Born Again

When it comes to the abortion issue, TV shows are where they were 30 years ago.

Not surprisingly, the only time abortion makes a regular appearance on the major networks is when it is discussed as an "idea." The fictional political candidates on shows like The West Wing freely discuss their views (though their recent live presidential debate eschewed the topic altogether since both candidates on this liberal fantasy show are pro-choice). You will be hard-pressed, however, to find an episode where C.J. or one of the president's daughters admits to actually having an abortion herself. In this way, writers can feel brave for delving into a taboo subject without having to stand behind their political convictions. The implication is that talking about and debating over abortion is OK, having one is not.

The most shocking thing about television's self-imposed censorship on the issue of abortion—especially in this anything-goes age where networks gleefully broadcast programming in which people eat bugs for money or undergo graphic surgeries—is that the industry actually used to be braver. Exactly 33 years ago this week on Norman Lear's Maude, Bea Arthur's title character, a married woman in her forties with a grown daughter, had an abortion. The episode aired three months before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal nationwide, but Hollywood (and in particular, the button-pushing Lear) wasn't afraid of the controversial topic. Strangely, now that the policies affected by Roe are 32 years old and should be considered the status quo, a character (let alone a married adult) would never have an abortion on a network show. That conservative sway in the culture, the one that found evangelical Harriet Miers not pro-life enough for the high court, has left trailblazing Maude with no one following her.

Real women have had decades of hard-won reproductive freedom in this country, but their televised doppelg do not have the same options. Why aren't our real-world choices reflected in our pop culture landscape? If the networks can show violence against women and teen sex and rape (shows like Law and Order: SVU are propagated entirely on those topics), why can't we see the outcomes of those actions? Abortion is not a dirty word, nor is it simply a political topic. It deserves a place on TV, and not just on C-SPAN.

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Rebecca Raber is a freelance writer. She watches too much TV.

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