How the portrayal of abortion in TV and film has shifted since 1928

Reproductive HealthGMA, ABC News Photo Illustration
Reproductive Health

Hollywood hasn't always done the best job of depicting women grappling with reproductive health care decisions, such as contraception and abortion, but it's gotten better in recent years.

From 1928's "Road to Ruin," one of the first films to address abortion, in which a teenager who terminates a pregnancy is later mysteriously burned alive in bed, to ABC's "Scandal," in which the main character, Olivia Pope, ends her pregnancy with the full support of her lover, President Fitzgerald Grant, storylines about women's health care rights have evolved.

Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist who studies how abortion is portrayed in television and film for ANSRH, or Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, told "Good Morning America" that more recently, the subject has been handled in less heavy-handed ways than in decades past, and women who undergo the procedure are no longer portrayed as cautionary tales. Additionally, Sisson added, in some series, including "Sex and the City" and "Being Mary Jane," a beloved, established character will simply reference having had an abortion in the past.

"You see comedies or less serious shows that are dealing with it in a heartfelt way," she continued. "So, 'Jane the Virgin,' the Australian show, 'Please Like Me,' we're seeing more comedies dealing with it, which is a different way of telling stories about it and a different way of identifying with characters."

According to a 2017 study from Sisson and the ANSRH that examined abortion plotlines in television from 1962 to 2016, the subject was broached 222 times, and most frequently by drama series. Sisson suggested that as more distribution channels become available, a greater number shows and films will tackle abortion, with a particular emphasis on what illegal abortion might look like.

"Our models of illegal abortion are mostly looking to the past, and those are not the stories of what's going to happen when we look to the future," she said. "You see the coat hanger, the back alley procedure, but when we look to the future at illegal abortion, it will be pills that you buy on the internet."

For Kirsten Schaffer, the executive director of Women In Film, an organization dedicated to promoting gender parity in the entertainment industry, what matters most is that women's lives and the choices they face are more realistically portrayed. After all, she told "GMA," women of all races, ages and sexual orientations face different challenges, and each of those stories is worth telling.

"I think depicting more about women's decisions that they make about their bodies, including the choice to terminate a pregnancy, is what we want to see more of. There's a whole host of issues around our physical selves that are complex and we want to see complexity," she said. "There are so many different types of people, and we want to see all of those experiences."

Below is a look back at some of stories tackled on the big and small screen.

'Maude's Dilemma'

In 1972, the year before the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide with Roe v. Wade, "Maude" became the first TV series to show a character deciding to have an abortion. (Abortion was legalized in New York state, where the show was set, in 1970.) In the two-parter "Maude's Dilemma," the title character, played by Bea Arthur, is already a grandmother when she finds herself pregnant at 47. Her decision to end her pregnancy brought the conversation of abortion into America's living rooms.

The episodes were a ratings bonanza. But by the time they re-aired the following year, CBS was inundated with thousands of letters of protest and not one sponsor bought commercial time.

Soaps

Maude wasn't the first TV character to have an abortion. That was "Another World" character Pat Matthews, who in 1964 refers to her "illegal operation" that left her unable to bear children. Years later, she had corrective surgery which allowed her to conceive twins.

Then, in 1973, on "All My Children," Erica, played by Susan Lucci, had television's first post-Roe legal abortion. A young model starting out, she found herself unexpectedly pregnant and decided to have the procedure. Fans were later outraged in 2005 when a new storyline revealed that Erica's aborted fetus had actually been transplanted into the doctor's infertile wife and she gave birth to Erica's son.

'Fast Times at Ridgemont High'

In this popular 1982 coming-of-age film, high school freshman Stacy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, chooses to have an abortion on her own, without any drama or regrets. The scene of the procedure itself was removed from the theatrical cut but later appeared in the TV version.

'Roe v. Wade'

Nearly two decades after the Supreme Court decision, network television tried once again to tackle the issue, this time in a film about the landmark case. It starred Holly Hunter as the unmarried Texas woman who would become Roe and Amy Madigan, as her lawyer. Written by Alison Cross, the TV movie went on to win two Emmy Awards but it also aired without any sponsors and reportedly cost NBC $1 million in lost advertising.

'Murphy Brown'

When Murphy, played by Candice Bergen, learns at the end of season three during the series first run that she is pregnant, the real question for her is not whether she will go through with the pregnancy, but what kind of mother she will be. The word "abortion" was never mentioned during the 1991 three-episode storyline though creator Diane English made it clear that Murphy was aware she had a choice when her colleague Corky, played by Faith Ford, offers to escort her to a doctor who will "take care of things."

Ultimately, the show was best known for Murphy becoming a single mother in the fourth season, and then-Vice President Dan Quayle criticizing her for "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone."

'Dirty Dancing'

The 1987 classic starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, which was set in the 60s, featured an illegal abortion, despite pushback from the studio.

"When it came time to shoot it, I made it very clear that we would leave in what is, for me, very purple language: references to dirty knives, a folding table, hearing Penny screaming in the hallway. I had a doctor on set to make sure [the depiction of what was happening] was right," screenwriter and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein told Broadly last year.

"The reason I put that language in there was because I felt that—even with it being a coat hanger abortion—a whole generation of young people, and women especially… wouldn't understand what [it] was. So I put very, very graphic language in, and I worked very hard on shooting it to make sure it was shown realistically."

Ultimately, a national sponsor demanded that the scene be removed, but Bergstein refused, arguing that the abortion was the catalyst for everything else in the film. The movie lost that advertiser.

'Roseanne'

During the series' first run, pro-choice Roseanne, played by Roseanne Barr, is pregnant with her fourth child when she learns there may be issues with the fetus. She and husband Dan, played by John Goodman, agree that Roseanne would have an abortion instead of possibly giving birth to a special needs child.

But when Roseanne changes her mind, they argue bitterly about it and everyone in the family weighs in. In this 1994 two-episode storyline, the baby turns out to be fine and Roseanne goes through with the pregnancy.

'Juno'

In this 2007 film, Ellen Page stars as the title character, a self-reliant 16-year-old facing an unplanned pregnancy. After visiting an abortion clinic, she decides instead to carry the pregnancy and make a plan for the baby to be adopted.

The critically acclaimed film won the Oscar for best original screenplay, but it drew mixed reactions from both supporters and opponents of legalized abortion.

'Friday Night Lights'

In 2009, many fans applauded Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor when she has "the talk" with her daughter Julie about using birth control at age 17.

A year later, Taylor's job as the principal of the local high school is on the line after it's revealed that she provided information about abortion to pregnant high school sophomore Becky Sproles after the girl asked about it. Taylor is brought before the school board and, after refusing to apologize, she is reassigned to another school.

'The Fosters'

This ABC feel-good drama tackled late-term abortion in the 2014 episode titled "Mother," in which Lena, played by Sherri Saum, is 20 weeks pregnant when her own health nosedives. The doctor tells her that she is suffering from a severe case of preeclampsia and if she continues the pregnancy, she could die. But inducing labor will mean her child with wife Stef has virtually no chance of surviving. In the end, the couple chooses to induce and says goodbye to their baby.

The show uses the words "lost the baby" instead of abortion, but so would most women facing the same decision to terminate a late-stage pregnancy in order to save the life of the mother.

'Obvious Child'

In 2014, the film "Obvious Child" was both praised and derided for focusing on the central character's decision to have an abortion after getting pregnant in the throes of a new relationship.

Comedian Jenny Slate, who stars in the movie, told The Guardian newspaper at the time that "the movie isn't saying that abortions are funny; it's saying that people are funny."

“I don’t put a stigma on abortion,” she continued. “I feel I have to be totally cemented in my position, all: ‘You can’t tell me what to do with my body’, but there is another part of me that is, you know, myself: vulnerable, with lots of doubts. I think our film shows that complexity.”

'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Scandal'

Shonda Rhimes recently shared how in Season 1 of "Grey's Anatomy" she wanted super-surgeon Dr. Cristina Yang, played by Sandra Oh, to have an abortion but the showrunner was warned against it.

Six years later, in the Season 7 finale, Rhimes decided to tackle the issue when Yang, who had previously stated that she didn't want children, found out that she was pregnant. In Season 8, Yang decides to have an abortion and her husband eventually comes around to support her decision.

Though the storyline was still controversial, Rhimes said she "knew what I was willing to stand up for."

Abortion was also addressed in Rhimes' drama, "Scandal," when Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope had the procedure performed in a 2015 episode that tackled controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood.

The scene, set to "Silent Night," was also met with mixed reactions. Planned Parenthood cheered when the episode aired, whereas the the Media Research Center, a conservative organization, slammed it as a "depravity."