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TV Shows Are Talking About Abortion More Than Ever — But They're Still Getting Some Things Wrong

'TV is really not accurately representing people who have abortions every day,' researchers told MTV News

The conversation around abortion reached a fever pitch in 2019. This year, lawmakers across the country attempted to pass and enact restrictions that directly undermined Roe v. Wade, the 1973 law which protects a person’s right to choose abortion. Some state legislators twisted the presence of a fetal pole, or early cardiac activity, into the medically inaccurate “heartbeat,” which they used as grounds to restrict abortions performed after six weeks gestation (often right before many pregnant people realize what’s going on inside their bodies). On a federal level, the Trump administration cut Title X funding to organizations, like Planned Parenthood, that provide or refer patients to abortion services.

So far, most of the state-level laws have been at least temporarily blocked. While abortion is still legal in all 50 states, the restrictions on the procedure, as well as the number of duplicitous clinics that market themselves as “crisis pregnancy centers,” mean many people with limited means are left struggling to obtain choice-affirming healthcare. For some people, it would be out of reach entirely if not for the hard work of activists who know firsthand why their help is so vital, especially for minorities and those living below the poverty line.

If it felt like your Hulu queue has also been joining the political discourse, you weren’t imagining things: According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, at least 43 television shows included abortion-related storylines in 2019 alone.

Their annual Abortion Onscreen report, published last week, detailed the myriad ways characters of all backgrounds discussed or experienced abortion, as well as the wins and limitations within such storytelling. “Studying TV and culture in particular is really important because of how culture representations affect real people’s attitudes about abortion,” Stephanie Herold, a researcher in the program, told MTV News. “Pop culture, particularly TV, has power that legislators don’t have to meet people where they are in their homes and tell all these compassionate, tender stories about abortion, about the people who have abortions, about abortion providers — and also showcase how to support someone who’s had an abortion.”

How shows depicted abortion varied; Sex Education, Shrill, and Euphoria, as well as the third season of 13 Reasons Why all depicted characters actively seeking and obtaining abortions, for various reasons and with varying degrees of support around them. Others featured characters disclosing their experiences to one another: The Bold Type was notable in part because two queer Black women were at the center of such a storyline. Meanwhile, abortion stories on screen are still overwhelmingly white and heteronormative; researchers found that 65 percent of the characters who were shown seeking abortions were white, even though the Guttmacher Institute estimates that the majority of people who obtained them in 2014 belonged to racial and ethnic minority groups.

“TV is really not accurately representing people who have abortions every day,” Herold explained, adding that the issue is compounded by the fact that many characters who obtain abortions on screen are not currently parenting any children; by contrast 59 percent of people who undergo the procedure are already raising families. And while a few shows depicted characters who attempted self-managed medical abortion, none showed characters doing so successfully. Another Abortion Onscreen study found that 14 percent of abortion storylines on TV and in movies ultimately end in the death of the character who obtained an abortion.

“Although we haven’t conducted a specific study of impact, we know from our work that abortion is portrayed as more dangerous on TV than it is in real life and that might contribute to people thinking that abortion might need to be more tightly regulated,” Herold said. In particular, storylines that end in death or murder “may make people who are thinking about having abortions feel like they’re doing something dangerous when they’re not.” A 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that the majority of professionally administered abortions are safe and that complications, while rare, are usually made worse by the kinds of restrictions that anti-abortion lawmakers are trying to pass, like mandatory waiting periods and unnecessary requirements that abortion providers must meet in order to provide their services, which are also known as TRAP laws.

Just as precarious is the seemingly pervasive habit of portraying abortion storylines which feature few barriers to obtaining the procedure itself. “The biggest barrier [characters] face is actually being in a setting where abortion is illegal,” Herold noted. “Today in the United States, that’s not the biggest barrier people face. It’s having to drive 50 to 100 miles to a clinic, having to take off work, having to get childcare, having to raise the cost of the abortion because your insurance doesn’t cover it, dealing with families’ judgmental attitudes — all of that.” Such conflicts, she added, could “potentially make for really great TV. It just isn’t what we see yet.”

But experts are hopeful that the tides will turn, that 2020 and beyond will show even more diversity and empathy for characters who are impacted by abortion. Herold credits the uptick in women, LGBTQ+ people, and racial minorities in writers’ rooms and positions of power behind the camera with an overall shift towards diversifying whose stories are told on TV. While she agrees with various studies that there’s still plenty of work left to do for full parity behind the screens, the foundational work that minority showrunners have laid down so far has been instrumental in driving a larger cultural conversation forward.

“Shonda Rhimes — the influence of her shows can’t be overstated,” Herald said. “She’s done so much to really open up prime time, whether on Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal. [She’s shown that] abortion can be portrayed with nuance and complexity, and can bring characters together instead of driving them apart.” Three Grey’s episodes that debuted in 2019 featured abortion storylines; Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is The New Black featured two episodes that included an undocumented Indigenous Guatemalan woman trying to obtain an abortion while incarcerated in a facility where no one speaks her language, while Zoya Akhtar’s Made In Heaven broke barriers when one of its characters became the first South Asian woman on TV to disclose that her medical history included an abortion.

Going forward, Herold hopes that Hollywood builds on these narratives and furthers the conversation by devoting time to characters whose various intersections inform their choices. She’d love to see storylines more concretely dive into the experience of abortion providers, as well as providing nuance to the experience of a transgender man or a gender nonconforming character considering an abortion, or “a character who’s in her 20s and a parent and maybe middle class instead of wealthy.”

“TV isn’t an exact reflection of reality,” she added. “But abortion is uniquely over-regulated, stigmatized, and happens to unique populations of people. So I think there is some responsibility that creators take on when they portray this issue on TV.”

As the legislative battle to undermine reproductive freedom became more dire this year, more and more people began speaking out about their own experiences. On one of the last episodes of her talk show, Busy Phillips alluded to the statistic that an estimated one in four cisgender women will have an abortion in her lifetime; the hashtag that came from her monologue, #YouKnowMe, built upon the work that other activists had set into motion years before, like Amelia Bonow and Lindy West’s #ShoutYourAbortion movement. Thousands of people of all genders opened up about their decisions and the ways in which their ability to access the procedure has impacted their lives.

“I refuse to live in shame, and I refuse to hold on to something that I have no shame about,” Phillips told the New York Times in May. “I think there’s something super empowering about being able to shift the narrative and being able to have a ton of people say, ‘I’ve also gone through this thing.’”