Maeve (Emma Mackey) signs herself in to get an abortion in Sex Education. Photograph: Netflix
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The Letdowns termination plot couldnt look more different. This time, in a story
TV rarely tells, the protagonist is a parent in her 30s, with a partner, a career, a mortgaged house full of Ikea furniture and an accidental foetus in her uterus. She chooses to end the pregnancy, and then moves through the steps of getting on with her life.
In all these shows, termination is a serious decision but not a tormented, regretful one. It is what it is:
a safe, simple medical procedure that for most women produces no lasting shock. Scheller references a scene from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in which a doorbell rings and the son of a lawyer casually calls out: Mom, Ill get it since you just had an abortion.
Real-life conversations are rarely so candid. In The Letdown, Audrey feels an ambiguous grief, compounded by her mothers observation that abortion is a very solitary experience. That tearful place of murky loss or non-loss, coupled with lonely silence, speaks clearly to a gap between progressive ideals (that nobody should be ashamed to end a pregnancy) and the difficult reality of talking freely about such a taboo and complicated subject.
In our writers room, we got [Australian feminist commentator] Clementine Ford in to talk about this specific issue. She was saying that the pro-lifers never consider the [quality of life of the] kids you have
after an abortion. I wouldnt have the two children I have now if I hadnt been able to access that abortion then, Scheller says, referring to a pregnancy she terminated in her 20s. The decision, she says, gave her the capacity to be a better mother later in life.
Audreys arc is about coming to a point where she doesnt feel shame about her decision. She tells the other mums as well as telling her own partner to stop tippy-toeing around talking about it afterwards. Its actually not a big deal. Most women deal with their terminations pretty well. Audrey was assertive, her character drove the decision, she had agency. Theres no judgment, at all.
Still, the ABC felt the need to mitigate the risk of blowback. The ABC wanted us to lean into the medical side of things, she says, referring to Audreys first birth an emergency Cesarean which made a second pregnancy too dangerous too soon. This framed Audreys abortion as simply a form of healthcare, rather than an emotional, moral or lifestyle decision.
But Scheller and Bell wanted to show the validity of other reasons for terminations. In a scene of cross-generational solidarity, Audreys mother Verity (Sarah Peirse) reveals that she ended a badly timed pregnancy decades ago so as not to limit the trajectory of her life and her relationship. Both experiences are presented as legitimate.
The Letdowns second season will be released in July on Netflix in the United States, home to what Scheller calls a frightening backlash against abortion rights. Weeks after president Donald Trump falsely
referred to terminations as executions, the state of Alabama passed a law which criminalises almost all abortions with no exceptions for rape or incest.
And yet it was US TV that aired one of the first onscreen instances of a mother choosing to terminate. We were quite inspired by the series Maude, says Scheller. They had an abortion storyline in 1972, where Maude, a 47-year-old mother played by Bea Arthur, fell pregnant in New York, where it was legal to have an abortion. The double episode, Maudes Dilemma, aired before Roe v Wade. It was so groundbreaking. The shows creator
Norman Lear says that it aired in 1972 without controversy. It wasnt until the reruns in the 1980s, when the religious right had really exploded, that there were thousands of letters of complaint.
In that way, its not just the representation of abortion that matters, but the cultural and political climate around them.
In todays loaded context, the capacity of comedy to normalising how we talk about abortions continues. If we cant laugh at it, says Scheller, then its The Handmaids Tale.
And that would just be a nightmare.
The Letdown is streaming on ABC iView