Abortion storylines on TV shows have evolved from subtle mentions like “did she have one?” to portray main characters having complete abortions. Now, while abortion is less taboo on TV these days, the way it portrays these fictional women, as well as their reasons for having one, is inaccurate. According to a recent study published in the journal Contraceptionthese depictions are misleading, as they only present the women who undergo the procedure as young, wealthy, and white.
The study, authored by Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport of the University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, sought to reveal how women who have abortions are portrayed and highlight how the stories at screen can shape the public’s beliefs about the controversial topic. So they analyzed fictional portrayals of abortion decision-making on American television shows from 2005 to 2014. Forty of the 78 scenarios they examined ended with women continuing the procedure in question.
They found that 80% of women considering abortion were white, 85.7% of them were middle class or wealthy, 63% were in romantic relationships, and 83.3% were not. already parents. Of the women who went through with it, 87.5% were white, 80% were middle class, 55% were in committed relationships, and 82.5% had no children.
These statistics do not match the demographics of women who have abortions in real life. In fact, 36% of women who have abortions are white and 29.6% are black – only 5% of abortions that occur on television involve black women, according to a 2008 study. Researchers also found that Latino women were completely absent from any portrayal of abortion, when in fact they represent 24.9% of those undergoing abortion procedures. The socioeconomic status of abortion patients is also poorly reflected in the TV shows, with only two characters getting the procedure on the TV shows being below the federal poverty level. In real life, 40% of women who have abortions live in poverty.
The authors wrote that the flaws in portrayals of abortion are “consistent with a generally unrepresentative character population on television that is whiter, wealthier, and younger than the real American population, however, other deviations are more difficult to contextualize”, such as the under-representation of parents obtaining abortions.
Interestingly, when it came to why the fictional women had abortions, pursuing a pregnancy often made it harder for the women involved to pursue their education or career dreams. However, only 20% of women in real life report these reasons for having an abortion. More than 13% of fictional women who considered abortion did so because their pregnancy was the result of rape. However, only 1% of women who try to have an abortion in real life give this reason.
Researchers argue that these types of misrepresentations shape perception and make people believe that abortion is something people want rather than need. The under-representation of poorer characters, for example, suggests that abortion is less of a financial necessity for some women. This in turn influences the need for the public to see the financing of abortion. In fact, 40% of women who seek an abortion are due to a “lack of financial preparation”. Meanwhile, only 10.5% of fictional characters have abortions for the same reasons.
A similar study last year by the same researchers found that abortion on TV is depicted as significantly more dangerous than it actually is. Generally, the risk of death is low to extremely low, depending on the length of the pregnancy. However, approximately 9% of television and film characters from 1916 to the present have been portrayed as dying from the procedure.
Television and film writers should keep in mind that fictional depictions impact public perceptions and health care. “On-screen depictions can influence audience understanding, contributing to the production of abortion stigma and judgments about appropriate restrictions on abortion care,” the authors wrote. “Understanding the particular shape of inaccuracies around depictions of abortion can enable advocates and health professionals to identify and address popular misconceptions.”
Sources: Sisson G and Kimport K. Fact and Fiction: Characters Seeking Abortion on American Television, 2005-2014. Contraception. 2015.
Sisson G and Kimport K. Telling Abortion Stories: Abortion-Related Plots in American Film and Television, 1916–2013. Contraception. 2014.