Scandal 2015 and The Defenders 1962. Same subject, two different reactions

Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington March 15, 2015,

Shonda Rhimes and Kerry Washington March 15, 2015,

The other night I wrote about the Radiance Foundation’s huff n-puffery over Olivia Pope’s abortion.  How dare MSM  invade our cotton candy cocoon with a little bit of reality.  Gee, don’t they have enough real-life women to bully rather than  worry about what a fictional character does? A  fictional character?

I guess they don’t.

The reaction in anti-abortion circles to Olivia’s abortion has been predictable.  Interestingly, though,  a lot of it has been media (conservative) griping about how media (liberal and pop) is writing about media (Scandal not  about media complaining about the act of abortion itself.

Katie Yoder spends an entire column on complaining about Salon ,Slate, the Huffington Post, Cosmo, Entertainment Tonight and E! Online. Texas Right to Life brings it up a notch  kvetching  about “political agendas.” Alexa Moutevelis Coombs, writing for National Right to Life, called the show “sick” and the 1-minute abortion scene a  “truly vile scene, stomach churning scene.” The Federalist called showrunner Shonda Rhimes a “coward,”  for using  Planned Parenthood” talking points”  and implied that Pope had gotten  pregnant deliberately because…well Shonda’s female characters are just mean-spirited controlling, conniving  bitches who crap over the men who love them  Christian writer and international adopter  Nancy French, reflecting  the classist analysis of Radiance’s Bomberger, bemoaned that Olivia had no excuses for getting an abortion.  “…the baby would get in the way of the life she wanted.” I guess it’s nice to know the rich and privileged should be forced to breed since they have nothing better to do.. How eugenic!

Lila Rose

Lila Rose: abortion is not a real “choice” or “women’s health care.”

Anti-abortion  activist hottie Lila Rose and Live Action News are pushing a petition demanding that ABC and its parent company Disney  “stop promoting abortion.”  The petition ends with the claim: abortion is not a  real “choice” or “women’s health care.”  While I really hate the consumerist term “choice,” thought up by an ad agency shortly after Roe came down, this is unmitigated bullshit. I wonder what Lila calls forced pregnancy and childbirth? Or  forced adoption?  A “loving choice.”  As a professional virgin, she should know.

It’s not like abortion is some newfangled TV invention of the DNC, ABC, PP, the NAACP  or Shonda Rhimes..

Pat Matthews played by Susan Trustman. TV’s first abortion, Another World, 1964

As far as TV goes I clearly remember Pat Matthews’ abortion (reportedly the first TV abortion ever) which kicked-started Another World in 1964, Pat  ended up with a hysterectomy. She  shot and killed her boyfriend, married her defense attorney, and later became miraculously pregnant (the wonders of modern science) with twins, who were later kidnapped by a nurse played by Rue McClannahan. after slowly poisoning Pat. Ten years later AMC’s Erika Kane had the first legal TV abortion. Decades later, the dreadful soap writer Meagan McTavish, who has killed more soaps than the VP of ABC’s daytime programming could ever dream of, sabotaged and re-wrote the story.

Earlier, and more serious, was the the 1962 episode of the classic TV courtroom drama The Defenders, “The Benefactor,” in  which a doctor, played by Robert F. Simon is put on trial.  for performing (then) illegal abortions, which in effect  put the entire abortion controversy on trial.

Film and TV historian Stephen Bowie, in his The Classic TV History Blog, writes:

Coleen Wilcox

Rape victim Elinor Stafford, played by Collin Wilcox, forced to testify against her doctor says her abortion should have been legal.

“The Benefactor” turns its courtroom scenes into a referendum on a hotbed issue, using the testimony of the witnesses in the fictitious case as a means of presenting real statistics and ethical arguments to the audience.  Both sides are heard, but “The Benefactor” clearly advocates for the legalization of abortion.  The argument that a fetus is “not a human being” is articulated passionately, and twice the point is made that if the law is to restrict abortions, it must provide humane alternatives.  (More humane, the script suggests, than foster care and homes for unwed mothers.)

Lever Brothers, Kimberly Clark, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco refused to sponsor the episode, saying the subject matter was “in conflict with company policy.”   The watchmaking Speidel  Corporation,  finally bought up all the commercial time and the episode aired in May, but not before it was previewed to local network affiliates and dropped in  Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New Orleans, Omaha, Milwaukee, and smaller cities throughout the country.  The CBC banned it from Canada.

You’d think that the bad rep/rap “The Benefactor” got in those markets might have adversely affected  acceptance in the rest of the country. It didn’t.

., The Defenders enjoyed staunch support from CBS.  It was an unusual display of backbone in an industry dependent on the fickle support of the masses.  Bob Markell, then the associate producer of The Defenders, remembered that the hero of the hour was CBS chairman William Paley.  “It would have gone on with or without sponsors,” Markell told me, because Paley believed in the show.  Michael Dann, the CBS executive who had developed the Defenders pilot and fought to get it on the air over the objections of network president Jim Aubrey, also felt that the sponsor defections were irrelevant.  Dann felt that “The Benefactor” won the day because it was serious-minded and well-made, like all of the programs supplied by executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s company.  Had it been exploitative or inept, the episode might have done irreparable damage to The Defenders.

The historical record supports Dann’s assessment.  Published surveys of viewer responses reveal that there was no “Benefactor” backlash.  Two weeks after the broadcast, Reginald Rose told the New York Times that the mail received (over a thousand letters, compared to 150-200 following most episodes) ran eleven to one in favor of the abortion show.  The Los Angeles Times published the first ten letters it received about “The Benefactor,” eight of which were positive, and Television Age reported that 93.8% of the 1,000 New Yorkers it surveyed approved of “The Benefactor.”  The episode pleased critics, as well, earning a rave from Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy, if more ambivalent, notice from the New York Times‘ Jack Gould.  Gould nevertheless called “The Benefactor” a “remarkable demonstration of the use of theatre as an instrument of protest.”

The Defenders was not alone in addressing abortion, Other programs including The Nurses and  Slattery’s People, and I’m sure there were more did the same. I have a vague memory of an abortion on Search for Tomorrow around that time, but it may have been a fortuitous miscarriage.

Unfortunately, Lila Rose and her ilk cannot treat Americans as adults like they were treated 54 years ago. They can’t take the heat for a serious discussion.  Are their arguments so fragile that a TV show can crumble them?  Moreover, they don’t want to admit that the only “big deal” about abortion for some women is trying to get  through the maze of laws and restrictions people Lila Rose and Ryan Bomberger have either created or supported to make forced pregnancy the only “choice” some have.

The Ohio State University July 9, 2006. Photo by author.

The Ohio State University July 9, 2006. Photo by author.

I was astounded when I read how Bill Paley and Michael Dann fought to keep “The Benefactor” from dying in the can. Even moerso, when I read how well received the show was by viewers.  Not some vile stomach churner, or petition grabber to pound on Hollywood’s door, but as a basis for a national discussion, or at least some understanding..

I haven’t been able to find a copy of “The Benefactor” online yet,so  I’ve  had to rely on secondary sources to write this. It will be indeed strange to see how abortion, which was a pretty quiet issue but growing in 1962 was treated  openly and compassionatly with nary a  bloody baybee bits graphic, blockade,  shouting match, or angry Bible thumper  offering to adoption your” baby” in sight.


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