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. And, well, it’s about time.
Sure, Maude featured its title character ending her unwanted pregnancy during its very first season on the air in 1972. But controversy-wary networks fell mostly silent on the issue in the ’80s and ’90s. In fact, even five years ago, the mere word abortion on TV — much less the act — would ignite uproar. 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 networks are broaching the topic as well: 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.