More states pass restrictive abortion lawsAnd the majority conservative on the Supreme Court is actively trying to dismantle Roe v. WadeTelevision stories on abortion do not accurately portray the difficulties in accessing it, as stated by 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,” said Steph Herold, a researcher at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, and one of the authors of the report.

Herold, along with her fellow colleagues were tracking abortion storylines in pop cultureFor more than a decade. They have seen a significant increase in TV programs that feature an abortion story. This can help to reduce stigmatization and educate viewers about the topic. 2016 saw just 13 abortion-related plotlines on major scripted shows in the U.S., involving characters ​either having an abortion, disclosing a past abortion or considering getting an abortion. There were 42 abortion-related plotlines in 2021.

Unfortunately, many of these storylines are not complete. Many of these stories do not address the accessibility barriers many people experience, like low-income persons, people with disabilities, and trans people. And they don’t reflect our current political situation.

Most abortion patients “face at least one logistical or financial obstacle when obtaining an abortion,” the report states. However, TV shows rarely depict abortion patients as having to find a provider or pay for them. Instead, they are shown taking time from their jobs, getting insurance, or living in areas with few restrictions like New York and Los Angeles.

This is in addition to the disconnect between reality and TV. People of color make up the majority of abortion patients. Many are also low-income and face greater obstacles to accessing abortion. The vast majority of abortion-related TV characters are rich and white.

According to this report, 68% TV characters who were involved in storylines involving abortions in 2021 were of white race. Only two shows featured Black women in these storylines: ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and HBO Max’s “Love Life.” More shows this year did feature 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 said.

Jessica Williams, William Jackson Harper and HBO Max’s Love Life featured in two different abortion stories.
Sarah Shatz/HBO Max

Herold explained that even though abortion storylines have increased in frequency over recent years, these trends are not changing. Television creators and writers will be missing many great opportunities, as a result.

It is encouraging to note that several 2021 TV series featured stories about supporting partners, friends and family who accompany a character as they make their decision about 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 said. “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.”

Yet again, these storylines featured predominantly white characters. However, in real life, stories about how to help someone have an abortion, or talk about it, can prove very instructive. (Among the very few exceptions was “Love Life,” starring William Jackson Harper and Jessica Williams.)

Herold is hopeful that TV writers will be more open to receptive plots involving medical abortion. It’s a safe alternative to finding a provider or going to a clinic, which is becoming increasingly difficult in many parts of the country. (A handful of shows in 2021 did responsibly show a character safely getting a medication abortion, such as ABC’s “A Million Little Things” and HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” according 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 said. “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 "Scenes From a Marriage."
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain appear in HBO’s series “Scenes From a Marriage.”

It is important to highlight the obstacles that are preventing access as well as our terrible political reality. But as Herold said, so is showing relatable, human stories about everyday people 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 forms of representation on screen, there’s value in TV shows accurately, responsibly and compassionately telling more stories 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 said. “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 full report, “Abortion Onscreen in 2021,” here.


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