maude — the show with one of the most groundbreaking abortion episodes in TV history. The two-part episode entitled "Maude's Dilemma" aired in 1972 after abortion was legalized in New York state, but before Roe v. Wade.
The story centers on Maude (played by Bea Arthur), who becomes pregnant at the age of 47 and needs to decide whether or not to terminate the pregnancy.
Ultimately, she decides that for her, at that point in her life, abortion is the best option, but perhaps even more impactful is how the show depicts her decision-making process.
For a show known for glittery musical numbers, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did a fantastic job with its portrayal of abortion.
In a season two episode, the character Paula Proctor (played by Donna Lynne Champlin), who is already a mother of two middle-school-age boys, unexpectedly gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion.
For starters, this is incredibly important because abortion is so often associated with young, irresponsible single women,
but in reality, more than half of people who get abortions already have at least one child. But on top of that, it's evident that Paula told her whole family about her decision thanks to a line of dialogue where one of her sons says,
“Mom, I’ll get it since you just had an abortion!”
That's huge! In her household, Paula is making sure that her husband and sons (and in turn, the viewers) recognize that abortion is a routine medical procedure and a viable option for people in various stages of life.
Jane the Virgin
Yes, the whole premise of Jane the Virgin is that the titular character, Jane (played by Gina Rodriguez), gets pregnant via an accidental artificial insemination and decides to have the baby.
She did consider abortion in the early episodes, but ultimately decided it wasn't the right choice for her.
Flash-forward to the season two finale when it's revealed that Jane's mother, Xiomara (played by Andrea Navedo), found herself unexpectedly pregnant.
Rather than turning her unplanned pregnancy into a major storyline, it happens off-screen between the end of the second season and before the third season begins.
And like the abortion in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Xiomara's is casually mentioned in a matter-of-fact way when the show's trademark telenovela narrator says,
“To clarify: Xo didn't have a stomach flu a few weeks ago. She had a medical abortion, which caused cramps, which she told her mother was a stomach flu.”
The focus wasn't on the abortion itself, but instead, Xiomara's family's reaction to it, which was a deliberate choice, Jane the Virgin showrunner Jennie Snyder-Urman told Vanity Fair.
Not only does GLOW talk about periods, it also has one of the best abortion episodes yet. When Ruth becomes pregnant as the result of having an affair with her best friend's husband, she decides to have an abortion.
While showing her decision-making process was great, the best part was how the show went through the whole medical procedure step by step in the Planned Parenthood clinic.
GLOW writers consulted the organization when crafting the dialogue in the scene, which Planned Parenthood praised as being a realistic portrayal of abortion.
Leave it to Shonda Rhimes to have another incredibly smart, successful female character decide to get an abortion. Four years before Olivia Pope opted for the procedure, Cristina Yang (played by Sandra Oh) had one on Grey's Anatomy.
Initially, her husband, Owen Hunt (played by Kevin McKidd), isn't supportive but does eventually get on board when he realizes Cristina has dedicated her life to being a surgeon and not necessarily a mother.
Back in 1989, a Canadian show for teens called Degrassi High featured a two-part episode in which one of the students,
Erica Farrell (played by Angela Deiseach) gets pregnant at the age of 16. Her twin sister comes with her to the clinic, and after making their way past protestors outside,
does go through with the procedure (unlike other pregnant-in-high-school characters like Juno from the movie Juno).
If you had told us five years ago one of the most relatable portrayals of abortion would be on an animated show where a human woman gets impregnated by her talking dog husband, we would have found that hard to believe.
Then BoJack Horseman debuted on Netflix and has managed to address countless serious issues, like depression, politics and caring for aging parents in heartbreakingly realistic ways.
The show addresses abortion in its third season, when Diane (voiced by Alison Brie) decides to have an abortion.
When she visits her local "Planned Parrothood" (the whole show is rife with animal puns), she is forced to watch 20 hours of cute puppy videos (remember, her husband is a dog) and the doctor informs her, “By law, I have to tell you that at one month, your puppies have a favorite color, and that color may be blue.”
When it's all over with, her friend, Princess Carolyn (voiced by Amy Sedaris), asks Diane how she feels, and she says: “I feel shitty. I mean, physically. I’m glad I did it.”
And that's it: No regrets.