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When we consider what makes a great abortion storyline, we often think it has to include a character actually having an abortion. But today when the basic human right is in jeopardy, one that explores the process of deciding whether or not to even have one is also an act of rebellion.
Because that in and of itself reflects a system of choice, the very thing that is at risk right now. Never mind back in 2001, when the word “abortion” was rarely uttered in real life much less on screen, despite over 1 million abortions reported that year in the U.S. alone.
But leave it up to “Sex and the City,” which never shied away from taboo topics that make even some people today uncomfortable — like a confidently single woman throwing herself an “I’m not having a baby” shower and lamenting “the funkiest tasting spunk” — to go there.
Minutes into a fourth season episode titled “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” notably pragmatic lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) tells her best friend Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) in the middle of a bustling New York City sidewalk that she’s pregnant and will have an abortion. Not a whole lot of lead-in here ― only introducing an unwanted reality and Miranda’s solution to it.
Even for an audience that had grown used to being dropped into intimate confabs between four independent women, with friends Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the subject still challenged their comfort with women’s ownership of our bodies unlike any other.
But Jenny Bicks, the writer of “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” and co-executive producer of “Sex and the City,” felt the need to reflect a very prominent reality for women. While she and the rest of her team never wanted the show to be “issue-driven,” their intent was always to challenge the characters. In doing so, they also challenged their audience.
“We thought, you really can’t do a show about 30-something women and not talk about abortion and the prevalence,” she told HuffPost. “I think we were aware that we were doing something a little forbidden. But also something that we wanted women to feel was OK.”
This notion of self-granted permission comes up a lot throughout the episode, even in terms of talking openly about abortion among friends who bring their own experiences to the proverbial brunch table.
Though Bicks said that the writers’ room never had anyone who was anti-abortion on the show, it was important for them to incorporate “differing” voices closest to Miranda who serve as outside influences, even after she makes her decision at the start of the episode.
“Every part of your choice is impacted by what’s happening around you,” Bicks added. “Whether it’s your friends going through things, or your parents saying things to you, or what you think society needs from you. So, it’s a lot.”
The question of whether or not Miranda should tell her ex-boyfriend Steve (David Eigenberg), who impregnated her, about the abortion even carries so much weight. Miranda immediately decides not to, but the very thought of it gives the audience something to consider early in the episode.
“That’s something else we wanted, of course,” Bicks said. “What are the parameters of what you owe your partner? How much is your own privacy and how much do you owe to somebody else?”
The same questions could be posed to Miranda’s friends, in whom she has always confided. When Miranda tells Samantha and Charlotte her decision at brunch, the latter is incensed because she and her husband have been trying unsuccessfully for five months to have a baby.
Charlotte storms off so the three remaining women could have their “abortion talk” without her. Of course that affects Miranda. Maybe not in a way that changes her decision, but it makes her think about how it affects those she loves. That’s a human reality that is just as important to reflect as the decision to have an abortion. Because it shows how nonfrivolous it is.
“We are honoring the difficulty of the choice,” Bicks said. And that journey isn’t merely a subplot. It’s the foundation of the entire episode.
“I think the mistake when it comes down to this black-and-white fighting about it [is that] it stops being about all of the complications, the gray area for women — still,” Bicks continued. “Once a woman has reached that point where she’s making this decision, it’s not an easy one.”
Just as important as it is to portray the complexity of choice, is to show what support for it looks like. Samantha casually says she had two abortions and prompts Carrie to share how many she’s had (one). Their admissions also help destigmatize abortion in solidarity with their friend.
Not that Miranda is or should be looking for validation, but it is important that it’s still there for her anyway.
“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” also confronts the so-called “type” of women who get abortions. To this day, abortion storylines are too often attached to the stereotype of someone younger and/or from a lower economic background and/or of color. Samantha, Miranda and Carrie are white, 30-something women who frequently enjoy overpriced cosmopolitans at Manhattan’s finest establishments.
Miranda, particularly, could probably provide a baby with an ample amount of financial support. She’s also single, not particularly “young” (though the whole “fertility cliff” myth has been debunked since 2001), far from maternal and didn’t use a condom.
That last part, Miranda says, is because she has a lazy ovary and Steve has only one ball following treatment for testicular cancer. And like she asks, “In what twisted world does that create a baby?”
While this shows Miranda comically contending with her less-than-typical circumstances that brought her to this point, it’s also her attempt to justify her choice.
Carrie does the same thing in her own way. She corrects Samantha, who thinks it was the guy at T.G.I. Fridays who got Carrie pregnant in 1988: “Please, can we not make this worse than it was? He was a waiter at The Saloon, OK?”
She even lies and tells her boyfriend Aidan (John Corbett) that she never had an abortion. Later, she confesses her truth but with much hesitation. She was 18 — no, 20. Actually, 22. And the condom broke. Except, they didn’t use a condom. “I should have known better,” she says.
It might seem absurd today to think that certain situations are considered more acceptable for abortion than others — like, after hooking up with a guy at a “very happening” hotspot versus one at a popular chain restaurant or a contraception malfunction versus no contraception. But it reflects the shame that women internalize or even make a joke about in a society that continues to judge them for their choice in 2022.
Though, it’s important to note that Aidan is only bothered that Carrie lied to him, not that she actually had an abortion. Yes, he is the quintessential TV boyfriend before the Internet Boyfriend was a thing. But he’s also a man, so this could have gone a lot of different (read: bad) ways.
Bicks and her team subverted those options. “We didn’t think for a second that Aidan was going to have an issue with her making a choice to have had an abortion,” she said. “It was just, ‘Listen, if we’re in this together, we’re in this together.’ That was really important for us.”
But that can be difficult to accept in a society so seeped in female reproach that it can create self-doubt. “It’s all the blame that women put on themselves,” Bicks said.
“Could we have handled [it] differently? Maybe,” she continued, voicing the question that lurches to the front of sometimes even the most assured woman’s mind.
“But is it always our fault? No. If we did anything on the show, it was to try to bring things that were perceived to be shameful to women at the time, and probably still, [to] light. Because they stop having power if you give words to them.”
That’s hard to overcome when even some medical professionals, like Miranda’s own doctor, refuse to perform abortions.
He adds, “no judgment!” because even some people who claim to be pro-choice don’t want anything to do with an abortion.
Similarly, the episode shows how feminist women like the characters on this show can grapple with their own human contradictions, like Carrie feeling uneasy about how her romantic partner might judge her for having an abortion. “This was a case where we really wanted to just get that out there and say, ‘Look, we all feel these things, but it’s OK,’” Bicks added.
Each character’s nuances around abortion were deeply considered and developed over time. “This was not an episode we did in the first season,” Bicks said. “We could not have done this until the audience really understood the characters — and until we really understood the characters, too. Because you really had to understand the motivation.”
That includes fleshing out past experiences that brought the characters to who they are in the episode, so that the audience can go on this journey with them.
“We probably spent more time talking about when Carrie had an abortion,” Bicks said. “What was that like? Because we were making sure that the audience didn’t turn on her. And to really understand her decision was as important as understanding Miranda’s.”
Miranda’s ultimate decision remains unexpected even watching the episode again in 2022. Because she decides to have the baby. But it’s her own personal deliberations that lead her to this point, not anyone else’s.
Bicks said that from the beginning she and the team knew she would have the baby, but wanted her to contend with the emotional obstacle of having something complicating her very structured life.
“She’s not someone who really believes the universe gives her moments. She’s not woo woo, she’s not that way. But in that moment, that’s the choice she made and she doesn’t regret it. And I think that’s important too.”
Equally as significant, Bicks added, is that she showed that Carrie and Samantha have no regrets about their own choice.
Though the surprise turn of events challenges Miranda in fascinating ways, it’s hard not to wonder whether she is influenced by the belief that it is her last chance for motherhood.
Even Bicks realizes that had the episode been written today, things might have gone a little differently, including having Miranda consider freezing her eggs, which wasn’t popularized back in 2001.
“It would be hard for us not to get more moralistic, which is not our show,” she concluded. “We would always put the character first and Miranda would have that child. But boy, it would be tougher because watching someone go through an abortion would also be important.”
While no character has an abortion during the episode, the fact that “Sex and the City” devoted an entire half hour to its beloved heroines complexly talking about, reflecting on and considering their experiences with abortion highlights what true women’s liberation can look like.
“There are a couple things that when you go back and watch ‘Sex and the City’ seem dated,” Bicks accepted. “And the thing that I would not have thought seemed dated is choice. That this is now something that is up for any kind of debate is terrifying and so wrong.”