In November 1972, Norman Lear's sitcom Maude broke new ground. In two episodes titled "Maude's Dilemma," the character of Maude, played by Bea Arthur, learns that she's pregnant at the age of 47. After grappling with her choices, she decides to terminate the pregnancy. These lauded episodes, which forthrightly addressed the subject of abortion, boosted the show's ratings but also resulted in backlash and protest that affected TV for years. "We knew some people would be upset," Lear told Entertainment Weekly in 1993, "but we had no idea of the conflagration that did follow."
The storyline was originally created to win a contest
In 1972, a prize for comedies to address the topic of population control had writers for Maude consider penning episodes about vasectomies. Then a late-in-life pregnancy and abortion storyline was proposed. At first, the pregnant character was supposed to be Maude's best friend. However, after reading an initial script, Lear, the show's executive producer and creator, decided it needed to be Maude, a 47-year-old woman with an adult daughter and grandson. Lear explained to The New York Times, "I realized the only way to engage the audience's interest was to let Maude get pregnant." He also understood how the story would end: "Maude would be absolutely torn, but that she'd come down on the side, given her age, of not having a child."
The script, credited to writers Susan Harris, Austin Kalish and Irma Kalish, addressed Maude's birth control choices: Her husband contemplates a vasectomy and a friend asks why she wasn't using the pill (Maude explains it gave her migraines). Maude was a feminist who supported legal abortion, but the show also depicts her ambivalence. While trying to convince her mother, Maude's daughter Carol (played by Adrienne Barbeau) says, "When you were growing up, it was illegal, and it was dangerous and it was sinister. And you've never gotten over that. ...When you were young, abortion was a dirty word. It's not any more." In the end, Maude makes her decision following a conversation with husband Walter (played by Bill Macy), who says, "In the privacy of our own lives, you're doing the right thing."
Lear had to fight to make the episode
Though fictional pregnancies had been terminated illegally on daytime soap operas, a primetime show had never had a lead character consider and opt for an abortion. Maude was set in New York, where abortion had been legalized in 1970, but Roe v. Wade wouldn't change the legality of abortion throughout the United States until 1973. "Back then, abortion wasn't something that was being discussed on television," Lear said.
CBS, the network that aired Maude, was wary of the storyline. However, Lear was a powerful producer — in addition to Maude, he created the popular show All in the Family — so they didn't quash the idea entirely. Instead, the network offered notes, such as asking Lear to include a character who could present an opposing point of view. Lear agreed, adding "a friend of Maude’s who was pregnant. She had four children that she could ill-afford and was pregnant with the fifth and she in no way would think of an abortion."
Even with this compromise, CBS hesitated when it was time to make the show. They asked Lear for a delay, saying otherwise they wouldn't pay for the taping. But Lear declared that if these episodes didn't air, he wouldn't provide anything in their place. The network blinked and the shows were recorded.
Large-scale protests didn't happen right away
When the two episodes of "Maude's Dilemma" aired on November 14 and 21, 1972, two Illinois affiliates, in Champaign and Peoria, opted not to broadcast the show (a third affiliate, in Detroit, had planned to skip the show but ended up airing it in the face of protest). Maude's audience still increased for the episodes, bringing the program to the Top 10 in TV ratings. There were objections afterward — nearly 400 phone calls came into CBS in New York registering opposition — but Lear has explained that at first "relatively nothing happened."
The episodes were scheduled to appear as reruns in August 1973. According to Lear, opposition flared that summer because "the religious right knew the show was coming." He described some of the actions in a 2014 interview: "Then they carried on with signposts and protests and somebody laid down in front of Mr. Paley — he was the owner and conceiver of CBS — laid down in front of his car in New York. It happened in front of my car in LA."
The protests affected the scheduled reruns: This time almost 40 affiliates opted not to broadcast them. And while other Maude reruns had sold all of their commercial time, few sponsors could be found for these episodes. CBS aired the shows but added a warning: "Tonight's episode of Maude was originally broadcast in November of 1972. Since it deals with 'Maude's Dilemma' as she contemplates the possibility of abortion, you may wish to refrain from watching it, if you believe the broadcast may disturb you or others in your family."
Arthur later admitted that the response she got made her rethink the ending
Even with the affiliates that opted out, CBS calculated that 65 million viewers saw at least one of Maude's abortion episodes, either during the first run or as a rerun. Lear noted in 2017, "I wasn't doing messages, but the writers and I were aware of what was happening up the street, what was in the papers, what we were experiencing in our own lives." And controversy didn't keep Maude from being a beloved and top-rated show for years. First Lady Betty Ford was such a devotee that she dubbed herself "Maude's Number One Fan," and later helped sell the show into syndication.
Lear felt that the opposition the show experienced "wasn't 'the American people' speaking. It was a minority." However, some of the letters Arthur received prompted her to rethink her character's storyline. She admitted in 1978, "The people who wrote to us were not cranks and crazies; they were genuinely interested in and felt sincerely about the right to life. At this point in my life, I don't know if I would permit the show to end the way it did. I really don't know."