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Maude's Dilemma Revisited
November 21, 2012  | By Noel Holston  | 17 comments

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.

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Feb 20, 2023   |  Reply
I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up!
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Jan 21, 2023   |  Reply
Colleen McDonald
Just wondering why the possibility of adoption was not even raised.
Feb 5, 2017   |  Reply
I actually wouldn't mind something realistic about adoption on tv, and how it's often an emotionally much harder choice with lifelong consequences for lots of women, even when it's truly a choice. '
But...being realistic, I would think the bigger storyline would be how difficult pregnancy and childbirth would be on a 40-something woman, and how many health problems she'd have for the rest of her life (not that their lifestyles are healthy by today's standards!). My mother had lifelong problems with her heart and thyroid after her pregnancies, and she was only in her mid 30s when we were born.
Mar 26, 2017
Lady Shadetree
Great write-up.

The 80s changed TV forever, and not for the better. If you think Lear's sitcoms were preachy, you obviously forgot about the "After School Special" or Nancy Reagan's anti-drug crusade on Diff'rent Strokes.

Today's TV dramas are cheesy and contrived, while sitcoms are shallow and sanitized beyond any semblance of real life. Hence the rise of "reality TV". We've embraced idiocy with open arms and have no one to blame but our lazy, gluttonous selves. There's a reason shows like "Maude" and "The Jeffersons" are considered classics and are still watchable forty years later, and it ain't the young and sexy stars.
Aug 25, 2016   |  Reply
I find it more unbelievable that feminist Maude would let Walter off the hook for not only not having a vasectomy, but lying about it. And that she chose to give up the baby because he did not want to be a father. Maude never thought about her feelings, and Carol's comments about the procedure are outrageous.
Aug 9, 2013   |  Reply
If Maude were a young woman in the 1940s and 50s, Carol's comments aren't so outrageous. "Abortion" usually meant unsterilized instruments and miscarrying by yourself, plus the very good chance of infection. All for the steep price of, say, a few hundred to $600. Or about $4750 in today's money...unless you found a good doctor.
Mar 26, 2017
The censorship of television in Utah ought to alarm those who believe they live in a democracy. Utah is a religious state, pure and simple.
Dec 4, 2012   |  Reply
Michelle Cory
Peter, I disagree, This was a first rate series. Norman lear is a genious, and All in the family was very accurate in showing the left and right of society. my typing is off, sorry I am highly educated.
Dec 3, 2012   |  Reply
We didn't get to see this at all in Salt Lake City, Utah. The television affiliate dropped the signal and aired some LDS Church approved show instead. I believe this would still happen today. We have NOT, in the parlance of no longer existing smoking commercials that were aired at the time, "come a long way, baby." One person's religious beliefs should have no bearing on what any woman chooses for herself and her body.
Dec 3, 2012   |  Reply
Michelle Cory
I remember watching the episode, and my abortion in '77 was so acceptable ,not killing, who knew the tea party would try and destroy us.
Dec 3, 2012   |  Reply
Abortion will never be acceptable to all, neither can a political party be responsible for destroying a person who finds it acceptable to have one. I have always felt a womans body is her own and it is her right to choose, however a humun life is precious, and perhaps discarding that and trying to enforce the acceptability onto others, is no better than the likes of the tea party enforcing their views. I think the way you treat the living is important, and if you would find it acceptable to abort what you should view as precious, it would not be surprising that you would let down or abuse the trust of a someone elses precious child at their most vulnerable!
Dec 6, 2012
Julie Powell
@Mac: I and many women I've known had an abortion at 17-20 and there was NO horrible aftermath! What a joke. I was relieved that I could continue w/college and become a useful citizen rather than a poverty-stricken (likely) single mother. People against abortion always think it causes heavy remorse and guilt but that 's only because they think it would do that to themselves. It's not fun or desired to have an abortion in the early stages, but then neither is having a baby and giving it up or raising it in abject poverty by yourself.
Dec 1, 2012   |  Reply
There is a different reason, perhaps, for the anti-abortion backlash and the rise of the religious right as a political power. During his Presidency, Jimmy Carter intended to investigate the financial activities of televangelists, and they fought back, using their influence to organize their viewers and listeners into an organized political force. The abortion issue was and is a huge motivational tool for those who have other agendas.

There was also an episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati" where the wife of station manager Arthur Carlson, a woman in her forties, found out she was pregnant. Carlson's mother matter-of-factly recommended an abortion (Mrs. Carlson chose to have the child). Almost 40 years later, I would be surprised to see such a straightforward mention of it on any network TV show.
Nov 29, 2012   |  Reply
While abortion should always be a safe and legal procedure, as well as a decision between a woman and her doctor, very little is said these days about how abortion is on occasion a necessity in order to keep either the mother and/or the twin (or more) that's sharing the womb, alive. Anti-abortion people are NOT interested in saving lives - they are only interested in controlling others. If they were interested in saving lives, they'd be doing so each and every day at shelters, prisons and hospitals.
Nov 29, 2012   |  Reply
As always from Noel, smart, perceptive, off the beaten path and right on the money. More, more, more.
Nov 27, 2012   |  Reply
Well written.
Nov 24, 2012   |  Reply
That "dreadful episode os a second rate series "still packs a punch and deserves attention.I want my grandkids,especially our young teen,to see how many felt 40 years ago.During this past election,many women thought potential candidates were re-trying the law rather than focusing on issues like the economy.
Now that Tina Fey is out of a job with her series and has been outspoken about this subject,I would love to see her combine her writing talents and her heart on a new project like women of a certain age.Trouble is,probably not even pay cable outlets hot for taboo subject matter would give her a platform.I know of two women that made the abortion choice and the difficulty of the idea,the act and the aftermath of what they went through is rarely spoken about in public.If only in acknowledging the Maude episodes,the time is overdue.40 years.
Nov 23, 2012   |  Reply
Regardless how you view this issue this is a dreadful epidsode of a second rate series from from Lear. By the second season All in the family already was becoming stale resorting to schock rather than any character development, changing the jersey and the sex of the lead character did not male old Normans liberal clap trap anymore interesting or complex. While Bea and Carol were great performers these series have turned stale over time with predictable plot and liberal condecession. Liberal academics trot them out a a reflection of the times but it more a reflection of how shallow they are.
Nov 22, 2012   |  Reply
The only thing stale and shallow, Peter, is you. You control your penis and women will control their vaginas.
Dec 1, 2012
"All in the Family" stale by the second season? Only someone culturally illiterate could make such a sweeping indictment of a series that reflected far more of what was going on in American households than virtually anything else on television. You deride "liberal academics" but if your own grammar and spelling are indicative of the education you received, it's no wonder you hold them in contempt; they obviously didn't manage to teach you much, including how to look at television not through a partisan lens, but with an eye to the issues and story presented.
Nov 29, 2012
There are two shows that recently did abortion story lines: Boss and Friday Night Lights. It's telling that both of those shows showed, young, unmarried women having abortions whereas the reality is that a woman having an abortion usually already has children.
Nov 21, 2012   |  Reply
A few years ago Rescue Me had a story line where a married woman with two children had an abortion, but they sort of hedged their bets by only implying that she might have (she claimed a miscarriage). A season or two later she admitted that she had had an abortion.
Nov 21, 2012
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