I’ve long believed that if we want to win true reproductive freedom for all, we must attack abortion stigma. I also believe the best way to do that is to talk about abortion like it’s the most normal thing in the world (which it is). In a past life I practiced this habit by researching and writing about television episodes that tackled this once-taboo topic. I’d often compare and contrast TV abortion stories to my own experience of terminating a pregnancy, which I consider one of the best and most obvious choices I’ve ever made. But until very recently, TV almost always treated abortion as something dark and complex by its very nature. Ever since titular sitcom character Maude decided to terminate an unplanned pregnancy in 1972 (two months before Roe became the law of the land), primetime network TV has had a complicated relationship with abortion. After anti-choice groups engaged in high-profile boycotts of Maude’s sponsors, networks refused to touch the topic for nearly a decade. In the 1980s, shows like The Facts of Life, Dynasty, and 21 Jump Street would tackle storylines around abortion, but always with the gravitas of a “very special episode.” Characters rarely went through with the deed; often they’d either decide to just have a baby or have a miscarriage-of-convenience. TV shows never seemed to treat abortion as an everyday procedure or an easy decision. Throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and well into the ‘00s, those rare programs that dealt with unwanted pregnancy usually treated it as a serious moral dilemma.
Given all the research I’ve done, I’m naturally very sensitive to even the most subtle reference to reproductive choice. I’m especially fascinated by any episode that predates the rise of risqué cable series like Sex and the City. So I have no idea how I remained unaware that Seinfeld had both subtle and frank unplanned pregnancy/abortion themes in back-to-back 1994 episodes! Granted, neither story involves a pregnant character making a choice about an unplanned pregnancy. That would be entirely too much story for this classic “show about nothing.” Nevertheless I was delighted with the way these episodes talk around abortion like it’s the most natural thing that every person with a uterus should be able to access.
The first unplanned pregnancy mention (for lack of a better term) is so subtle it’s no wonder I missed it in previous viewings. In season six, episode four “The Chinese Woman,” Kramer becomes concerned about his sperm count when Elaine says he’d be better off wearing boxers instead of briefs if he’s ever interested in having a child. This sparks the following conversation:
Kramer: What would you say if I told you I never impregnated a woman?
Jerry: Really? You never slipped one past the goalie in all these years? I’m surprised, you’ve slept with a lot of women.
Kramer: A lot of women! You think maybe I’m… depleted?
Thus begins Kramer’s bizarre, chaotic attempt to become a dad. But I’m more interested in what’s implied by that dialogue. Jerry thinks it odd that his friend has never gotten someone pregnant, given the number of people he’s had sex with. And Jerry can relate; anyone familiar with the series knows he has a new girlfriend practically every week. His disbelief almost suggests that he himself has, on at least one occasion, “slipped one past the goalie.” This in itself is so unusual. At this point in TV history, unplanned pregnancies only ever pop up for one of two reasons — to announce that a character is having a baby and/or to introduce an abortion-themed plot line. But we know Jerry isn’t a father, so my curiosity leads me to wonder — what would have happened in that situation? Perhaps what’s most interesting about this moment is that this back story isn’t fleshed out only to be explained away with a miscarriage of convenience (like they did with Jaleesa on A Different World). So it opens up the possibility that one of Jerry’s girlfriends had an abortion, which I love so much! TV shows of the 1980s and ‘90s would have us believe that abortion is always this dark, heavy finale to an unpleasant surprise. But for many of us living in reality — and perhaps also the Seinfeld universe — it is oftentimes way less emotionally complicated than either a miscarriage or carrying a pregnancy to term. It might not be a very big deal at all.
I was so happy to uncover this extremely subtle reference to unplanned pregnancy. I was in no way prepared for the way more frank and funny abortion references in season six, episode five “The Couch.” The topic first arises when Jerry and Elaine visit a restaurant called Poppie’s to try their famed duck dish. As the two friends await their meal, Jerry says that if he’d stayed home that evening he would’ve eaten Pokeno’s pizza instead. Elaine bristles, telling him he shouldn’t order from there because, “the owner contributes a lot of money to those fanatical anti-abortion groups.” So when Chef Poppie visits their table, Jerry (ever the instigator) inquires what his views are on abortion. Poppie launches into an anti-choice tirade that prompts Elaine, plus all the other women in the restaurant, and even Jerry to throw down their forks and walk out.
In a seemingly unrelated story line, Jerry orders a new couch and asks the movers to take his old one to Elaine’s apartment. Elaine flirts with handsome, friendly mover Carl and the two soon go on a date. After their passionate first kiss, we next see Elaine standing at Jerry’s door shouting, “I’m in looooove!” She waltzes in gushing about her exciting new relationship, and how it’s blessedly free of pretense or games because Carl “has too much character and integrity.” As she touches up her lipstick, Jerry responds, “Uh-huh. And what is his stand on abortion?” You can practically hear Elaine’s heart plummet as she turns to Jerry with a worried expression, smearing lipstick across her cheek.
Elaine: Well I’m sure he’s pro-choice.
Jerry: How do you know?
Elaine: Because he… well… he’s just so good-looking.
Once Jerry has planted this seed of concern, Elaine has to know the truth. The next time she’s with Carl, she randomly mentions a “friend” who got impregnated by her “troglodytic half-brother” and had an abortion. She eyes Carl, nervously waiting for his response. He gets this faraway look in his eye and says, “You know, someday we’re gonna get enough people in the Supreme Court to change that law.” NOOO! When Elaine bursts into tears, she cries for us all. This joke may be 27+ years old, yet somehow it is still TOO SOON.
I’ve watched dozens of TV episodes that dealt with the “a-word”, and I think this little arc is far more subversive and gratifying than the more heavy-handed episodes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. “The Chinese Woman” establishes that unplanned pregnancy (and implied abortion) is just a normal part of being a sexually active city dweller who’s had a lot of partners; it’s actually more surprising if that doesn’t happen at some point! And then we have “The Couch,” which frames anti-choice ideology as a flaw that cannot be overlooked. Neither of these stories engage in the tired, typical hemming and hawing about “controversy” or “respecting different points of view,” like other shows of the era that didn’t want to upset the sponsors. Rather, on the number one primetime program of the 1994-95 season, they made a big joke of how no one wants to sleep with an anti, no matter how handsome he is. Now there’s some TV abortion discourse that actually rings true to me.
And yet it’s also a crushing reminder that the Carls of the world have gotten their way! Here in 2022 there are enough people on the Supreme Court, and it’s just a matter of time before Roe goes bye-bye. I’m glad the discourse around abortion has shifted. When I stopped writing those TV reviews in 2017, I’d already seen several recent shows like Bojack Horseman, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and GLOW present wonderful, hilarious abortion narratives that did not paint their protagonists as sad, broken, or ruined by their unwanted pregnancies. Team Choice has been winning hearts and minds and these popular narratives prove that. Unfortunately Team Anti has won power. Our only choice is to keep fighting for abortion access, because it is the most normal, mundane, “yada yada yada” thing every pregnant person should be able to have.