From characters having to go to another state to access abortion care to an episode of “Law & Order” featuring “the first ever depiction of an abortion fund volunteer,” many shows on TV incorporated stories showing the repercussions of the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade this year. But as a new report released Thursday lays out, they often produced mixed results and did it in misguided ways that don’t accurately reflect the wide range of abortion stories in America.
For the past decade, researcher Steph Herold and her team at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco, have collected and studied abortion storylines in pop culture, whether it’s a character having an abortion, disclosing a past abortion and/or considering getting an abortion.
More TV shows in 2022 began depicting the legal, financial and logistical barriers to abortion access, according to her newest report. TV characters encountered obstacles like having to drive long distances to reach an abortion provider, needing to raise money to pay for the abortion and having trouble taking time off from work or finding child care. But for Herold, who for years has pointed out the lack of TV storylines that reflected the difficulties of accessing abortion, this shift has been “too little, too late.”
“Unfortunately, the Dobbs decision was a big wake-up call for a lot of people,” she said in an interview, referring to the Mississippi abortion access case that triggered the reversal of Roe. “I think that there are a lot of writers, showrunners — and, hopefully, producers and networks — who are now here to take a little bit more risk in the service of telling 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 huge change from even just a few years ago: In 2016, they found only 13 abortion-related stories on major scripted shows in the U.S.
But shows are still repeating many of the same tropes. Chief among them is that, demographically, TV shows still don’t reflect who is most likely to face barriers to abortion access, a trend Herold has long documented. Most TV protagonists getting abortions are still “young, white, wealthy characters,” which Herold thinks is a product of Hollywood’s risk aversion and what executives think will make money.
“I think there’s this presumption that the story that audiences want to see, if they want to see stories about abortion at all, is about this, like, attractive, young, wealthy white woman — although the reality is, I think audiences really deserve a lot more credit. Most want to see all kinds of different stories represented on TV,” she said. “Of course, at the top of it all is capitalism and white supremacy. … Even though writers’ rooms are diversifying, that’s not trickling up to the networks. People who are ultimately making the decisions are a lot of the older white men or older white women who are cutting those stories that could really break boundaries and could tell some of the stories that we keep saying we want to see.”
According to Herold’s report, only eight abortion plotlines (or 23%) involved Black characters — an improvement from previous years but still not reflective of the reality of abortion in America, where about 33% of abortion patients are Black. And about 60% of people seeking abortions are already parents, a storyline that’s not often depicted on television. As the report notes: “This continues to erase the very common experience of parents who obtain abortions, and perpetuates the false dichotomy between raising children and having abortions.”
There’s still a relative lack of everyday abortion experiences on TV, especially on legal and medical procedurals, which often create stories out of exceptional, “ripped from the headlines” circumstances for maximum dramatic effect. This season of ABC’s long-running medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” (which has often admirably featured abortion, including in times when many shows would not go there) featured two episodes exploring the effects of the Supreme Court decision last summer. As Herold explained, each episode did a few things well — but also reinforced several inaccurate tropes (among them: both characters seeking abortions are white).
In an episode in October, Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) instructs a teenager on how to safely take pills for a medication abortion. “Our research has shown that that kind of information can increase people’s knowledge about medication abortion, especially coming from a doctor character, so that’s great,” Herold said. “But in terms of helping people understand who gets abortions, why they get abortions, developing empathy, having a one-off character there for a few minutes is really not going to do that. You need it to be a character who people have a relationship with over many episodes or a season.”
A few episodes later, Bailey and Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) are treating a pregnant woman from Idaho who had to travel across the border to Washington to receive an abortion for an ectopic pregnancy. But while the three are stuck in traffic, she bleeds to death.
“It’s like this white character who is just this victim and is not having an abortion for the much, much, much more common reasons that people have abortions. Like, they can’t afford to have another child, or they don’t want to raise a child with the partner that they have right now or that they don’t want to be pregnant at this time at all — all of those reasons that are less dramatic, which is why we don’t see them on TV.”
Herold gets that shows like “Grey’s” often “heighten the drama,” which results in these extreme scenarios. “The problem is that people have so little information about abortion that they often see these kinds of portrayals and they think, like, ‘Oh, OK, that might be how it happens in real life.’ Like, if you see a car crash on TV, you have enough information most likely to say, ‘OK, I know driving is actually safe. That probably won’t happen as long as I do X, Y, Z.’ But most people don’t have that kind of counterfactual [for abortion]. And they might not think, like, ‘Oh, a lot of other people are suffering, not just this suburban mom who has an ectopic pregnancy.’ Actually, millions of people now can’t get the abortions they need, not just people with ectopic pregnancies,” Herold said. “I get why they did that: it’s very dramatic to have a fallopian tube burst on the side of the road. I just hope we see more and more everyday types of abortion scenes, too.”
One of the best shows in 2022 that thoughtfully incorporated abortion into its plot was Starz’s “P-Valley,” created by Katori Hall, who had long wanted to write an episode exploring Mississippi’s restrictive abortion laws. Herold said she appreciated that the show meaningfully explored the relationship between Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and her daughter Terricka (A’zaria Carter) as the daughter weighed whether to get an abortion and that the storyline centered low-income Black women without being exploitative.
“I’m hoping that the success of shows and stories like that will help motivate others to not just tell stories but 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, executives often disproportionately mute underrepresented voices and revert to greenlighting stories they deem as less risky, which could set back progress on representation.
In an ideal world, Herold would love to see more shows across genres and time periods incorporate abortion in substantive ways — or even “a writers’ room full of people who’ve had abortions.”
“Bringing in more people who have had abortions would just lead to so many different creative opportunities. I’m just thinking of all kinds of genres — like, what if we had time-traveling abortion providers: sci-fi but with abortion? Or I would love to see some historical romance that incorporates abortion. Could there be a historical romance about an abortion provider who does safe, illegal abortions for herself and all of her friends, and the drama and romance that is involved? 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 narrative arc of the show to be about abortion and not just have it be a one-off thing, so that audiences really get to know and love these characters and have a relationship with them.”
Read the full report, “Abortion Onscreen in 2022,” here.
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