Forty years ago this week, Maude Findlay, a sitcom character played by Beatrice Arthur, had found herself unintentionally pregnant at age 47 and was agonizing over whether she should have an abortion, newly legal in her home state, New York. Well, not exactly agonizing. More like obsessing. Maude was, after all, a Norman Lear comedy, the first spin-off of his taboo-shattering All in the Family. Finding humor, whether rash or rueful, in hot-button social issues was already established as a hallmark of both.
The two-part “Maude’s Dilemma” episode — which originally aired Nov. 14 and 21, 1972 — has no shortage of cheeky repartee.
"Look, there’s only one sensible way out of this," says Maude’s daughter Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), a divorcee with an eight-year-old son. "You don’t have to have that baby."
"Well, what will I do?" Maude fires back. "Trade it for a volleyball on Let’s Make a Deal?"
To her neighbor Vivian (Rue McClanahan), Maude bemoans the prospect of living "in a house where an uncle is about to inherit his nephew’s potty seat."
It’s hard to imagine laugh lines that flip about abortion in a prime-time entertainment show today — or straight lines as unequivocal as Carol’s advice to her perplexed mother: "We’re free, and we finally have the right to decide what we can do with our own bodies," she says.
"Maude’s Dilemma" concludes with Maude and her similarly middle-aged husband, Walter (Bill Macy), embracing and tearfully deciding that they’re too old to be having a child. "For you, Maude, for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing," he says.
All’s well that ends well?
Yeah, right. If anyone needs to be reminded where we are as a society regarding this issue now, check out Part 2 of the "Maude’s Dilemma" episode on YouTube, and then look at the "All Comments section below the video file. Third from the top (at the time of this posting) you’ll find: "Hope all the baby killers get cancer and/or Alzheimer's!!!"
Maude’s most famous episode — or infamous, depending on your point of view — actually aired without creating a huge stir in November 1972. Abortion had only recently been legalized in New York, and Roe v. Wade, the 7-to-2 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made the procedure legal nationally, was still two months away. When CBS re-aired the episode in the summer, after Roe v. Wade became law, more than 30 of its affiliated stations declined to carry it because of protests by anti-abortion viewers. Despite the affiliate defections — and almost certainly with unintended help from the protesters — the rerun attracted 65 million viewers.
What’s most surprising about “Maude’s Dilemma” upon re-watching it now is not its glib jokes but, rather, its presumption that legalization in New York had settled the issue. Writer Susan Harris, who later created The Golden Girls for Arthur and McClanahan, didn’t anticipate the ferocious anti-abortion backlash that would develop in the wake of Roe. Any rights that "the unborn" might have are not part of the discussions. Indeed, the term "fetus" is never heard. Maude and Carol and Walter and Vivian all speak of "the baby" she’s carrying, but only as an object or appendage. The concerns are entirely for Maude — her age, her health, her state of mind, her life expectations.
"Mother, listen to me," Carol says. "It’s a simple operation now. When you were growing up, it was illegal and it was dangerous and it was sinister, and you’ve never gotten over that. You tell me that’s not true."
"You’re right," Maude concedes. "I’ve never gotten over it."
"It’s not your fault," Carol says. "When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It’s not now."
Forty years later, more than 50 million women and girls have individually exercised the legal right to choose abortion. Clinics that perform abortions have been bombed. Doctors who perform abortions have been murdered. Political candidates for even local offices may be asked to state their position, and even those whose stated preference is "safe, legal and rare" risk running afoul "pro-life" voters. Whether the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade is now the longest running cliffhanger in our national drama.
Prime-time entertainment, meanwhile, is largely silent on the issue. The dramas, even those that revel in downbeat realism, are mostly too concerned with their larger story arcs to let an inconvenience like an unplanned pregnancy intrude. And comedies such as Happy Endings, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, for all the carnal preoccupations of their young-adult casts, are almost as divorced from everyday realities as The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched and the other fanciful, escapist comedies that shows like Maude and All in the Family for a time elbowed off the air.
Fear not. I’m not going to break into a chorus of "Those Were the Days" (for the young or forgetful, that was All in the Family’s nostalgic, Tea Party-anticipating anthem). Lear’s shows are well-crafted by the standards of their day and they still have their funny moments, but they can also be preachy and simplistic. We don’t need a return to that style. But it would be a welcome development if just a few of today’s quick, smart, sophisticated shows would engage with the real, everyday world as courageously as they did.