Abortion – a four-letter word in TV land

by Karen Topakian

Today’s New York Times features a story about a post-abortion counseling group, Exhale that describes itself as “pro-voice.”

Exhale is in the news at the moment because they agreed to participate in a television program “No Easy Decision,” broadcast on Dec 28 on MTV. The program followed a teenager’s decision-making process as she chose to have an abortion.

Imagine, an abortion. A legal medical procedure.

The earth-shattering part of this is that a TV program chose to include abortion as an option at all. A rare event on television. A taboo subject even though thousands of women, married and single, young and old choose them daily.

Last year while I was catching up on back episodes of Mad Men, I ran across this scene and was reminded of its uniqueness in TV dramas.

Betty Draper sits alone fully clothed in a doctor’s office. The doctor comes in to tell her that she is pregnant. Though she is married with two children, her husband is MIA. Her marriage is shaky at best.

In a straight forward and matter of fact voice, Betty tells the doctor that she can’t have a baby right now.

The doctor, a kindly older gentleman, responds as follows:

“If we’re having the conversation I think we’re having there are alternatives obviously but I find it hard to believe that as a married woman of means you would even be considering that. That is an option for young girls, who have no other options. I guarantee that the minute you tell your husband, your friends, you’ll stop worrying. Get in the swing of things.”

Neither of them used the word abortion. Not surprising since this program works very hard at adhering to the truth of the times. And New York didn’t decriminalize abortion until 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade.

But that was then.

And this is now. Today when women on screen learn that they are pregnant we still do not hear the word abortion. Often the subject doesn’t even come up. Or if it is uttered it is treated as a solution the character certainly shouldn’t be considering. Every pregnancy is treated as a wanted pregnancy. At the minimum someone quietly suggests adoption. Writers treat abortion as a four-letter word.

The doctor in Mad Men assumed that married women of means should want every baby they conceive. I wonder how many health care providers make these same assumptions now?

Betty wants an abortion and tells her friend Francine that she is pregnant and can’t have a baby right now. Francine offers to give her the name of a doctor in Albany who can help. Or suggests she fly to Puerto Rico and have it done there.

These two scenes say more to me about the real choices that real pregnant women face everyday. Thank you Mad Men for having the courage to write it so poignantly.

Thank you Exhale for keeping women’s choice about their bodies, their business and no one else’s.

For more about abortion in the movies go to:



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