For the last several months, Antenna TV has been running Maude in the early evenings, and I catch it from time to time. Recently, the channel repeated the famous two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma,” in which she finds herself pregnant at the age of 47 and struggles with the decision of what, if anything, to do about it.
When Maude tells her daughter that she’s pregnant, Carol responds: “You don’t have to have the baby.” Maude says, “What am I supposed to do? Trade it for a volleyball on Let’s Make a Deal?” Carol says, “You don’t have to, Mother. It’s legal now.” Just “it,” for the moment, although later, Carol uses the word in question: “When you were young, abortion was a dirty word, but it’s not anymore.” By the late 60s, a number of states had either decriminalized or legalized abortion under certain circumstances; New York state, where Maude is set, had revised its law in 1970, allowing abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy.
(It’s interesting to me that some of the same states that were first to modify their abortion laws 50 years ago to permit them are among those that have passed draconian anti-abortion laws in recent months.)
There is no character in the episode who explicitly argues against abortion, although Maude’s own uncertainty offers a degree of balance to the issue. (At the request of CBS, there’s a brief appearance by a overworked mother of four who is pregnant with a fifth, yet happily accepting of it.) The majority of the episode is devoted to Maude and her husband, Walter, failing to communicate. Each one believes that the other knows what they want and that there’s no need to ask. For a while, any of four outcomes seems possible: they both want the baby, they both don’t, she wants an abortion and he doesn’t, and vice versa. In the end, however, they finally talk about it directly, and Maude admits she doesn’t want the baby. Walter says, “For you, Maude, and for me, in the privacy of our own lives, you’re doing the right thing.”
The episode ends there. And in the next week’s episode, the cast moves on to another sitcom situation, the abortion unmentioned.
When “Maude’s Dilemma” aired in November 1972, about two months before the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide, a couple of CBS affiliates refused to carry it, but apart from that, it caused no widespread controversy. After Roe v. Wade, however, the outrage machine cranked up. Maude had become one of the biggest hits on TV in its first season, and before “Maude’s Dilemma” was repeated on August 14 and 21, 1973, religious organizations put pressure on individual CBS stations. Affiiates in Milwaukee, Boston, New Orleans, Seattle, and 20 to 25 other cities refused to air the repeats. Even with the affiliate defections, however, “Maude’s Dilemma” attracted an audience of 65 million on its second time around.
“Maude’s Dilemma” was a brave episode of television for 1972, even after the taboo-breaking success of All in the Family. And it was especially brave considering that the first part of “Maude’s Dilemma” was only the show’s ninth episode. It’s entirely possible that it was produced before the series had even premiered. The network’s first reaction to the script outline was, in producer Norman Lear’s words, “You’re out of your mind. You’re crazy.” But CBS didn’t step in and stop it. There was a sense, as critic Noel Holston wrote, that the legal decisions had settled the abortion issue.
“Maude’s Dilemma” wasn’t the last time episode writer Susan Harris sparked controversy. In 1977, she created Soap, which outraged various self-appointed guardians of decency even before it premiered due to its explicit sexuality. And it wasn’t the last time she worked with Maude stars Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan, either. Harris also created The Golden Girls.
The full episode of “Maude’s Dilemma”—not the hacked-up Antenna TV version I saw—is available at the top of this page and at YouTube, at least for now. If you watch at YouTube, you will want to avoid reading the comments, as they demonstrate the utter shitshow that the abortion debate has become since the days when abortion was viewed as settled law, when it was a decision that properly belonged “in the privacy of our own lives” and nowhere else. Given what seems to me the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be overturned in 2020, “Maude’s Dilemma” is worth watching in 2019.