New Research Examines How Abortion Stories Are Told on TV

In a 2014 episode of House of Cards, a reporter grills political powerhouse Claire Underwood about allegations that she has had an abortion. Underwood, played by Robin Wright, pauses to collect her thoughts and then says, confidently, “If I said yes, my husband’s political career would be in jeopardy. My faith would be questioned; likely my life would be threatened. But I won’t feel ashamed. Yes. I was pregnant. And yes, I had an abortion.”

While one in three American women will have an abortion at some point in their lives, it’s rare to see this common reality portrayed on television. And when characters do talk openly about abortion, a new study finds, those characters are more likely to be white, under the age of 20, and childless.

The new study from the researchers at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health looked at how abortion was represented on TV from 2005 through 2014. Their findings, which were published in the journal Contraception this week, reveal that fictional characters who obtain abortions don’t match the demographics of real-life Americans who seek the medical procedure.

Last year, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health sociologists Katrina Kimport and Gretchen Sisson (who is also a Bitch Media board member) published the first-ever academic “census” of abortion in pop culture, analyzing every fictional plotline involving abortion in American TV shows and films that they could find. Their analysis showed that onscreen, abortion is portrayed as much more dangerous than it actually is. In American films and TV made since 1916, nine percent of women who got abortions died as a direct result of the procedure. In reality, the real risk of death from abortion in the United States is statistically zero percent. (It's worth noting than an additional six percent of abortion-obtaining characters met an untimely end in some other way, like being murdered).

This new study looks at only television plotlines involving abortions and investigates the demographics of the characters. The researchers tracked down 78 television plotlines on American television from 2005-2014 where characters considered getting an abortion, including episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Jane the Virgin, Nashville, Girls, and Transparent. In 40 of those story-arcs, the characters wound up actually obtaining an abortion.

In real life, white women get 36 percent of abortions, with Black women getting 27 percent, and Latina women getting 25 percent. But as the study shows, most of the television characters who got abortions were white. Onscreen, white women got 87 percent of abortions, Black women got five percent of abortions, and there were zero storylines with Latina women getting abortions. Additionally, the characters were richer than the average American woman who gets an abortion. In real life, 40 percent of U.S. women obtaining abortions have incomes below the federal poverty level. Onscreen, 82 percent of characters who got abortions are portrayed as upper class or middle class. Finally, women who got abortions onscreen were much more likely to be teenagers and much less likely to already have kids.

These pop culture representations are very important, the study authors write:  

“Generally, the underrepresentation of certain populations of women considering abortion onscreen could contribute to feelings of internalized stigma or isolation among real women who obtain abortions but do not see themselves or their experiences represented in popular culture. For example, the dearth of Latina and black characters shown obtaining abortions may convey the idea that women of color do not need or willingly get abortions.”

The characters' explanations for why they need abortions also impact our cultural conversation around the importance of reproductive rights. The reasons characters cited most often were youth, immaturity, a lack of desire to parent, and not wanting to disrupt their career or educational goals. Many other real-life reasons for having an abortion are underrepresented on television, like financial unpreparedness and prioritizing the needs of existing children. “Taken together, this pattern of reasons can contribute to the construction of abortion as a self-focused decision and to the belief that abortions are ‘wanted’ because of personal desires rather than ‘needed’ because of circumstances such as poverty,” write the study's authors.

When thinking about how abortion is represented on television, it’s crucial to think about who’s behind the scenes writing and producing these shows. On shows created by Shonda Rhimes, for example, abortion has been a frankly discussed plot point several times. In Grey’s Anatomy, surgeon Cristina Yang twice became pregnant and sought abortions. In Scandal’s recent midseason finale, main character Olivia Pope is seen in a realistic medical clinic, quietly getting an abortion. Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards spoke out about the importance of that Scandal episode specifically, stating, “We applaud Shonda Rhimes tonight‚ and every Thursday night—for proving that when women are telling our stories, the world will pause and watch. We just hope those in Congress—and throughout the nation—who are steadfast on rolling the clock back on reproductive health care access are taking note.”

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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