On season eight of Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) was up front about her desire in get an abortion.
In a 2011 episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Cristina Yang goes to a doctor and gets an abortion. “I’m going to ask you one more time: Are you absolutely sure this is what you want to do?” asks the doctor before the procedure. Dr. Yang says yes, and the operation proceeds without a hitch.
On a 2013 episode of BBC period drama Call the Midwife, an East London mother of eight children tries to induce an abortion with epsom salts and gin before going to see a neighbor known for providing back-alley abortions. She winds up in the hospital with an infection and a perforated uterus.
These are just two examples of how abortion providers are represented on TV, and these are referenced in a new study of how abortion is portrayed in pop culture. “Doctors and Witches, Conscience and Violence: Abortion Provision on American Television,” published last week by researchers Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, analyzed 52 TV plotlines involving abortion that aired from 2005 to 2014. While previous research has shown that abortion is portrayed as much more dangerous on TV than it is in real life, and that characters who get abortions are not representative of real-world demographics of the 1 million Americans who get abortions every year, this new study looks at how people who perform abortions are written on fictional shows.
On Call the Midwife, a team of nurses deals with pregnancies, births, deaths, and, yes, abortions in East London.
This is important because real-world abortion providers face lots of stigma, which can escalate into dangerous threats and physical violence. Right-wing domestic terrorists target abortion clinics alarmingly often; the National Abortion Federation lists four attempted arsons at clinics around the country last year in addition to the deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. The “Doctors and Witches” study explores how portrayals of abortion providers on TV can contribute to that stigma—and help fight it.
What the researchers found is refreshing: Abortion providers on TV aren’t overwhelmingly portrayed as evil or irresponsible. Except in rare cases of shows that are built around horror and gore—like Hannibal—abortion providers overwhelmingly offered “effective, safe, and compassionate” care. Significantly, characters providing abortions were often given chances to explain the values and motivations for conducting the procedure. These reasons “portrayed them as courageous, even heroic, and as performing a social good, thereby countering provider stigma,” write the researchers. Take sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica’s Dr. Sherman Cottle, for example. When an alien woman comes to him seeking an illegal abortion, he performs the procedure in a matter-of-fact way, saying, “I get a note that a girl’s on the way. She arrives. I do my work. And then she leaves. I don’t ask a lot of questions.” Later in the episode, he advises the alien woman to seek asylum so she won’t be returned to her home community, where abortion is illegal, and possibly face prosecution. Another example is Sister Harriet on The Knick, a Cinemax series set in New York in the early 1900s. Though she’s a nun, she performs abortions because she undertakes them in a safer and more sanitary way than other providers and she wants to protect the lives of her practioners.
Cara Seymour as the steadfast Sister Harriet on The Knick.
One interesting dynamic the study reveals is that there’s a split in how abortions are portrayed depending on whether they are provided by legal medical providers (like the doctor on Grey’s Anatomy) or illegal or nonmedical providers (ranging from the neighbor on Call the Midwife, to Orange Is the New Black’s resident prison curandera Gloria, to a helpful Wiccan waitress on True Blood). The vast majority of abortions undertaken on TV shows since 2005 have been the first kind—75 percent were performed by doctor or nurse characters. And those providers were overwhelmingly represented as safe, compassionate, and effective. However, when shows involved illegal abortions (which was about a quarter of episodes), the procedure was typically portrayed as unsafe. Characters like Downton Abbey’s Edith and Sister Harriet on The Knick sweated about the health and safety of getting and providing abortions. When abortions were provided by people who relied on supernatural methods, like a Wiccan prayer or a call to God, the providers were portrayed as “not merely ineffective, but also deceptive.”
Abortion is a standard medical procedure and a necessary part of reproductive healthcare, but, of course, right-wing political rhetoric paints abortion as anything but safe and normal. Unfortunately, when TV shows include abortion in their storylines, it’s not a neutral act—the writers know they’ll both face pushback from conservative groups and carry the burden of scripting an episode that reflects the reality of millions Americans. These aren’t stories that TV shows can take on lightly. When Call the Midwife’s episode about abortion aired, for example, the BBC received numerous complaints that it was “graphic” and not “family-friendly”—this on a series that portrays birth in all its bloody, sweaty, body fluid–extruding glory in nearly every episode. Champion showrunner Shonda Rhimes, meanwhile, has been accused by right-wing organizations of “plugging pro-abortion propaganda” on Grey’s Anatomy and her other shows. But Rhimes doesn’t shy away from the plotline, she has said, because it’s a reality that’s important to show. “It is a legal choice in our country,” she told Vulture about the Grey’s Anatomy storyline in 2011. “But what I was trying to do is, I wanted to portray that character honestly. I really wanted Cristina Yang to stay true to who Cristina Yang is. And I feel like that is a character who has never really wanted to be a mother.”
Editorial note: Study co-author Gretchen Sisson is a board member of Bitch Media.