Dr. Mindy Lahiri, the loveable lead played by Mindy Kaling in the sitcom The Mindy Project, is an OB-GYN. Her job functions as more than background decoration, as Jessica Goldstein of ThinkProgress notes. “One of the most standout things about The Mindy Project is the way its setting has allowed for stories that explicitly deal with women’s health,” she writes, citing storylines about birth control, condom distribution, and even The Talk.
But there's one aspect of reproductive health care that Kaling has no intention of touching on in the sitcom: abortion. “It would be demeaning to the topic to talk about it in a half-hour sitcom,” she recently said in the October issue of Flare.
Sorry, but that's total nonsense. Abortion is actually a perfect topic for a half-hour comedy, because it touches on so many themes that comedy writers love to mine for the laughs: sex, relationships, the massive gulf between our best intentions and our actual life choices. That's why comedy writers circle back to unintended pregnancy time and time again in hit movies like Knocked Up and Juno. And as the movie Obvious Child demonstrated, you can mine those same themes with a character who decides against carrying the pregnancy to term as with someone who has the baby. In fact, Prachi Gupta at Salon has helpfully listed all the half-hour sitcoms, going back to Maude in 1972, that have discussed abortion. Girls alone showed how easy it is, if you let go of the fear of getting letters from anti-choice nuts, to make some really funny jokes about abortion.
The frustrating thing is that a real-life Dr. Lahiri would be quite familiar with abortion. Three out of 10 women will have an abortion in their lifetimes. A 2011 study from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found that 97 percent of OB-GYNs have had a patient ask about abortion. While only 14 percent of OB-GYNs actually offer abortion services, a real-life Dr. Lahiri would be a likely candidate, as the same survey found that young doctors were more likely to offer abortion than older doctors, and female doctors were nearly twice as likely to offer it as male doctors. In the real world, someone as urbane and laid-back as Dr. Lahiri would be exactly who you'd expect to offer abortion, or at least be generous with abortion referrals if unable to do it herself.
While no one expects sitcoms to be perfect reflections of life, this unrealistic oversight only contributes to the taboo around discussing abortion and the marginalization of doctors who want to offer the service. The irony here is that by ignoring this very normal part of gynecological care, The Mindy Project is unwittingly making it harder for the real-life Dr. Lahiris in the world, and the women they treat.