life after roe

How TV Writers Crafted Abortion Stories Before the Fall of Roe

Both Better Things on FX (left) and The Chi on Showtime (right) depicted abortion stories for their characters in the last two years. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by FX and Showtime

Despite years of American conservatives curtailing abortion access — efforts that culminated with the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade on June 24 — television writers are telling nuanced, detailed abortion stories in increasing numbers. In 2018, the same year Justice Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, 18 abortion story lines appeared on American TV, according to Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSRH), a research program at UC San Francisco that tracks abortion on film and television. In 2021, that number climbed to 47, and ANSRH research analyst Steph Herold expects that number to keep rising. “Creators are eager to respond to this political moment,” said Herold, who interviewed more than 40 writers and showrunners as part of a study she plans to publish later this year.

Prior to the Roe ruling, writers and showrunners from five current television shows spoke to Vulture about working on abortion story lines in recent episodes. While several of Herold’s study participants said they’ve received network pushback to exploring the subject, no one we spoke to encountered issues at their respective platforms. However, standards and practices on broadcast networks generally require a consequence to be depicted in response to illegal activity, suggesting the path forward for television’s abortion stories in certain states is unclear. “The hope is that we’re never going to be in a position where someone has an abortion on television and it’s expected that there’s a negative consequence from that decision,” says Michelle Leibel, a writer on ABC’s A Million Little Things.

In the following accounts, Leibel and others discuss the factors that guided them as they wrote episodes about abortion and reproductive rights in the time before Roe fell, when abortion was still federally protected in the United States.

A Million Little Things

Episode: “Miles Apart” (March 18, 2021)

Writers: DJ Nash (showrunner) and Michelle Leibel

In season three of A Million Little Things, one of the series’ central characters, Maggie (Allison Miller), gets an abortion after a casual relationship leads to an unexpected pregnancy. She visits Planned Parenthood, where she receives guidance from a doctor about having an abortion via pills. Though half of abortions in the United States are provided through medication, it’s more common to see surgical procedures on TV and film. Leibel and her team worked directly with Planned Parenthood to ensure accuracy, even calling Planned Parenthood from set when Miller asked whether the first pill she takes should be swallowed or allowed to dissolve in her cheek.

The answer was to let it dissolve, but even that presented issues that had to be addressed during the editing process. “There was a concern when we saw the first cut of the episode that her putting it in the cheek may read like a hesitancy to swallow it,” explains showrunner DJ Nash. Additional dialogue spoken by the doctor at Planned Parenthood was added via ADR to clarify that Maggie is supposed to hold the pill in her mouth.

The episode was seen by roughly 3 million viewers when it initially aired and generated no public controversy. The most contentious part of the process may have been early on, when the writers’ room discussed how to convey Maggie’s decision to terminate her pregnancy. Though she says she’s not ready to become a parent, Maggie is also a breast-cancer survivor who recently finished chemotherapy treatment, making her baby unviable. Several of the writers wanted to make sure the second point did not overshadow the first.

Leibel wrote a scene in which Maggie explains her decision to a friend by addressing both factors: “There are so many reasons why I don’t want to have a baby right now. It’s not the right time in my life … But I didn’t even get to think about any of those things. I didn’t get to make that decision because cancer made it for me.”

The Handmaid’s Tale

Episode: “Milk” (May 5, 2021)

Writer: Jacey Heldrich
Showrunner: Bruce Miller

A person’s agency over their body is the central theme of The Handmaid’s Tale, and season four presented an opportunity to depict an abortion story line through Janine, one of the handmaids living in the dystopic post–United States regime known as Gilead.

Writer Jacey Heldrich shaped Janine’s experience in the pre-Gilead flashback to match what happens to many pregnant people when they search for an abortion clinic online: She winds up at a pregnancy crisis center where she is urged to keep the baby. Such centers are not medical facilities but faith-based nonprofits that outnumber abortion clinics three to one in the United States.

“Everything was cribbed from documentaries, from interviews, from YouTube videos where girls go undercover at these crisis pregnancy centers and record what’s said to them,” says Heldrich, who spent months researching how patients seek out abortion clinics and what they encounter when they arrive.

“We could not use most of the stuff we found because it would not have been believable,” adds showrunner Bruce Miller, referring to the lengths crisis center workers go to spread misinformation about reproductive health.

When Janine finally finds a doctor at a legitimate clinic and is provided abortion pills, the doctor says, “I am required by law to tell you that having an abortion can lead to increased risk of breast cancer, infertility, and depression,” dialogue that mirrors the pre-abortion guidance currently required in some states. She then adds, “And not by law, I’m also going to say that that’s a bunch of crap.”

The flashback, while a vital part of the episode, lasts only seven minutes. “It isn’t a very special episode of Handmaid’s Tale about this,” says Miller. “It’s what happens in people’s lives.”

Big Mouth

Episode: “The Planned Parenthood Show” (October 5, 2018)

Writer: Emily Altman
Showrunner: Andrew Goldberg

The Big Mouth team wanted to find humor in their depiction of abortion. After the writing staff took a tour of Planned Parenthood L.A., they came up with the idea of “The Planned Parenthood Show,” a season-two episode highlighting all the services the organization offers.

Within the structure of the episode — a sketch format in which the preteen characters take a sex-ed class but wind up educating their teacher, the oblivious Coach Steve, about matters ranging from contraception to vasectomies — abortion is addressed directly multiple times. First, the outspoken Jay, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, notes that his father calls Planned Parenthood “an abortion factory,” a common misconception about the organization that is immediately rebutted by his classmates.

“We had already established that Jay’s father is the worst human being on the planet,” writer Emily Altman says. “The audience had a code that when Jay says, ‘My dad says Planned Parenthood is an abortion factory,’ it’s clear that’s not what the show believes.”

More pointedly, the episode depicts the pursuit of an abortion in a flashback sketch centered around Barbara (Paula Pell), the mother of Andrew (John Mulaney), who had a one-night stand in her 20s that led to her terminating a pregnancy. The sexual encounter and abortion unfold during a musical montage set to, of all things, Deee-Lite’s early ’90s dance hit “Groove Is in the Heart,” a song that would have been popular in the days when Barbara was hitting the clubs. The Big Mouth writers decided it would be even funnier if Barbara’s one-night stand had been with “the slide-whistle guy” — note: not a real person — from Deee-Lite.

“The slide whistle,” showrunner Andrew Goldberg notes, “was very important to everybody.”

The jokes were vital, but they took their research seriously, too, sharing drafts of the script and early cuts of the episode with folks at Planned Parenthood. And while the Deee-Lite of it all was played for laughs, Barbara’s montage ends on a tender note by acknowledging that, years later, she’s happy as a mother and doesn’t regret the decision she made.

“We, as a group, had been talking a lot about feeling shame about things you shouldn’t feel shame about,” Goldberg says. “This is not something that anybody should be ashamed of.”

The Chi

Episode: “A Couple, Two, Three” (August 3, 2020)

Writers: Justin Hillian (showrunner) and Jewel Coronel

Showrunner Justin Hillian was not present in the writers’ room when his staff came up with the idea for Kiesha (Birgundi Baker), a talented high-school track-and-field competitor on The Chi who had recently been kidnapped and raped, to find out she’s pregnant.

“The room pitched it to me and I was like, ‘No way!’” Hillian says. “But then what I found is that when the women in the room are telling you something and they all agree, it’s time to listen.”

“Really it came down to ‘What can we show on television that is just something different?’” says writer Jewel Coronel.

The writers had difficulty agreeing even on that. Some thought it would be more compelling if Kiesha kept the baby; others thought she should get an abortion because the idea of raising the child of her abuser (whom she subsequently killed) seemed like a narrative bridge too far. Their differing opinions informed scenes written by Coronel in which Kiesha seeks counsel from other women, including Jada (Yolonda Ross), the mother of Kiesha’s ex-boyfriend, Emmett, who got pregnant at a young age and decided to keep her son, and Tiffany (Hannaha Hall), Emmett’s fiancée, a young mother who previously had an abortion because she could not afford to care for two children.

After these conversations, Kiesha arrives at a clinic intent on getting an abortion. Then she wavers. “What if this happened for a reason?” she asks her mother. “What if Ronnie’s mom” — the mother of the character who helped her escape from her hostage situation — “had aborted him? What would have happened to me?” Even after Kiesha has already decided not to terminate the pregnancy, she hears from a dissenting voice: Her brother Kevin (Alex Hibbert) thinks she’s foolish for moving forward with the pregnancy. “You’re not keeping it, right?” he shouts. “You can’t!”

The resulting episode is intended to be respectful of different choices and devoid of judgment. As Hilliard puts it: “To be able to show both sides of that coin — a woman who chose not to have a child and then a woman who chose to go through with it — made us feel secure in the balance of representation.”

Better Things

Episodes: “Oh, I’m Not Gonna Tell Her” (March 7, 2022) and “Family Meeting” (April 4, 2022)

Writers: Joe Hortua, Judy Gold, R. Eric Thomas, and Pamela Adlon (showrunner)

Before she even started the writers’ room, Pamela Adlon, creator of Better Things, knew that Max (Mikey Madison), the oldest daughter of Adlon’s character, Sam, would get an abortion during the fifth and final season. She wanted to demonstrate how mature Max had become over the course of the series and felt such a serious decision would reflect that. Adlon and her fellow writers, including Judy Gold, also wanted to delve into the idea of keeping secrets from Sam, which is why Max does not tell her mother about the pregnancy or the abortion, opting instead to seek support from close family friend Rich (Diedrich Bader).

In fact, most of the details surrounding Max’s abortion — who got her pregnant, how she arrived at the decision to end the pregnancy, whether her abortion involved medication or surgery — are never discussed. Choosing to withhold that information was a way to make a statement about how personal abortion is.

“It’s none of your fucking business,” says Gold. “That’s what the point is. You do what you do with your body and you don’t judge other people. That’s what is so beautiful about it. Max completely owns the situation.”

Even in “Family Meeting,” the episode where Rich ultimately tells Sam about Max’s abortion, the word abortion is never used. Instead, Rich makes a sly reference to a 1981 CBS Schoolbreak Special called “I Think I’m Having a Baby,” which starred Jennifer Jason Leigh as a teen who has a pregnancy scare. Gold didn’t want to use the word abortion, partly to nod to the famous, groundbreaking episode of Maude in which the word is never spoken, because it should be Max’s news to share. In Adlon’s mind, that “less explanation is more” approach is what defined Better Things and made sense even when dealing with a story line about a woman’s right to choose.

“That’s been the journey for me through the five seasons,” says Adlon. “We’re not answering every fucking question.”

How TV Depicted Abortion Stories Before the Fall of Roe