More TV shows are telling abortion stories. But often they do not reflect reality.

Like more states pass restrictive abortion laws and the conservative majority in The Supreme Court is actively trying to dismantle Roe v. wadeAbortion stories on television did not adequately depict barriers to abortion access, according to a new report.

“What really touched me this year – and over the past two years, really – is that we have seen this growing number, this incredible increase in restrictions on abortion that we have never seen. before, in real life. And that just doesn’t translate into the lives of the characters on TV. They’re just totally divorced from the reality of abortion access,” said Steph Herold, researcher at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco and one of the report’s authors.

Herold and his colleagues were follow abortion stories in pop culture for about a decade. The good news is that they have seen a marked increase in the number of TV shows incorporating an abortion-related storyline, which can reduce the stigma against talking about abortion and illuminate the issue for viewers. In 2016, they just found 13 storylines related to abortion on major scripted shows in the United States, involving characters having an abortion, disclosing a past abortion, or considering having an abortion. In 2021, there were at least 47 abortion-related storylines in 42 shows.

But the bad news is that many of these scenarios remain limited. They often do not reflect the barriers to access that many people, such as low-income people, people of color, and trans people, face. And they do not reflect our current political situation.

Most abortion patients “face at least one logistical or financial barrier when obtaining an abortion,” the report said. But most TV shows don’t portray it at all, showing a character easily locating an abortion provider, paying for the abortion, missing work, having insurance coverage, or living in an area with relatively few restrictions on abortion, like New York or Los Angeles. Angels.

This goes hand in hand with the demographic disconnect between television and reality. The majority of abortion patients are people of color, and many are low-income people, who tend to face heightened barriers to abortion access. But the vast majority of TV characters in abortion stories are white and wealthy.

According to the report, 68% of TV characters in abortion-related stories in 2021 were white. Only two shows featured black women in those storylines: ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and HBO Max’s “Love Life.” More shows this year have featured Latin and Asian characters in abortion-related stories. However, “all but one of these characters appeared in television shows originating outside of the United States and therefore did not represent the racialized experience of accessing an abortion in the United States,” the report said.

Jessica Williams and William Jackson Harper in HBO Max’s “Love Life,” which included two abortion-related storylines.

Even though the frequency of abortion stories has increased in recent years, none of those trends have really changed, presenting many missed opportunities for TV creators and writers, Herold said.

One development she finds encouraging is how several TV shows in 2021 contained nuanced stories about support partners, family members and friends accompanying a character through abortion or supporting them as they take their decision or were talking about a previous abortion.

“We saw a friend sitting next to the person having the abortion, on the couch comforting her, making her soup. These are all just very important things to have in the cultural conversation about abortion,” Herold said “This is not just a hot political issue, but a time when you can show up and be there for your friends no matter what your politics.”

But again, the vast majority of these storylines involved white characters, when in reality, stories about how to support someone who is having an abortion or talk about it can be instructive for anyone. (Among the very few exceptions was “Love Life,” starring William Jackson Harper and Jessica Williams.)

Herold also hopes more TV writers will explore responsible storylines involving medical abortion. It is a safe alternative to finding a provider or visiting a clinic, which is becoming increasingly difficult in many parts of the country. (A handful of shows in 2021 responsibly showed a character having a safe abortion, such as ABC’s “A Million Little Things” and HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” according to the report.)

“Given where we are in this moment of crisis in abortion legality, I’m really interested in seeing more portrayals of safe, self-managed abortion on television,” Herold said. “I hope in the future we can see one or more characters order pills online, have a telehealth experience with a clinician, and then have a safe abortion that way, so people can start to understand if abortion becomes illegal or actually illegal that there are safe ways.It’s not a coat hanger.It’s a set of FDA approved pills that you can take.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain on HBO "Scenes from a wedding."
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage.”

Showing the barriers to access and our dire political reality is an important area. But as Herold said, the same goes for showing human stories about everyday people and “you just have to open the door so it’s not just about those same recycled stories that we’ve seen before in the last two years”.

Like so many forms of on-screen representation, there is value in TV shows accurately, responsibly, and compassionately telling more stories about abortion.

“A lot of people don’t know they know and love someone who has had an abortion. One of the ways they are exposed to it is through what happens in politics and then what happens on their TVs and TV shows,” Herold said. “If one of the main ways they see someone they care about — even if it’s in that parasocial way they’re a character on TV — how that’s portrayed is important. It can show them what it’s like to have an abortion, whether abortion is safe or not, how people react to this character having an abortion, what they have to do to have an abortion, how they take this decision, how it affects their life moving forward.

“And if they see that just once on a show, it can have these unintended consequences of abortion not being normal or not safe and not common – when in fact we know the opposite is true, Right Abortion is completely normal, so common, one of the safest medical procedures.

Read the full report, “Abortion on Screen in 2021,” here.

Back To Top