On those rare occasions when TV dares to deal with the volatile issue of abortion, it would be unthinkable to play the subject for laughs. But then, to paraphrase the All in the Family spin-off’s theme song, there was Maude. In its second month on the air, Maude grabbed headlines as the first sitcom that dared to deal with the subject, setting a caustic, politically charged tone for the CBS series that would endure throughout its six-year run. On Nov. 14, 1972, 47-year-old Maude (Bea Arthur) announced she was pregnant. In the following week’s episode, she made the decision to have an abortion, which was legal in New York (the locale of the series) but not nationally.
Despite the timing—three months before the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade—series creator Norman Lear denies his motivation was political. ”We weren’t trying to make a statement,” he insists today. ”(At first) we asked, what’s a good, funny story and pregnancy was a great comedic idea.”
And one idea led to another. Though pregnancy-related themes were already a sure bet for sitcoms, it was considered downright racy when a horrified Maude proclaimed, ”The rabbit died, laughing no doubt,” and a puzzled friend responded, ”Aren’t you using the pill?”
Maude’s liberated daughter, Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), a divorced single mother living at home, was the first to suggest that her mother had a choice: ”You don’t have to have the baby…. Abortion was a dirty word; it’s not anymore.” Later, in the gentlest way possible, Maude’s husband, Walter (Bill Macy), said, ”In the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.”
The show vaulted from 13th to 5th place in the Nielsen ratings in those two episodes, but success came with a price. ”We knew some people would be upset,” Lear says, ”but we had no idea of the conflagration that did follow.”
CBS received hundreds of calls and 7,000 letters protesting the episodes, and that wasn’t the end of it. The furor erupted again nine months later when ”Maude’s Dilemma” was rerun. Twenty-five CBS affiliates refused to air the shows, the network received 17,000 letters, and only one 30-second commercial was sold—the result of pressure on advertisers by antiabortion groups.
Abortion is still difficult for commercial TV to handle. Four years ago, many advertisers shunned the NBC movie Roe vs. Wade. It’s conceivable that if Maude were around today, its controversial episodes would never make it to the air.