Bea Arthur, left, and Rue McClanahan in an episode of Maude. Photo from X

And then there’s Maude’s abortion

  • January 12, 2024

Jesuit Father Patrick J. Sullivan and Robert Beusse were not intent on launching an early battle in the culture wars when they met with CBS President Robert Wood the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1972. They were simply out to prevent a summer rerun.

Sullivan had been named the director of the Division for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Catholic Conference the year before. Beusse, a former radio executive, was the lay secretary of communications for the USCC.

In their hastily scheduled get-together with Wood, the duo asked that the network not re-air a two-episode arc of the new sitcom, Maude. This spinoff of TV’s top-rated All in the Family featured a fiercely feminist title character who, during the installments under discussion, decides to have an abortion.

Collectively titled “Maude’s Dilemma” the brace of half-hour shows struck not only Sullivan and Beusse as one-sided propaganda but many others as well. Indeed, Wood’s interlocutors said that, in making their case, they spoke on behalf of 48 million Catholics in the United States.

At the time, TV networks, program producers and advertisers — as well as Catholic leadership — were in tacit agreement about the status of primetime entertainment. Such programs were understood, metaphorically, as so many invited guests making their way into the living rooms of families.

So it was a matter of unusual moment that, in episodes airing Nov. 14 and 21, Bea Arthur’s affluent and outspokenly liberal character Maude Findlay should learn from her doctor that she was pregnant at age 47.

Against the backdrop of her settled suburban life with her fourth husband, Walter (Bill Macy), and Carol (Adrienne Barbeau), her divorced adult daughter from her second marriage — as well as Carol’s young son, Phillip — Maude agonizes over the news.

She’s not a young woman making an impulsive decision. Maude believes she is too old to raise another child. Yet she resists Carol’s reminder that, although Roe v.Wade lay two months in the future, abortion was already a legal option in the Empire State. Among other factors, Maude wants to get Walter’s assent.

When Carol tells her, “You don’t have to have a baby,” Maude tartly retorts, “What’ll I do, trade it in for a volleyball on Let’s Make a Deal?”

At the end of the second episode, she learns from Walter that he’s not interested in having a child, either. (He’s spent most of the two episodes considering a vasectomy before deciding against it). Maude has her husband’s approval. As they embrace, he tells her, “In the privacy of our own home, you’re doing the right thing.”

Although the word abortion is seldom used in the dialogue, Carol reminds her mother that, “When you were my age, abortion was a dirty word. It’s not anymore.”

When Maude producer Norman Lear died Dec. 5 at 101, virtually every obituary mentioned these provocative episodes, and there were columns devoted to them and his stand on free speech. As a creator of sitcoms renowned for their characters’ involvement with real-world issues, particularly racism and sexism, Lear had altered viewers’ expectations of the genre.

Being the figure behind three of the top five ranked TV shows in 1972 made Lear very powerful indeed. He was not someone CBS wanted to antagonize.

As a result, the initiative undertaken by Sullivan and Beusse may have been doomed to mixed results from the start. Although the USCC mounted a Maude boycott effort, it was only somewhat successful.

The archived files of the USCC at The Catholic University of America in Washington fill in the history and provide a glimpse at how public outrage worked decades ago at the non-impulsive speed of typewriters and phone calls — before cable stations, the internet and social media.

Two unrelated events subsequently energized opposition. On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court’s Roe decision legalized abortion on demand nationwide, spurring the pro-life movement on for the next 50 years. And in March, CBS canceled the highly rated Bridget Loves Bernie, a sitcom about an interfaith marriage (Jewish-Catholic) harshly criticized by Jewish groups and rabbis who believed it trivialized their beliefs.

So organized outside pressure was shown to work.

The initial USCC objection, as Sullivan wrote to Wood two days after their meeting, was the “contrived and unethical presentation” of Maude’s pregnancy plus the “one-sided perspective” in which “the pro-life point of view” — meaning that abortion involved the death of a human being — was not present.

In addition, the USCC didn’t think “controversial social commentary” belonged in the context of a sitcom. The criticism would expand to mention that the program’s 8 p.m. air time — considered a slot for family programming such as The Waltons — was too early for such a topic.

For his part, Wood wrote to William Moon, president of the Holy Name Union in Rockville Centre, New York, that he did not think the episodes “espoused a pro-death position.” Moreover, refusing to re-air the episodes would have violated contracts with Lear and the advertisers, so Wood could not have granted that request in any case.

But what could not be canceled could be made toxic. After the FCC turned down a request for equal time on CBS under the fairness doctrine, the USCC switched tactics. Right up to the week of the first rerun of the episode on Aug. 14, 1973, Catholic dioceses, parishes and groups — including the Knights of Columbus — were being urged to call their local affiliates and write to the show’s corporate sponsors. There was an additional boycott effort launched by a Virginia-based mass-mailing outfit, Stop Immorality on TV. But Catholic activism was seen as taking the lead.

The result: All of the program’s corporate sponsors withdrew their ads. Thirty-eight of the 200 CBS affiliates refused to air the reruns. Another five pushed the broadcast past 11 p.m. Additionally, for the first time since the initial broadcast of All in the Family in January 1971, CBS inserted an opening warning that content might be disturbing.

Lear was left to complain, “This proves there’s a certain degree of cowardice in the American business community.”

The controversy might have dented profits slightly, but it only increased audience interest. CBS estimated that 65 million viewers saw all or parts of the episodes in both airings, while there were 24,000 letters of objection to the network.

Maude moved to a later time slot in 1974 and stayed on the network until 1978. The abortion episodes were included when the series entered syndication.

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