'Mad Men' and Abortion: It's About Plot, Not Politics

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A woman whose husband is out of town has a one-night stand with a man she works with, who's also married. She misses her next period, and a pregnancy test confirms she's pregnant.

What does she do?


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If she's a real, flesh-and-blood woman, there's a more than 40 percent chance she'll have an abortion. If she's a character on television or in a movie, she's almost certain to keep the baby.

Mad Men viewers discovered this week that Joan Harris—who became pregnant earlier in the season after a tryst with her colleague and on-again, off-again lover, Roger—did not have an abortion, as we were led to believe a few episodes ago. Instead, she joins the heroines of TV shows like Sex and the City and Secret Life of the American Teenager and movies like Knocked Up and Juno in deciding to bring her unplanned pregnancy to term.

Examples of onscreen women who decide to go through with abortions, on the other hand, are scarce. On this year's season of Friday Night Lights, a 10th grader has an abortion (and gets her school guidance counselor fired in the process). Before that, a 2004 episode of the high school soap Degrassi: The Next Generation and a 2003 episode of Everwood portrayed teenagers getting abortions. But to find an example of a completed abortion on network television earlier than that, you'd have to look as far back as 1972, when CBS's Maude had its 47-year-old protagonist go through with the procedure.

And examples of abortion in movies are even harder to find. Fast Times at Ridgemont High's Stacy Hamilton gets an abortion early on in the 1982 movie, but since then characters in mainstream films have overwhelmingly chosen to keep their babies rather than terminate them.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List, sees Hollywood's recent aversion to abortion plotlines as evidence that public opinion about the issue is turning, especially among women.

"It's a reflection of the changes that are going on in the hearts and minds of women right now," she said, citing a 2009 Gallup poll that showed more women identifying as pro-life than pro-choice for the first time in nine years.

But it's not clear that these abortion-free films and TV series really betray a new resistance to abortion from the American public—even with the recent shifts in opinion, Americans are still split about 50-50 on the issue. And other explanations for why there are so few abortions on screen don't quite work, either. A 2007 New York Times article surmised that screenwriters avoid having their characters go through with abortions because they don't want their heroines to seem unsympathetic; another Times piece suggested that abortion is simply taboo in pop culture. But in Sex and the City, two of the characters say they've had abortions in the past, and the audience is still meant to like them. And in Knocked Up, friends urge the parents of the unplanned baby to "take care of it"—abortion is presented as a possibility, but one that is ultimately rejected.

The real reason so many fictional characters choose to keep their babies may be much simpler than any of these theories: Babies advance plotlines, whereas abortions end them. As Ted Miller, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, "The history of abortion storylines has been mixed. The very personal circumstances are often lost in the pursuit of dramatic or sensationalized storylines."

Movies like Knocked Up and Juno—which both follow young women as they navigate unplanned pregnancies with men they're not seriously dating—would have ended after about 15 minutes if their protagonists had had abortions. And Miranda's decision to keep her baby on Sex and the City allowed the series to explore the challenges of raising a child as a single, high-powered lawyer mom and the fraught dynamics of caring for a baby with an ex-boyfriend as the father. An abortion can carry a single episode, or a few scenes in a film, while a baby provides fodder for seasons' worth of material (not to mention, in the case of Sex and the City, two movies).

Similarly, the Mad Men non-abortion is less about pro-life politics than plot considerations. Series creator Matthew Weiner pointed out that Joan has already shown herself to be a supporter of abortion: "We already know she's had a bunch [of abortions]," he told Vulture. "Two, she admitted to the doctor."

Her decision to keep her baby, then, is not about moral considerations but a desire to start a new chapter of her life: "And to me, I felt she's 34 years old," Weiner continued. "She knows there may not be another opportunity, so she'll take the risk."

Joan's decision to have the baby has already served as a way to reveal more about her husband's predatory nature (as if his rape of her in season two wasn't enough evidence). When he calls from Vietnam to inquire about Joan's wellbeing, his most pressing question is whether her pregnancy has caused her already large breasts to get even bigger.

And as the pregnancy progresses, a host of intriguing questions will arise that will show us even more about the characters, from the frivolous—What will the stylish Joan wear for maternity clothes?—to the technical—Who will keep the office running smoothly while Joan is on maternity leave?—to the serious—Will her husband do the math and figure out he was already on his way to Vietnam by the time the baby was conceived? What will Roger do when he realizes he has a baby on the way?

Sure, Weiner could have found other ways to teach us more about the characters he's created. But Joan's decision on Mad Men—and Miranda's on Sex and the City, and Juno's in Juno, and so on—show that on screen, advancing the plot is more important than making a political statement.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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