Young mothers are all the rage on TV these days, whether their real lives are being wrenchingly chronicled on Teen Mom, their struggles are being melodramatized on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, or they’re dancing with stars (hello, Bristol Palin). But addressing unwanted pregnancy on the small screen inevitably raises a much trickier issue: abortion.
Five years ago, the mere word abortion on TV — much less the act — would ignite controversy. Lately, though, the medium has been depicting the taboo topic in several story arcs. What’s even more surprising? The lack of public outcry (aside from Fox, which preemptively pulled a Family Guy episode addressing the issue last year). A few weeks ago on Mad Men, Joan (Christina Hendricks) went to a clinic alone to seemingly end her unplanned extramarital pregnancy. And earlier this summer, NBC aired an episode of Friday Night Lights in which high school freshman Becky (Madison Burge) went through with the procedure after receiving oblique counsel from principal Tami Taylor (Connie Britton). FNL‘s exec producer Jason Katims says the story line provoked minimal network drama: ”I honestly felt surprised that there wasn’t more of a conversation about it.”
Becky was, in fact, the first major TV character to go through with terminating a pregnancy since 14-year-old Manny (Cassie Steele) on Degrassi: The Next Generation in 2004. (The N, which aired the series in the U.S., refused to broadcast the episode until 2006.) And other (unexpected) networks are broaching the topic: This year, ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager saw its second pregnant character, Adrian (Francia Raisa), seriously consider abortion before changing her mind. A thorough discussion about the pros and cons of choice was involved, again with no interference from the network, says exec producer Brenda Hampton. ”The important thing, to me,” Hampton says, ”was that she gave it thought.”
And that’s the real message here: A TV series can present abortion with emotional honesty and nuance, rather than ignoring a politically contentious fact of life altogether. That there was so little uproar around the episodes proves we may be ready for a real discussion that television can lead — if it so chooses.
From Maude to Mad Men, a history of the hot-button topic of abortion on TV.
Maude Concerned about having a baby at the age of 47, the titular character (Bea Arthur) ends her pregnancy.
All My Children The face of the soap world, Erica Kane (Susan Lucci), has the first legal abortion on daytime TV.
Degrassi High Erica (Angela Deiseach) faces a barrage of pro-life protesters before making the choice.
Six Feet Under Claire (Lauren Ambrose) terminates a pregnancy by her ambiguously gay boyfriend.
Everwood A single teen (Kate Mara) asks Dr. Brown (Treat Williams) to do the procedure; he refers her to another doc.
Degrassi: The Next Generation Worried about becoming a teen mom, Manny (Cassie Steele) has an abortion.
Friday Night Lights Becky (Madison Burge) seeks advice from Tami (Connie Britton) before getting an abortion.
Mad Men Joan (Christina Hendricks) visits an abortion clinic — but it’s unclear whether she actually goes through with it. — Archana Ram