‘Sex and the City’s Abortion Episode Is a Turning Point for the Show


The Big Picture

  • Season 4, Episode 11 of
    Sex and the City
    offers refreshing development for characters in addressing heavy topics.
  • The episode focuses on Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte making significant life-altering choices that deepen their characters.
  • “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” marks a pivotal moment where the main women evolve, patching up fractures and strengthening their bond.

Watching the first three-and-a-half seasons of HBO’s Sex and the City, one must be prepared to see the four main characters treat serious issues with silliness. Take, for instance, Season 3, Episode 5, in which Samantha (Kim Cattrall) enters into a relationship with a Black man and starts adopting Black slang — and it’s all pretty racially insensitive. In the same season’s ninth episode, Samantha gets into a squabble with local sex workers — as well as, by episode’s end, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), playfully, yet, in a way that has aged quite poorly, imitates their dialects and mannerisms. In short, Sex and the City often uses feminism flippantly, gayness in a largely supporting role, and handles race relations, if at all, haphazardly. That the show shines despite these fumbles is a miracle — and Sex and the City‘s frequent cringe is what makes Season 4, Episode 11, titled “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” even more of a refreshing installment.

What Is “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” About?

Like a rainstorm after a drought, this is the episode that finally pushes our characters, and the series, forward. The second scene of the episode sees the girls having brunch together, as per usual. After Charlotte (Kristin Davis) catches Carrie and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) making eyes at each other and demands to know what’s going on, Miranda reveals she is pregnant. It’s a blindside for all involved (well, Charlotte and Samantha, as both Carrie and the audience have learned this news in the previous scene). With her usual unflappable candor, Miranda declares she is getting an abortion. Most of our leading ladies take this in stride: Samantha and Carrie both recount the time(s) they’ve had the procedure themselves, and Miranda feels more at ease. Only Charlotte, who has been unsuccessfully trying to have a child for months, and who has always wanted a child of her own, questions the decision, leveling judgment at Miranda.

While Miranda secretly grapples with her decision not to tell Steve (David Eigenberg), the father of her baby, Carrie lies to her boyfriend, Aidan (John Corbett), about the abortion she had at 22. This is not the first lie Carrie tells in the series — far from it. But it eats at her significantly more than any other, except perhaps for her infidelity. When discussing why she lied, she tells the group she fears the optical repercussions of telling the truth, of looking like that “kind of girl.” Rather than tell Aidan right away, irrational as ever, Carrie decides to visit the man from the one-night stand that led to her abortion to see if she made the right decision not to tell him over a decade ago.

This meeting, rather predictably, leads Carrie to the conclusion that she’d made the right call by keeping the dim-witted waiter in the dark, and she accompanies Miranda to the doctor’s office. After only a moment’s debate over whether this is her only shot at a kid (it had been established sometime earlier that she had a “lazy ovary”), Miranda walks her signature gawky walk into the doctor’s office.

The next thing we know, Miranda is on the couch, and Samatha is tending to her despite her protests. Charlotte comes in, and everyone holds their breath. Bearing a large bouquet — “For whatever flowers are supposed to do in times like these” — Charlotte extends an olive branch. But the tension is not yet cut: Miranda reveals she has decided to keep the baby. Charlotte, who has discovered she has a dismal 15% chance of natural conception, responds, “We’re having a baby?” It is as if she had received the news herself. That night, Carrie tells Aidan about her abortion as they drink beer on the side of the road, and his response is better than she could have imagined, realizing there was no reason to lie in the first place.

‘Sex and the City’ Affords the Necessary Weight to This Important Issue

Unexpected at every turn, this landmark episode was the first time Sex and the City had given a heavy topic — or rather, a cluster of heavy topics — proper reverence. And in doing so, it deepens each of the players involved in ways previously unexplored. When Carrie decides to come clean about a choice she had made at 22, she takes her first meaningful step toward adulthood. Though Carrie is in her mid-30s, she often acts childish, blowing money on frivolities, keeping secrets from her closest confidantes, and running away when situations get sticky. In the episodes after the confession, however, we witness more honesty and more trust. She agrees to move in with Aidan shortly after, and, though it results in pain, is honest with him about not being ready for marriage. She starts speaking to Samantha about behaving more like women “at [their] age,” and talks out relationship problems rather than letting them fester.

Miranda’s choice to keep the baby is an even more complicated one to unpack. Before the decision, we see Miranda as independent to a fault, even disliking and mistreating children, albeit by accident. (In Season 4, Episode 6, she slams the door on a child while she is in the bathroom, causing him to bleed and her relationship to end.) She’s so frequently and deeply judgmental about women who have children that in one of the first episodes, she gives a woman condoms as her baby shower gift. Deciding to keep the baby, then, acts as the ultimate surprise and character twist for someone we thought we had figured out. But the show does not linger on the gravity of her choice and does not portray Miranda as an emotional wreck otherwise. Rather, she is given the choice freely, and, without any unwelcome influence of others, comes to her own conclusion as to what to do about what is happening in her life.

While Miranda’s story takes center stage here, perhaps the most needed character development that this episode provides is for Charlotte, Sex and the City’s resident WASP. The baby-crazy, aspiring stay-at-home wife is often the (relatively) conservative voice of the group and occupies her time with the pursuit of a rich, perfect, Park Avenue husband and children. Despite Charlotte’s optimism, and her ability to secure most of her original plan, her devastation at her friend’s accidental pregnancy is palpable. So when, in the end, Charlotte chooses to embrace her chosen family over the biological one she may or may not be able to produce, it marks not a moment of resignation, but one of triumph. This triumph is exactly what allows for her future pursuit of perfection by way of imperfection (looking at you, Harry), which makes Charlotte’s conclusion so delightful to watch.

This episode opens the door to a whole world of emotional excavation — the first steps of Carrie’s coming of age, Charlotte’s journey to a fully formed family, and Miranda’s loosening of her white-knuckled grip on her independence. In the end, it’s the choices that the main women make that patch up their fractures and that push them to become more fully realized characters. Instead of a 30-something acting like a teenager, Carrie slowly evolves into a grown woman. Instead of being a selfish workaholic, Miranda gets to warm up to family of all kinds. Instead of the picture of old-fashioned femininity, Charlotte finds a way to become her own woman.

But aside from individual development, the choices these women make strengthen the central friend group’s collective bond, bringing them closer than ever and imbuing the series with the depth it deserves and the promise of more to come. And that’s the beauty of the ironically regretless “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”: Sex and the City threw in the casual comedy towel and accepted its true place as a flawed, yet meaningful portrait of female friendship.

Sex and the City is currently available to stream on Netflix in the U.S.

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