2019 was a mixed bag when it comes to reproductive rights. While the year saw draconian abortion legislation introduced in states like Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio, the nationwide backlash arguably lent greater momentum to the abortion rights movement, catapulting it to the center of cultural conversation.
As a result, the once-taboo topic of abortion has become increasingly commonplace in popular culture, per an annual Abortion Onscreen Report released by ANSIRH (Advancing New Standards In Reproductive Health). Released yesterday, the report found a record number of TV shows in 2019 featured a discussion of or plot-line centering on abortion, thanks to shows like The Bold Type, Shrill, Orange Is the New Black, and Happy.
“Last year we found 18 episodes where a character either talked about an abortion or had one or disclosed a past abortion,” says Steph Herold, data analyst at ANSIRH. “This year there were 43. That’s huge. That’s a really big shift.”
Herold attributed this shift in part to the nationwide backlash against draconian anti-abortion laws. “People are talking a lot more about policy, not just procedure,” she says. This shift was likely spurred by outrage over legislation such as Georgia’s so-called “heartbeat” bill, which would have banned abortion after six weeks or after a fetal heartbeat was detected. (A judge ruled in favor of blocking its enforcement last October.)
The bill prompted widespread outrage among those in the entertainment industry: many popular TV shows like The Walking Dead shoot in the state, and more than 50 entertainment figures signed a petition threatening to boycott Georgia if the “heartbeat” bill was implemented. “Clearly, media makers are paying more attention to what’s happening in the policy landscape,” says Herold.
Yet while the visibility surrounding abortion in popular culture has increased, the quality of depictions of abortion — or, at least, how accurate such depictions are — has not necessarily followed suit. In particular, ANSIRH’s report found one concerning trend: of the characters on TV depicted having abortions, the majority (65%) were wealthy and white. “At first we thought, ‘Maybe this is the same [percentage] as white characters on TV in general,” says Herold. “But it turns out the characters who have abortions on TV are even whiter than characters in general.” Indeed, ANSIRH found there were fewer instances of TV characters of color having abortions in 2019 than there were in the previous year.
This trend is troubling for a few reasons, says Herold, chief among them that it is not reflective of reality: per the Guttmacher Institute, 39% of those who have abortions identify as white, while 60% do not. While there are a few exceptions to this — notably, shows produced by Shonda Rimes and most recently the show The Bold Type, which featured a frank discussion of abortion between two queer women of color — abortion is overwhelmingly depicted as a service available only to young, well-to-do white women. Herold attributes this in part to the need for more people of color in writers’ rooms, but there’s also an alternative, much darker explanation: that TV writers, whether they realize it or not, believe audiences are more likely to sympathize with a white character having an abortion than a character of color. Either way, the end result is not just erasure, but the perpetuation of the erroneous, harmful belief that abortion is a luxury item available only to a select few, rather than a safe and legal medical procedure.
Moreover, the ANSIRH report found that most characters depicted procuring abortions are young (often, in their teens) and child-free — a significant deviation from data suggesting that 59% of people who get abortions are already parenting. On TV, says Herold, the reasons why young people may want to get an abortion are “much more likely to be self-focused” (e.g. being too young to parent, wanting to continue their education) “than they are in reality.” Indeed, the most common reasons people cite for obtaining an abortion are usually because they already have a child and cannot afford another one, or because they are in an unhealthy relationship with the other parent. But for whatever reason, such factors are rarely cited in media depictions of abortion.
In the future, ANSIRH is interested in conducting more studies on race and cultural portrayals of abortion. But Herold believes that inaccurate or negative depictions of abortion, however well-intended, may have very real “policy implications,” particularly in such a politically charged climate.
“If TV depicts it as easy for a teen to get an abortion, does that mean [people will] think abortion should be regulated even more? Does it mean they think women who have abortions are more selfish? There are all these potential implications we want to try to understand: how much this misinformation affects abortion views, or sympathy or support for people who have abortions,” she says.