Films and TV Portray Abortion as More Dangerous Than It Is

a scene from the TV show Maude

When TV show Maude compassionately discussed abortion in 1972, thirty stations refused to air the episode.

Films and television shows tend to present a skewed portrayal of abortion—when fictional movies and TV shows include a plotline about abortion, the tale typically paints the procedure as riskier than it is in real life.

That’s the conclusion of the first-ever academic “census” of abortion in pop culture from two reproductive health policy researchers who watched every fictional plotline involving abortion they could find in American TV shows and films.

Analyzing 385 abortion-related plotlines from 1916 to now, the pair found that while medical procedures like CPR are often shown as safer and more effective than the reality, stories of abortion are way more likely to end in the death of the patient than they are in real life.

Researchers Katrina Kimport and Gretchen Sisson (who is also a Bitch contributor) turned their recently published research into this infographic. 

Infographic summarizing the results of the study.

Click here to see this infographic at full size. Graphic designed by Jessica Harrington, Kate Giambrone, and Julianna Johnson.

The obvious problem this report points to is that these fictional narratives don’t happen in a vacuum. These stories have real implications on the way people perceive women seeking abortions and their health care providers—especially in an era when conservative politicians argue that abortions are unsafe in order to justify laws that restrict abortion access.

There’s no such thing as an apolitical choice when writing a film or television plotline that tangles with issues of abortion. In a recent interview, Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes told TIME that she was pressured to change an abortion plotline during the writing of the show and urged for more open conversation on the issue. “It’s a polarizing issue obviously… Because it is such a hot button issue, because people are debating it, it should be discussed. And I’m not sure why it’s not being discussed.”

I’m tempted to feel hopeful that, at least by the numbers, we are seeing more media representation of abortion in film and television. Though the study data only looked at US media, the current season of the British drama Downton Abbey contains an interesting story arc involving abortion that shows the way abortion plotlines become political no matter how they treat the issue. Fans will be familiar with the recent dilemma facing a character on the show who becomes accidentally pregnant out of wedlock. She considers several options including an illegal abortion, keeping the child, and putting the child up for adoption.  She constantly says she wants to keep the child and feels forced into a corner by societal pressure to appear chaste. Christian media outlets were quick to herald the show for its “pro-life plotline.” But that reading oversimplifies the show. Though the character is pressured by her family to make one choice, she insists against their wishes to go through with her own plans. Ultimately, she makes a difficult and complicated choice, but it is clearly her choice. 

Bitch put together two collections of TV and film plotlines that revolve around abortion, from The Godfather to Beverly Hills 90210. Check out the first collection below and both clip shows on YouTube


by Erica Thomas
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Erica Thomas is an artist, writer, manger of creative projects, and idea machine. Her topics of interests include relationship structures, non-binary gender dynamics, kinetic learning styles, and leading the revolution(s).

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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Thought it was worse

I'm actually surprised it's not much worse than this. I'd have put it 84 to 15 in the other direction. During the production code, you weren't allowed to be shown getting away with a crime. So, some stories like Leave Her to Heaven and Beyond the Forest had wicked women who tried to self abort, among their other sins, and die at the end of the story. I don't know as much about television, but had a really hard time putting my finger on a successful abortion story, except Maude or the unaired Family Guy that referenced Maude. Even in Girls, a character schedules an abortion but has a miscarriage or a period, I forget which.

Abortion episode on Private Practice

A few years ago, there was a Private Practice episode in which Addison performed an abortion on a woman who was well into her second trimester. The woman was, as I recall, living paycheck to paycheck, and had none of the support network she'd need to raise a child. Addison mentioned that she knew how few doctors would feel comfortable terminating a pregnancy so far advanced, so that was why she recognized the need and was willing to fulfill it.

The whole situation was handled so matter-of-factly that I was amazed at the lack of media firestore.

That character also had an

That character also had an abortion earlier in the pregnancy that was unsuccessful and the single bartender/student was drinking like she wasn't pregnant. That was a good episode. Addison's defense of her position to Naomi (who is majorly pro-life) was eloquent. Intense.

Degrassi: The Next Generation

So Degrassi is technically a Canadian show, but it also airs in the US. I haven't seen it in years, but an episode with the original cast involved a teenage girl getting pregnant and having an abortion. It didn't air as a new episode in its intended season because of the controversy, but networks were allowed to air it later. I absolutely loved that the pregnant girl's pro-life best friend told off the guy who got her pregnant and defended a woman's right to choose. It was an amazing episode.

Degrassi later had a plot line of a pregnant girl who gave her baby up for adoption. Another character was introduced as a teen mom, although her back story wasn't really showed. I stopped watching the season another girl got pregnant, so I'm not sure how her story ended.

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