Why authentic abortion stories on TV and in movies are a sign of the times in the post-Roe era

In 2004, a Canadian TV show made headlines for a controversial episode in which a pregnant teenager decides, much to her boyfriend’s dismay, to have an abortion. Her mother drives her to the clinic.

Yes it was Degrassi: the next generation — and the infamous episode, titled Accidents will happenwas postponed for American viewers after an American cable channel decided to pull it before it could air.

Experts note that the mid-2000s episode was made at a time when on-screen depictions of abortion and discussions of the procedure in film and television were becoming more frequent and complex, to reflect public sentiment about the proceedings.

“There really are a lot of rich stories that have been told, a lot of interesting themes to trace, especially in terms of the politics of what was going on at the time,” said University researcher Stephanie Herold. from California to San Francisco (UCSF) who studies how abortion is portrayed in film and television.

With abortion bans expected in about half of U.S. states after the landmark Roe v. Wade in June — and some Canadian advocates worried about the fate of the procedure here — academics and filmmakers say abortion must evolve to accurately reflect real-life experiences.

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A “disturbing departure” from reality

Although storylines have improved since the first on-screen abortion cases in the 1960s and 1970s, it hasn’t been a perfect evolution, according to Herold.

The project Herold contributes to, Abortion Onscreen, began when UCSF sociologist Gretchen Sisson began looking into the history of abortion in Hollywood.

The two have since compiled a massive database of on-screen abortions, studying the race, age, socioeconomic circumstances and health outcomes of characters who receive the procedure in film and television.

Stephanie Herold is a New York-based researcher who helped compile a massive database of on-screen abortions, studying the race, age, socioeconomic circumstances, and health outcomes of characters who receive the procedure in film and television. (Stephanie Herold)

Herold and Sisson found that there is a significant divide between fictional and real stories. For example, less than 1% of abortions result in a major complication, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology – but on screen, that figure rises to 18%, more than 70 times the actual complication rate. , Herold said. .

“The majority of characters who have abortions on TV and in movies are white, are wealthy, have no children at the time of their abortions, which is really a disturbing departure from the reality of who is having abortions” , she added.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research firm that supports abortion rights, 59% of abortion patients in the United States already have children; 49% live below the poverty line (75% are poor or low income); and the majority are racialized, with black and Hispanic patients accounting for 28% and 25% of patients, respectively.

“The characters face almost none of the logistical, financial, and legal hurdles that real abortion patients face,” Herold said, which — especially in the United States — can include out-of-state travel, search for child care services and reimbursable expenses.

She pointed to an episode of a CBC show working moms like the one who faithfully portrays the challenges of access to abortion in the Canadian healthcare system: Anne (Dani Kind) is frustrated when she discovers that there is a long waiting period before she can have an abortion .

tv shows like Scandal, Alias ​​Grace, Acute, Wynonna Earp and Shine have aired various stories about abortion in recent years. In AcuteAnnie (Aidy Bryant) goes to an abortion clinic when she learns the morning after pill isn’t as effective for tall women.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in the ABC Scandal series finale. In a 2015 episode, the character has an abortion. (Nicole Wilder/ABC/Associated Press)

movies like Obvious child and Never Rarely Sometimes Always explored the emotional and logistical challenges of abortion. In the latter, a 17-year-old girl travels from Pennsylvania to New York with her cousin to get the procedure, desperate to raise the funds to afford it.

“Our job is not to make choices for young people”

“What I like to say is that our job is not to over-sensationalize these topics,” Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler told CBC News in a 2020 interview where she discussed the pulled episode.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about abortion or gay rights or whatever. Our job isn’t to make choices for young people. It’s to give them information so they can make their own choices,” she said.

Samantha Loney, a Métis screenwriter from Barrie, Ontario, is currently working on two original films with an abortion story. One is a short film titled Waiting in which a woman and her boyfriend discuss a termination of pregnancy. The ending is deliberately ambiguous.

“I always like to leave things open to my audience when doing projects because I never want to voice my point of view — like, that’s not my job as a filmmaker,” Loney said. “My job as a filmmaker is to put my own life experience into my work.”

“My job as a filmmaker is to put my own life experience into my work,” said Samantha Loney, a mixed-race screenwriter who is currently working on two original films with an abortion story. (Samantha Loney)

“It’s up to the audience to have these discussions and change people’s minds together, isn’t it? I think that’s the beauty of art is that it can be life changing people when they see a movie.”

Toronto actress and filmmaker Emily Schooley’s feature debut, a queer horror romance titled Lines, features a character named Laura who is contemplating an abortion. Schooley herself had an abortion when she was much younger, she said.

“The way I approach the abortion discussion is not so much what’s going on in the room, but what the consequences are and what goes into the tough decisions that a lot of women have to make,” he said. she declared.

Toronto actress and filmmaker Emily Schooley, who had an abortion as a child, says her feature debut follows a character named Laura as she contemplates the procedure. (Emily Schooly)

The future of abortion storytelling

Abortions on TV and in movies are often what Herold calls “self-motivated”: driven by a desire to have a career, be independent, or pursue an education. While these are valid reasons for an abortion, she says, they are not the only reasons.

Women may wonder if they have enough money to support a child, if they want to focus on the children they already have, or if the person they are in a relationship with is not someone one they want to raise a child with.

“We rarely see those kinds of structural considerations when characters have abortions on television,” she said.

What might abortion storytelling on television and in film look like in the near future? Herold hopes these performances will dig deeper to overcome existing barriers to access and show a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Dani Kind is portrayed as Anne Carlson in Workin’ Moms. Anne’s first season character arc ends with her getting an abortion, reflecting that many women who request the procedure are already parents. (Workin’ Moms/CBC)

“We really need representations that bring abortion to life as a matter of race, class, gender, or family love affairs that really bridge the gap between who gets an abortion in real life and who gets aborted onscreen,” she said.

“Which would amount to privileging stories of characters of color, people raising families at the time of their abortion, characters struggling to make ends meet, queer characters, characters with disabilities, indigenous characters, and characters who live at the intersections of all these identities.”

Just as the subject has been approached differently since the first television depiction of abortion in 1962 courtroom drama episode The defenderspost-Roe stories about abortion might take a different approach.

Loney said she doesn’t know if the art emerging from this period would play a role in changing laws or the political landscape – but time will tell how the political climate impacted media portrayals of abortion and the conversations surrounding it.

“Art is a reflection of the times,” she said.

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