Abortion Onscreen: New Report Shows How Media Evades Real Abortion Stories

As an activist and advocate for reproductive health, rights and justice, including access to safe, legal abortion, I have long been interested in how abortion is presented in popular culture. As DSA members, I think it’s vital we consider how mainstream culture functions to shape popular opinion and move Overton windows time and again. We’ve seen how powerful the mainstreaming of Medicare for All has been, thanks in part to storytelling. We all know and love someone who struggles with insurance and health issues. The same is true when it comes to abortion – whether or not we know who they are, we all know and love someone who has had an abortion. We deserve films and television that reflect the reality of abortion care – and thanks to ANSIRH (Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health), we now can access yearly reports on how abortion operates in cultural conversations and narratives in American film and television. 

While representations have improved in recent years, troubling trends still persist. Chief among those is an overrepresentation of abortion mortality. ANSIRH keeps a census of all fictional American television show and films, from silent films in 1916 to present, to understand in full what this looks like. The risk of death from abortion in reality is statistically negligent when it is safe and legal – less than 1%. However, in films and programs, when abortion is depicted, the person who accesses one dies in the procedure nearly 1 in 10 times. A whopping fourteen percent of stories about abortion end with the person dying whether or not they even access one. This has also in plotlines included women being murdered or committing suicide.

There is also an overrepresentation of characters choosing adoption. In the past decade, fictional characters have chosen adoption at a rate of 9%, as compared with the 1% that is the actual reality. In positive news, though, these trends are shifting. In the past decade alone we have seen a significant rise in abortion storytelling. There have been 87 abortion stories that aired on primetime network television. And there has been another problematic shift in the past year – from 2018 to 2019, the number of characters seeking abortions who were white increased. In 2019, a majority (65%) of characters who obtained abortions were white. This is a misrepresentation given that the majority of real people who have abortions are people of color – and in 2018, media more accurately reflected that. In spite of this trend, there were some positive developments and meaningful firsts – for example, The Bold Type portrayed the first conversation about past abortions between two queer Black women. There are very few depictions of queer women sharing abortion stories at all. 

Orange is the New Black included a compelling plotline about the unique challenges undocumented and detained women face when accessing abortion care. Three programs featured anti-abortion characters who were black (Empire, New Amsterdam and Bull). These episodes also discussed blackness in relation to abortion – an area not often covered in stories on the screen. 

We also saw increasing depictions of self-administered attempts at abortion which proved ineffective – a realistic topic as access is whittled away at nationwide. Television still has not depicted a character self-managing an abortion with abortion pills at home, even though this is of course possible, with pills ordered online in some states. As we fight in states with large rural areas for telemedicine to make this kind of abortion access possible, it is important we think about how that is represented onscreen. When I worked at an abortion-provider facility  a few years ago, we also knew from research that people in their fifties and older often do not know that abortion medication is a means predominantly used – there is a sense that reproductive care has not changed since they were younger and that all abortion is surgical. This is a myth that needs to be busted, particularly with older populations and culture can help with that. Some programs have depicted the use of herbs to self-induce, such as Orange is the New Black and Grey’s Anatomy. These abortions were not successful, which is also realistic. 

One of the other areas in which media really still needs to catch up on when it comes to representations of abortion is showing that people who are already parenting seek abortions at a higher rate than those not already parenting. The majority of abortions in the United States are obtained by women of color already raising children and struggling to make ends meet, but taking a look at films and programs, you’d never know this. In 2019, six out of twenty-five characters seeking abortions or disclosing past abortions were parents. This is an improvement, but it’s nowhere near the more than 60%of people seeking abortion who are already parents. We can, and must, demand more accurate portrayals from our cultural representations. 

As a proud DSA member, I have been excited to see the growing commitment the organization has to reproductive justice and abortion care as a human rights issue and a socialist issue. I’ve donated happily when DSA bowl-a-thons for the National Network for Abortion Funds take place (click on the link to donate to them now or start forming your chapter’s team!). I hope that as we move forward as a movement, we can demand the centralization of these issues from our chapters and candidates. There is too much on the line not to. At the same time, I hope we can demand a media landscape that is honest and realistic – if we can achieve that, we will be better able to change hearts and minds and win people over. Our vigilance on this issue matters more than ever, given the relentless necklace of state abortion restrictions and the recent request from many GOP Senators and House members to the Supreme Court asking them to revisit Roe v. Wade

We all love someone who has had an abortion. It’s time we acted like it as a country. Our movement has a chance to lead the way, and I hope we take it.