Abortion stories on television shape real-life laws. How the story went from the 1960s to today

Following Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that the Supreme Court will likely overturn Roe v. Wade, Press Play rebroadcasts a television interview influencing conversations about public abortion policy.

Tanya Melendez, a University of Illinois researcher who studies television, rhetoric and public discourse, says television lied about abortion.

“The overriding lie was that this was just a moot moral issue and that agency was being taken away from female lead characters. … It’s a long story that starts in the 1960s. So abortion doesn’t really appear on [primetime] TV before 1980, with two major exceptions,” she says.

She explains that the first exception was in “The Defenders” procedural law – a 1962 episode about an abortion case that caused a great outcry, given the community conventions of the time, and some affiliates refused to acknowledge it. broadcast. It was a blip on the radar, but big enough that abortion didn’t return to TV until the sitcom “Maude.” During a 1972 episode, 47-year-old Maude Findlay (played by Bea Arthur), a middle-aged liberal New Yorker, learned she had become pregnant and wondered whether or not she should have his baby.

“He’s always focused on Maude’s wants and desires, rather than trying to influence her one way or another, or telling her what she’s doing is wrong. And those are the kinds of conversations that we later see on TV,” Melendez explains.

In the early 1980s, the crime procedural drama “Cagney and Lacey” aired an episode where detectives were investigating the bombing of an abortion clinic, and three main characters were pro-choice while three others were pro-life. , and they were all presented as reasonable. .

CBS, which aired the episode, said it showed a balanced approach to the issue. “What this does, of course, is create a false equivalence between the people who would prevent a woman from exercising her constitutional right and the woman who is seeking her constitutional right. And that’s a false equivalence because those two things aren’t equal,” Melendez says.

Then, in the 1990s, in “Party of Five,” a drama about five siblings living alone after the death of their parents, a character nearly had an abortion but was able to avoid it because a miscarriage occurred. produced.

“It’s a typical plot where a television episode is going to allow a character to decide at the end of a long journey…that they’re going to have an abortion. But before the procedure can actually take place, either there was a false positive test, or she had a miscarriage. And what that does is allow the show to air ostensibly pro-choice views, while saving the character from having the stain Moral for going through the procedure….Even though she didn’t have the procedure, she still takes the guilt…for even considering it.

Abortion vs Maternity and Women’s Ambivalence

Melendez says that for a long time, television has made abortion the enemy of motherhood. “These are not binary decisions, and they are not against each other. In fact, most people who have abortions in America already have children, they are mothers. And it’s not a decision that’s made in the context of what a woman thinks about motherhood, but rather whether or not she chooses to have a baby. It’s a different conversation than how we view motherhood in our culture. But television quickly positioned abortion as the enemy of motherhood.

In a 1994 episode of “Roseanne,” a sitcom about the matriarch of a low-income Illinois household, the title character already had children, was pro-choice, and unexpectedly became pregnant. The doctor called with news of potential fetal abnormalities, so Roseanne and her husband Dan discussed the abortion.

“The episode centers around her conflicts – both with her spouse, over changing her decision-making process, but also trying to figure out for herself whether or not she can carry a pregnancy with a fetus. developing abnormally,” Melendez says.

She says the show is about the position of choice, but explicitly highlights the values ​​of motherhood and motherhood.

“The only reason there is a conflict in this episode is not because the baby might face challenges or the pregnancy might end through natural causes. The conflict in this episode becomes whether she chose whether or not to go through the process or not, so it has very little to do with that part of the process that many women are probably dealing with, which is that ambivalence.

(In the end, Roseanne had the baby.)

The big change in television in 2010

The women’s agency became more prominent on television this decade, Melendez says, and it debuted with Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal,” about a black woman running a crisis management business while having an affair with the American president. In one episode, she discovered she was pregnant, then went to a medical facility to undergo a vacuum aspiration procedure. The network did not show her discussing the choice with anyone.

“It’s extremely respectful of the fact that the choice of woman is sacrosanct and above any other part of the drama. And this is a soap opera that loves dramatic moments. So the seriousness with which it was taken to show how this is a private decision is extremely intentional.

She says when it was a hit on ABC, it opened doors — especially for female showrunners, executive producers and writers — to create female-centric stories.

“It’s becoming much more common these days to…demonstrate more storytelling options about how a woman asks for an abortion, how she chooses to talk about it with other people, how she does or doesn’t include the others – but not the decision itself. And morality itself is much less debated now. And it’s much more about how the right to choose is exercised by women across the country in different spaces.

The Connection Between TV Plots and Today’s Legal Battles

Melendez says television has made several generations believe that abortion is a debatable issue and that everyone is allowed to insert their opinions on a woman’s right to choose.

“We were taught that women should feel bad because all the women we saw felt bad. I think we’ve been taught that women regret their abortions, which we know from the data is not true. … When you absorb those lessons for decades, when you’re brought up to think this is what it looks like, you vote by those values. …And yet, it was a procedure that we know one in three women will undergo. … We know that when women have access to safe and accessible abortion, they are happier, more productive, they have more children, they raise families,” she says.

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