More TV Shows Are Telling Abortion Stories. But They Often Don’t Reflect Reality.

As extra states go restrictive abortion legal guidelines and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court is actively attempting to dismantle Roe v. Wade, abortion storylines on TV haven’t adequately depicted the limitations in accessing abortion, in response to a new report.

“What really got to me about this year — and over the past couple of years, really — is we’ve seen this mounting number, this incredible increase in abortion restrictions that we’ve never seen before, in real life. And that’s just not translating to the lives of characters on TV. They’re just totally divorced from the reality of abortion access,” mentioned Steph Herold, a researcher at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health on the University of California, San Francisco, and one of many authors of the report.

Herold and her colleagues have been tracking abortion storylines in pop culture for a couple of decade. The excellent news is that they have discovered a marked enhance within the variety of TV reveals which have included an abortion-related storyline, which might scale back the stigma in opposition to speaking about abortions and illuminate the problem for viewers. In 2016, they discovered simply 13 abortion-related plotlines on main scripted reveals within the U.S., involving characters ​both having an abortion, disclosing a previous abortion or contemplating getting an abortion. In 2021, there have been no less than 47 abortion-related plotlines on 42 reveals.

But the unhealthy information is loads of these storylines stay restricted. They typically don’t mirror the limitations to entry that many individuals, comparable to low-income individuals, individuals of coloration and trans individuals, expertise. And they don’t mirror our present political scenario.


Most abortion sufferers “face at least one logistical or financial obstacle when obtaining an abortion,” the report states. But most TV reveals don’t depict this in any respect, exhibiting a personality simply finding an abortion supplier, paying for the abortion, taking break day from work, having insurance coverage protection or residing in an space with comparatively few abortion restrictions, like New York or Los Angeles.

This goes hand in hand with the demographic disconnect between TV and actuality. The majority of abortion sufferers are individuals of coloration, and lots of are low-income individuals, who are likely to face elevated limitations to abortion entry. But the overwhelming majority of TV characters in abortion-related storylines are white and rich.

According to the report, 68% of TV characters in abortion-related storylines in 2021 had been white. Only two reveals featured Black ladies in these storylines: ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and HBO Max’s “Love Life.” More reveals this 12 months did function Latina and Asian characters in abortion-related storylines. However, “all but one of these characters were on television shows that originated outside the United States, and thus did not represent the racialized experience of accessing an abortion in the U.S.,” the report mentioned.

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


Even although the frequency of abortion storylines has elevated over the previous a number of years, none of those tendencies have actually modified, presenting many missed alternatives for TV creators and writers, Herold mentioned.

One improvement she finds encouraging is how a number of TV reveals in 2021 contained nuanced storylines about supportive companions, members of the family and mates accompanying a personality to the abortion or supporting them as they made their determination or talked a couple of earlier abortion.

“We saw a friend sitting next to the person having the abortion, on the couch comforting them, making them soup. All of that are just really important pieces to have in the cultural conversation about abortion,” Herold mentioned. “It’s not just a hot-button political issue, but a time when you can show up and be there for your friends, regardless of your politics.”

But as soon as once more, the overwhelming majority of these storylines concerned white characters, when in actuality, tales exhibiting how you can assist somebody having an abortion or speaking about one will be instructive for everybody. (Among the only a few exceptions was “Love Life,” starring William Jackson Harper and Jessica Williams.)


Herold additionally hopes extra TV writers will discover accountable plotlines involving medicine abortion. It’s a secure different to discovering a supplier or going to a clinic, which is turning into more and more troublesome in lots of components of the nation. (A handful of reveals in 2021 did responsibly present a personality safely getting a medicine abortion, comparable to ABC’s “A Million Little Things” and HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” in response to the report.)

“Given where we are in this crisis moment of abortion legality, I’m really interested in seeing more representations of safe, self-managed abortion on TV,” Herold mentioned. “I’m hoping in the future, we’ll be able to see one or more characters order pills online, go through a telehealth experience with a clinician, and then have her safe abortion that way, so people can begin to understand if abortion does become illegal or effectively illegal that there are safe ways. It’s not a coat hanger. It’s an FDA-approved set of pills that you can take.”

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in HBO's Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage.”

Showing limitations to entry and our dire political actuality is one necessary space. But as Herold mentioned, so is exhibiting relatable, human tales about on a regular basis individuals and “just opening the door so it’s not just these same recycled stories that we’ve seen before over the last couple of years.”

Like so many types of illustration on display, there’s worth in TV reveals precisely, responsibly and compassionately telling extra tales about abortion.

“A lot of people don’t know that they know and love someone who has had an abortion. One of the ways that they’re exposed to it is through what’s happening in politics, and then what’s happening on their TVs and their TV shows,” Herold mentioned. “If one of the primary ways that they see someone that they care about — even if it’s in this parasocial way where it’s a character on TV — the way that that’s depicted matters. It can show them what it’s like to get an abortion, if abortion is safe or not, how people react to that character getting an abortion, what they have to do to get the abortion, how they make that decision, how it affects their life going forward.”

“And if they see that only once on a show, it can have these unintended consequences implying abortion is not normal or not safe and not common — when in reality we know the opposite is true, right? Abortion is very normal, so common, one of the safest medical procedures.”

Read the total report, “Abortion Onscreen in 2021,” here.

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