Despite widespread legislative restrictions on reproductive health care in real life, television has become a safe haven for frank and frequent abortion talk. Once a taboo topic, women characters choosing termination—often without remorse—has been a plot point in several recent TV series (including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, and Bojack Horseman, to name a few). But abortion stories and television were never mutually exclusive entities, at least not since Maude decided to terminate her pregnancy in 1972, two months before Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. Several programs in the 1980s and ‘90s tackled the subject. Though pregnant characters rarely terminated in the end, writers from these popular series found creative ways to weave abortion into their story of the week. The results were sometimes terrible, sometimes surprisingly good.
In early 1982, spoiled heiress Fallon Carrington Colby (Pamela Sue Martin) found herself pregnant with cuckolded husband Jeff Colby’s (John James) offspring. Though Fallon fully intended to have an abortion (which would have freed her to leave Jeff for her secret boyfriend, Dr. Nick Toscanni, played by James Farentino), she changes her mind at the last minute, presumably to win over both her adoring father, Blake (John Forsythe), and her anti-abortion paramour. That the Dynasty writers allowed a main character to get as far as the abortion clinic might seem bold for the time, but keep in mind, the primetime soap had already tackled risqué topics like homosexuality and spousal rape. Furthermore, Fallon’s ambivalence toward motherhood isn’t altogether shocking. Rather, her eagerness to abort is presented as just another example of her deeply selfish nature. When she tries to justify her decision with statements like, “It’s my body” or “I’d be a lousy mother,” disapproving beau Dr. Nick is always there to respond with exasperated criticism: “You’re gonna disown your child, your father’s grandchild?”
His emotional maturity is meant as a counterpoint to her self-absorbed bitchiness. Though Fallon never explicitly states why she changed her mind, the fact that she immediately informs Dr. Nick suggests his approval was a major factor. As cringe-inducing as this reversal may be to feminist viewers today, this kind of impetuous behavior is pretty consistent with a character who once eloped with a guy she didn’t like just because she thought it would be good for her father’s business. And from a practical viewpoint, the fact that she’s wealthy makes the prospect of parenting an unplanned child way less daunting than it would be for most viewers in real life. Her change of heart isn’t unbelievable, though the way in which the show’s male characters stigmatize her initial choice is unfortunate.
High school newspaper reporter Natalie (Mindy Cohn) concocts a fake story about an anonymous Eastland School girl who had an abortion. Though the article has the desired effect of grabbing her classmates’ attention, it also places Natalie at odds with the headmaster, Mr. Parker (Roger Perry), who demands she reveal her (nonexistent) source. Twist! Eastland student Annie (Lisa Lucas)—who really had an abortion—approaches Natalie, wondering how the ace reporter sussed out her precise experience without actually interviewing her. Natalie considers ratting out Annie to save herself, but holds off when Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae) reminds her that lying is wrong.
In one of the most bizarre, nonsensical TV abortion stories ever aired, the writers insert an off-screen abortion that happened to a character we’ve never met before. When we do meet Annie, all we learn is that she had an abortion, it was scary, and she didn’t tell her parents. We never see her again after that. Much like Natalie, the writers seem to have introduced an abortion story for the sake of being “controversial,” without actually saying anything insightful about teen pregnancy or abortion. That Natalie even thinks about implicating Annie to cover for her own ruse (which is never revealed, by the way—Mr. Parker backs off with respect to Natalie’s First Amendment rights) is especially creepy. It’s almost as if we’re supposed to believe that a teenage girl who aborts without her parents’ knowledge deserves to be revealed, even if it jeopardizes her family life and her academic future. Three years later, in 1985, The Facts of Life delved into another abortion story when Blair’s (Lisa Whelchel) almost-divorced mom found herself pregnant. Though we’re actually familiar with and sympathetic to the abortion-seeking woman in this scenario, her termination plan evaporates after Blair shames her into keeping the baby.
Though few recall this early 1980s NBC sitcom, the series distinguished itself by showing a lead character actually go through with an abortion. Talk show producer Jo Jo White (Joanna Cassidy) learns that she’s pregnant as a result of her on again/off again affair with the show’s egotistical host, Bill Bittinger (Dabney Coleman). When Bill overhears her confiding her predicament to a coworker, he soon informs the entire backstage crew. Though she has no interest in raising a child, he haughtily grants her permission to have his baby. Frustrated and angry, Jo Jo lies to Bill, telling him he isn’t the father. She has her abortion, but not before Bill punishes her with an on-air tirade about promiscuous women. His actions only solidify her sense that she’s made the right decision.
While network execs worried about airing a sitcom abortion episode, the seriousness and sadness with which this story was handled ameliorated their concerns. As writer Jay Tarses said at the time, “I think there’s a lot of humor in sadness.” But most of the humor comes from Bill’s outrageous self-centeredness, the way he deigns to “allow” Jo Jo to have his child without considering that she’d need his help raising it. Jo Jo’s side of the story is mostly tragic, from the way she tearfully announces her unplanned pregnancy to her apparent sense of betrayal when she learns her male coworkers have taken a poll to decide if she should abort or not. Until very recently, TV has demanded penance from women characters who abort, in the form of tears and self-doubt. Though we’re not expected to empathize with Bill’s narcissism or the way he publicly humiliates his girlfriend, one has to wonder if the show could have gotten away with an abortion had those details been excluded.
At the start of Season Two, a mysterious alien entity appears in the form of a light beam and impregnates counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). The fetus gestates at an alarming rate, which means Troi is slated to give birth within a matter of days. Security chief Worf (Michael Dorn) suggests immediate termination, while science officer Data (Brent Spiner) recommends she keep the child so they can study it. As Troi’s male colleagues debate which approach is best, she zones out to the echoing sound of the fetal heartbeat. She then announces that she has every intention of keeping and raising the child. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) says the matter is closed and Troi embarks upon a tragically brief foray into motherhood.
Though Troi never appears to seriously consider aborting her half-alien offspring, pro-choice viewers will likely appreciate that the option is at least presented; consider the numerous occasions when an unexpectedly expectant TV character just dives into pregnancy without even mentioning the a-word (ahem, Lane from Gilmore Girls). And given the unusual and disturbing nature of her impregnation—not to mention that no one’s entirely sure what’s growing inside her—it makes sense that she’d want to abort. Her choosing to keep the child isn’t all that surprising (she is, after all, a very maternal character). But the echoing fetal heartbeat comes off as anti-choice propaganda. It’s really hard to not associate that sound with the right-to-life movement, especially now that numerous U.S. states have attempted to ban abortion at six weeks, precisely because this is when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Even weirder is the way Troi’s male colleagues so freely discuss her reproductive choices without immediately inquiring about her wishes. So much for the utopian, progressive, feminist future!
Undercover cop Judy Hoffs (Holly Robinson Peete) poses as a pregnant teen when a high school clinic that offers abortion referrals comes under violent attack from protesters. During her investigation, Hoffs befriends Rebecca (Stacy Edwards), an expectant teen who isn’t sure how to handle her unplanned pregnancy. When Rebecca’s ex, Mark (Dana Ashbrook) learns his true love is with child and considering abortion, he pressures her to keep the baby so they can raise it together. Rebecca blows him off and in a fit of anger he later plants a bomb at the school clinic. Unbeknownst to him, Rebecca is there. She loses her pregnancy as a result of her injuries. Shaken by what she’s witnessed, Hoffs finally comes to terms with an abortion she secretly had years prior.
By having Rebecca lose her pregnancy before she can make a decision, the writers found a convenient (albeit deeply dramatic) way of averting a potential abortion. But even if they were unwilling to show a teen girl “go through with it,” the episode doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing clinics as battlegrounds for choice. The protests are organized by Peter (James Sutorius), a career activist who is technically law-abiding, though he has no compunction about endangering the lives of patients or the clinic staff in service of protecting the unborn. Officer Harry Ioki (Dustin Nguyen), who is posing undercover as a protester, even becomes sympathetic to Peter’s cause. Frustrated by her colleague’s sudden pro-life stance, Hoffs confides her abortion story to Ioki. Though she laments having gotten pregnant in the first place, she explicitly states she doesn’t regret the choice. Though this gritty tale feels light years away from the sort of “no big deal” abortion stories we now see on series like Girls, you’re not apt to find one that’s more critical of clinic protesters.
College freshman Kim (Charnele Brown) is worried she might be pregnant. While awaiting the overnight test result, she fights with boyfriend, Robert, after he asks her to “get rid of it.” Kim is firmly opposed to aborting her maybe-fetus, but her friend, Whitley (Jasmine Guy)—who offers to lend money for the procedure—is sure Kim’s med school dreams are over. Robert offers to marry Kim, but she’s not thrilled by the prospect of a shotgun marriage. Everything works out when Kim gets a negative test result, but her elation is checked by dorm mom Lettie (Mary Alice), who admonishes the young woman for having unprotected sex.
What’s fascinating about this episode is that, even though the abortion option is introduced only to be immediately dismissed, termination is in no way stigmatized by any of the characters. Kim merely insists she doesn’t want to abort, and she becomes frustrated when both her boyfriend and pal push her to do this thing she doesn’t want to do. But there’s never a moment when she or any of her friends say something like, “It’s just wrong,” or “How could someone do that to their own baby?” In fact, the consequences of bearing an unplanned child are explored in unsentimental terms. While Kim and Robert discuss whether or not to marry, Whitley admits to her other friends that she would definitely abort if she were in that situation. She assumes her friends’ parenthood journey will doom them to a life of unhappiness. This is when older co-ed Jaleesa (Dawnn Lewis), a former teen bride, reminds Whitley that some young parents do manage to make happy lives for themselves. Though the narrative conveniently skirts portraying an actual abortion or teen pregnancy, neither potential outcome is presented as wholly tragic. For 1989, this is a surprisingly nuanced episode.
After a botched at-home test gives her a false negative result, Degrassi student Erica (Angela Deiseach) learns she really is pregnant. She knows her twin sister, Heather (Maureen Deiseach), is opposed to abortion (they’re Catholic), so she keeps the pregnancy secret at first. But Heather becomes suspicious when Erica asks their teen mom friend, Spike (Amanda Stepto) some very personal questions about her decision to have a baby. After scheduling an abortion, Erica finally confides in Heather and asks her to take her to the clinic. Heather refuses at first, but later changes her mind, even though she thinks Erica is making a bad decision. In the end, Heather dutifully escorts her sister past a line of protesters so she can have her abortion.
While American shows of the era, like 21 Jump Street and A Different World, talked about abortion without actually going there, this Canadian program took the bold step of showing a teenage girl choose termination despite pressures from loved ones and peers. Like Jo Jo on Buffalo Bill, Erica is forced thorough an emotional wringer on the way to making that decision. At one point she instigates a classroom debate about abortion, and looks somewhat shell-shocked as some of her classmates passionately rail against termination as an immoral choice. She is clearly conflicted. Heather remains judgmental, but her viewpoint evolves, too. In an interesting twist, Spike is the one who helps Heather understand that personal ethics become way more complicated when you find yourself unexpectedly pregnant. This discussion is what leads Heather to change her mind about going to the clinic. 15 years later, when Manny from Degrassi: The Next Generation becomes pregnant, it’s Spike (her best friend’s mom) who first suggests she consider termination. In both series, she serves as a non-judgmental advocate for choice.
Jane (Josie Bissett) gets pregnant by accident but isn’t opposed to starting a family. She hints at the topic of babies with her husband, Michael (Thomas Calabro), but he thinks they should focus on their careers. Instead of telling him about her pregnancy, she decides to abort secretly. She confides in her neighbor, Allison (Courtney Thorne-Smith), and soon the other ladies living at Melrose Place figure out Jane’s situation. When her pal, Rhonda (Vanessa Williams), drops off a comfort food casserole at Michael and Jane’s place, she unwittingly reveals to him that his wife is terminating a pregnancy. Michael rages at Jane when she comes home from the clinic, only to learn that she couldn’t go through with the procedure. They later make up and decide to have a child.
While some shows delve into an unplanned pregnancy plot without even mentioning the possibility of abortion, here’s the odd scenario in which a character pursues abortion even though it isn’t what she or her spouse really wants. Jane would rather have the baby, and she knows Michael would change his mind if he knew she were pregnant. She also knows he’ll never forgive her if he learns of the abortion, but she pursues it anyway as a favor to him. This doesn’t make any sense, but it does create drama without taking the risk of showing a character go through with the procedure. Though this story is far from the boldest depiction of abortion on TV, the writers manage to present the subject without stigmatizing the act itself. Jane’s friends are sweet and supportive. Her neighbor, Sandy (Amy Locane), reveals her own experience of having had an abortion as a teenager, saying she never regretted the choice. Though termination clearly isn’t the right choice for Jane, we’re never led to believe it’s an inherently bad one.
College freshman Andrea (Gabrielle Carteris) is pregnant and wants to abort, but she’s afraid to tell her Catholic boyfriend, Jesse (Mark Damon Espinoza), fearing he won’t support her decision. When she finally tells him, he gleefully assumes they’re having a baby. Andrea informs Jesse that she’s having an abortion, but he says he’ll break up with her if she goes through with it. The night before the appointment, Jesse visits Andrea and apologizes for not accompanying her to the clinic. She tells him she hasn’t aborted yet and has actually just changed her mind. They soon marry and eventually have a baby.
This wasn’t the first time Beverly Hills 90210 discussed abortion in response to an unplanned pregnancy; Kelly’s (Jennie Garth) mom, Jackie (Ann Gillespie), talked about it when she became pregnant in Season Two, and even mentioned terminating a past pregnancy. But while Jackie spoke of her experience without regret or apology, here we see a major shift in the way the series presents abortion. Andrea is racked with guilt and humiliation. More than wondering how raising a child will impact her future, she worries that a baby will ruin Jesse’s law school ambitions. In the end, her decision is all about him. His creepy ultimatum eventually works. And in one of the most propagandistic scenes in abortion-episode history, Andrea weeps as she apologizes out loud to her fetus for wanting to kill it. When Jesse arrives at her door moments later, she decides to start a family with a guy she’s been seeing for less than a month. While abortion might have made more sense for Andrea, the writers had to build a story around Gabrielle Carteris’ real-life pregnancy. Nevertheless, her capitulation to Jesse and frequent self-flagellation seem ill suited to a character who calls herself a feminist.
An amniocentesis reveals potential issues with Roseanne’s (Roseanne Barr) fetus. She and husband Dan (John Goodman) have already decided that she would have an abortion in lieu of giving birth to a special needs child. Now, in the midst of her pregnancy, Roseanne isn’t sure she can go through with a termination, and she and Dan argue bitterly over the decision. Ultimately, it turns out the exam was faulty and the baby is fine.
Again, TV finds a way to talk about abortion without having a character actually go through with one. But unlike Beverly Hills 90210 or Dynasty, this isn’t a story about a pregnant woman choosing the life of a child over her own “selfish” desires. We know Roseanne isn’t opposed to abortion, because the two-part episode begins with a scene in which she plays a practical joke on some anti-choice protesters picketing her doctor’s office. Like her Nana Mary (Shelly Winters), who casually mentions at a family dinner that she’s had two abortions, Roseanne is absolutely pro-choice. She just doesn’t feel right about ending this pregnancy, especially after trying so hard to make it happen. ??From Dan’s point of view, keeping the baby is the “selfish” choice. Seeing him argue in favor of abortion is unusual, because we rarely we see TV dads do that; when abortion does come up, the fetus’ father often argues against it. But, given the Conners’ perennial financial struggles (a reliable source of conflict for a show centered on a working class family), it absolutely makes sense that he would wish for his wife to terminate. ??In a touching scene before the false alarm is revealed, Roseanne confides her situation to her tween son D.J. (Michael Fishman), who nonchalantly tells his mom that any decision she makes will be just fine. Though the show never comes close to portraying the act itself, it manages to discuss abortion as a potentially complex decision, and in non-stigmatizing terms.
Tara Rose is a writer and founder of the television review site Remember the Abortion Episode. She lives in Chattanooga, TN.