From characters having to go to another state to access abortion care to an episode of “Law & Order” featuring “the first-ever portrayal of an abortion fund volunteer,” many television shows have featured stories that explore the impact of abortion Reversal of the US Supreme Court showed Roe v. Wade this year. But as a new report released Thursday points out, they often produced mixed results and did so in misguided ways that don’t accurately reflect the wide array of abortion stories in America.
For the past decade, researcher Steph Herold and her team from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco collected and studied abortion stories in pop culturewhether it is a character performing an abortion, disclosing a prior abortion, and/or considering an abortion.
In 2022, according to her latest report, more TV shows began depicting the legal, financial, and logistical barriers to accessing abortion. TV characters encountered obstacles such as having to drive long distances to reach an abortion provider, having to raise money to pay for the abortion, and having difficulty taking time off work or finding childcare. But for Herold, who for years has pointed to the lack of TV stories reflecting the difficulties in accessing abortion, that shift was “too little, too late.”
“Unfortunately, Dobbs’ decision was a huge wake-up call for a lot of people,” she said in an interview, referring to the Mississippi abortion access case that sparked Roe’s reversal. “I think there’s a lot of writers, showrunners — and hopefully producers and networks — that are here now to take a little bit more of a risk to tell some of these stories.”
The year 2022 marked an all-time high in TV storylines about abortion since she and her team began collecting this data. There were at least 60 abortion-related plots or mentions on 52 TV shows — an increase from last year when there were 47 abortion-related plots on 42 shows. It’s a big change from just a few years ago: 2016 they just found 13 abortion-related stories at major screenplay shows in the US
But shows still repeat many of the same tropes. Chief among them is that, from a demographic perspective, television shows still do not reflect who is most likely to face barriers to accessing abortions, a trend Herold has long documented. Most TV protagonists who have abortions are still “young, white, wealthy characters,” which Herold believes is a product of Hollywood’s risk-aversion and corporate executives think will make money.
“I think there’s this presumption that the story that the audience wants to see, if they want to see stories about abortion at all, is about this attractive, young, wealthy white woman – although the reality is, I think that’s what it is audience it really deserves a lot more credit. Most want to see all sorts of stories on TV,” she said. “At the top, of course, is capitalism and white supremacy. … Even if the offices diversify, it doesn’t seep into the networks. People who ultimately make the decisions are many of the older white men or older white women who cut these stories that could really push boundaries and tell some of the stories we keep saying we want to see.
According to Herold’s report, only eight abortion storylines (or 23%) involved Black characters — an improvement from previous years, but one that still doesn’t reflect the reality of abortion in America, where about 33% of abortion patients are Black. And about 60% of people who want an abortion are already parents, a story not often shown on television. As the report states, “This continues to erase the very common experience of parents having abortions and perpetuates the false dichotomy between parenting and abortion.”
There is still a relative lack of everyday abortion experiences on television, particularly in legal and medical procedures, which often create stories from extraordinary, ‘ripped from the headlines’ circumstances for maximum dramatic effect. This season of ABC’s long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy (which has often treated abortion admirably even in times when many shows weren’t there) included two episodes examining the fallout from last summer’s Supreme Court decision . As Herold explained, each episode did a few things well — but also reinforced some inaccurate tropes (among them: both characters seeking abortions are white).
In an October episode, Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) teaches a teenager how to safely take pills for medical abortion. “Our research has shown that this type of information can expand people’s knowledge about medical abortions, especially when it comes from a doctor, so that’s great,” Herold said. “But helping people understand who is performing abortions, why they are having abortions, developing empathy and being a one-off character for a few minutes really isn’t going to do that. It has to be a character that people will relate to across many episodes or a season.”
A few episodes later, Bailey and Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) treats a pregnant Idaho woman who had to travel across the border to Washington to receive an abortion because of an ectopic pregnancy. But while the three are stuck in traffic, she bleeds to death.
“It’s like this white character who’s just that victim and doesn’t have an abortion for the much, much, much more common reasons people have abortions. For example, they can’t afford to have another child, or they don’t want to raise a child with the partner they have right now, or they don’t want to be pregnant at all at this point – all of these reasons that are less dramatic, that’s why we don’t see them on TV.”
The Herald finds that shows like Grey’s often “add drama” which leads to these extreme scenarios. “The problem is that people have so little information about abortion that they often see these kinds of performances and think, ‘Oh, ok, maybe that’s how it happens in real life.’ For example, if you see a car crash on TV, you probably have enough information to say, “Okay, I know it’s actually safe to drive. That probably won’t happen as long as I’m doing X,Y,Z.” But most people don’t have these kinds of counteractualities [for abortion]. And they may not think like, “Oh, a lot of other people are suffering, not just this suburban mom who has an ectopic pregnancy.” In fact, millions of people now can’t get the abortions they need, not just people with ectopic pregnancies,” Herold said . “I understand why they did that: It’s very dramatic when a fallopian tube bursts on the side of the road. I just hope we see more everyday types of abortion scenes as well.”
One of the best shows of 2022 that thoughtfully incorporated abortion into its storyline was Starz’ “P-Valley” created by Katori Hall, who has long wanted to write an episode dealing with Mississippi’s restrictive abortion laws. Herold said she appreciated that the show meaningfully explored the relationship between Mercedes (Brande Evans) and her daughter Terricka (A’zaria Carter) as the daughter weighed whether she should have an abortion, and that the plot focused on black women low-income without being exploitative.
“I hope that the success of shows and stories like this will help motivate others to not just tell stories, but to greenlight stories that people already really want to share,” Herold said. But she worries about the current wave of economic cuts in Hollywood. In times of economic contraction, leaders often mute underrepresented voices and return to stories they think are less risky about what they think are less risky advances in representation might set back.
In an ideal world, Herold would love to see more shows across genres and time periods that incorporate abortion in a substantive way — or even “a writers room full of people who’ve had abortions.”
“Including more people with abortions would just lead to so many different creative possibilities. I can just think of all sorts of genres – what if we had time-travelling abortion providers: science fiction but with abortion? Or I’d like to see a historical romance that involves abortion. Could there be a historical romance about an abortion provider who performs safe, illegal abortions for herself and all of her friends, and the drama and romance that entails? Could there be some kind of workplace sitcom about abortion fund volunteers? There could be so many different possibilities,” she said. “I just want the show’s narrative arc to be about abortion and not just a one-time thing, so the audience really gets to know and love and relate to these characters.”
Read the full Abortion Onscreen in 2022 report here.