Bea Arthur, who died on Saturday at age 86, became famous for portraying women who were brave, ballsy breakers of TV taboos. As the caustic divorcee Dorothy Zbornak on Golden Girls which aired between 1985 and 1992, she was part of an all-female ensemble in which older women were portrayed as socially engaged, sexual and supportive of one another. On Maude, which ran between 1972 and 1978, she played Maude Findlay a middle-aged liberal feminist who confronted menopause, plastic surgery, and, most famously, abortion. In all of the richly-deserved tributes pouring in, reference is inevitably made to Maude’s most groundbreaking legacy in presenting the first major character to have an abortion on prime-time television. The two-part episode titled “Maude’s Dilemma” aired in the show’s first season [in 1972], two months before the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalized abortion in the U.S. Predictably, it proved incendiary: CBS was flooded with angry mail and dozens of stations refused to air the program.
The bold story line—one you’d never see on network TV today—was significant not only for presenting a taboo topic, but also in depicting abortion as a difficult decision faced not only by young, unmarried women. More remarkably, given the broad-brushed comedy of the program, was the sensitive and nuanced depiction of a complex and polarizing topic. The decision to have an abortion was presented as a dilemma, even for an entrenched feminist like Maude. The middle-aged character was hesitant and afraid to go through with it—in part because she had been raised during an era in which abortion was considered shameful and was often fatal. Even after she made her choice, she remained conflicted and sad, though not remorseful. The episode managed to make an impossibly subtle point: that upholding women’s “right to choose” doesn’t make one “pro-abortion.” It’s a semantic distinction, to be sure; yet it also reveals the field of gray that punctuates the more readily depicted black-and-white of the topic.
Since the episode aired more than three decades ago, the rate of abortions per 100 live births in Canada has risen from 13 per cent to close to 30 per cent. Yet the subject is once again a cultural taboo that’s glossed over or white-washed, as revealed in this timeline dating back to 1916. The list is incomplete (the critically acclaimed 2007 Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days isn’t included, for instance) but it reveals a decided disinclination to confront and discuss the social reality. The reason for this in part, no doubt, stems from networks cowering before the financial clout of the well-organized Christian right. That certainly would explain why rejecting abortion is often shrouded in Hallmark-card sentimentality, as it was on an episode of Dawson’s Creek in 2000 in which the teenaged Dawson convinces his mother to cancel a scheduled abortion after delivering a heartrending tribute to her maternal skills. Then there’s the common easy-way-out formula in which prominent characters avoid the decision by miscarrying or having an ectopic pregnancy (a fate that befell Dr. Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy in the 2005-2006 season). Another common opt-out technique is the waiting-room epiphany in which pregnant characters experience a sudden change of heart at the last minute—as occurred with the character of Miranda on the TV show Sex and the City and the character of Juno in the 2007 movie Juno. Indeed, abortion avoidance reached its ad absurdum extreme in the 2007 movie Knocked Up when an unmarried woman played by Katherine Heigl becomes pregnant after a drunken one-night stand: the word abortion isn’t even uttered (the closest the film comes is in a character’s joking about “shmashmortion”). Of course, had Heigl’s character had an “shmashmortion,” no comic high jinx or poignant Seth Rogan character development could have ensued, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Sad we have to look back nearly 40 years for a fresher perspective.