The latest study by Herold, a research analyst at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California-San Francisco’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health spans this year. It found 60 abortion plotlines or mentions from 52 distinct television shows, well outnumbering the 47 abortion plotlines in 42 shows seen in 2021.
But while the representation of abortion increased this past year, the accuracy of who is represented and how abortion is portrayed did not. Fifty-eight percent of all characters seen accessing abortion were White, cisgender women — while in reality, White women make up only one-third of the abortion patient population in the United States. Only 23 percent of all abortion plotlines featured Black characters, and Latinx, Asian and biracial characters were also underrepresented.
With the reversal of Roe v. Wade as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022, 33 million U.S. residents of reproductive age have been without access to abortion care. Sixty-six clinics ceased providing abortions, and half of the nation’s state legislatures have moved to impose new restrictions on abortion access. To researchers like Herold, accurate representation of the realities of the abortion care landscape have never felt more critical.
Herold spoke with The 19th about this year’s report about abortion on screen and what impact seeing abortion represented in pop culture can have on public opinion.
Jennifer Gerson: How is representation of abortion on screen an important kind of metric when thinking holistically about public opinion and abortion? What does it tell us about the kinds of information people have access to about abortion?
Steph Herold: Television and film help people make sense of the world. It’s important to know what messages the media are conveying about abortion, particularly right now in such a politically precarious moment for abortion rights, where it feels like every day there’s a new law changing, making abortion even more restricted all over the country.
The American public really knows so little about abortion. Research has shown that people often believe many common misperceptions about abortion including that it is rare, when it is in fact very common; that is is risky, when it is in fact very safe; and that it is relatively easy to obtain, when actually it’s quite difficult because of the legal restrictions and financial hurdles most people encounter. Research shows us that most people aren’t informed about the abortion laws in their states, so TV and film can really address and challenge a lot of misinformation to give audiences a glimpse into who gets abortion and what that experience is really like.
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From looking at storylines in both scripted and unscripted shows on TV this year, what changes have we seen in terms of representation of abortion and what are some of the most notable takeaways from this form of representation?
This year was really different compared to the past year. Over the past five years in particular, every year we have seen an increase in abortion plotlines. In 2021, there were 47. The year before that there were 40, and it was close to 30 the year before that. It keeps growing every year. That’s related to both the amount of content that is available now, but also to the fact that more and more showrunners and writers are interested in exploring these stories.
One thing that really struck me this year was that for the first time, we saw about one-third of TV shows depict barriers to abortion access, whether it was physical distance to a clinic and showing a character having to drive really far or having a character who was having to figure out how to come up with the money to cover the cost of abortion. Last year, we only saw two total characters encounter barriers to abortion access. The year before that, we only saw a handful as well. Now, when access to abortion is so limited and restricted across the country, it feels monumental and like a major step in the right direction in terms of representation of what the reality of abortion access is like in the United States for a third of shows to depict this.
What about what we saw in terms of the characters who accessed abortion, and what that representation looked like?
A trend that was true this year that we often find is that the characters on TV who get abortions are often younger, Whiter, and wealthier than their real life counterparts. They’re also usually not parents at the time of their abortion. The typical abortion patient in the U.S. is a person of color who is struggling to make ends meet, who is already parenting and raising children. We didn’t really see that on screen this year. The majority of characters we saw were White, were wealthy and were not parents — and that includes those who were depicted encountering the barriers to care I just described.
So I think a thing that we will continue to keep our eye on is this increasing representation of barriers because it is really crucial — but if the only people they show encountering those barriers are young, White and wealthy characters, that is not representative of reality.
When we talk about representation, we also have to talk about impact. From your research, what do you think having more accurate representations of abortion care and who accesses this care would do in terms of public opinion on abortion?
The research shows that it’s actually very complicated in terms of the effect of television representation of abortion and public opinion on abortion. There’s this desire, especially from creators and writers and showrunners, to say, “You know — TV can change the hearts and minds of America.” I understand this instinct. There’s no denying that TV and film do have some kind of impact, but the research is pretty mixed on what the actual impact is.
We studied one specific plotline on “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example, that had a character take abortion pills and have a safe abortion that way. We found that it increased people’s knowledge about medication abortion, but it did not actually increase or decrease their support for abortion itself at all. To me, this really shows you that when television plotlines can have and feature factual information coming from a recurring character — especially a doctor character — that people really respect, audiences take their words as fact instead of as entertainment, and that can have a real impact. But when abortion is talked about by a one-off character coming in to a scene to have an abortion and that entire plotline is over and done within 10 minutes and never referenced again, that may not have a lasting impact on people’s attitudes about or support for abortion.
A lot of what we have are representations of wealthy, White characters who can easily get the abortions they need and it happens kind of once in a show and that’s it. We’re starting to see that change a bit this year with more representations of barriers, but again — if it’s just one plotline, I don’t know if it will have a lasting impact.
What is really significant about the kinds of abortions we see represented on screen and what feels especially notable about these depictions as we are about to enter our first full year of being in a post-Dobbs America?
We see so few medication abortions on television. That is a major trend we have observed over the past 10 years — the majority of times that abortion is represented on screen, it’s either as a disclosure of a past abortion or we see a character in an in-clinic procedure room, or we see them enterting a clinic with the presumption that they are about to have an in-clinic procedure. We very, very rarely see characters have an abortion by pill and that is such a huge missed opportunity to really normalize how safe and effective abortion pills are.
I’m really curious if television will take on the issue of self-managed abortion in a responsible way, and really show that having a medication abortion at home can be very safe medically, but very risky legally. I hope we see more depictions of barriers and the people really reckoning with them. I hope we see more accurate demographic representation. And I hope we see much more representation of medication abortion.
One show you mention specifically in your report for talking about abortion in a prolonged and multifaceted way this year was the reality show “Love is Blind,” on Netflix. Why did this feel so significant to you and what was particularly interesting to you about the way discussion about abortion played out on that show?
What was interesting to me what that what happened on “Love is Blind” this season actually does reflect a lot of people’s reality: Abortion is one thing that you do think about when you’re in a relationship with someone, where you want to know what their opinions are on this issue that can be really close to your heart. “Love is Blind” showed that and showed not only how people come to their opinions about abortion, but how they see their opinions on abortion being reflective of their values and world view.
Having abortion come up in this way on such a popular show with such a huge audience and getting to see these kinds of conversations playing out within a couple on screen definitely felt very different. There’s a lot of reality TV that centers fear in any discussion of abortion — it is usually a secret someone has that someone else knows and uses to exploit that relationship, saying things like, “Oh I’m going to tell so-and-so about your abortion.” Or it’s used as a big reveal about a character — like, “But wait — they had an abortion.”
Here, instead of that happening, abortion was talked about as both a political and personal thing. It was clear that Nancy had gone on a personal journey about what abortion meant to her, and she talked about how that figured into her life and what she thought about what she wanted for her future and the way she wanted that to shape her relationship. I think it’s really important for people to see couples having these kinds of conversations.
In what ways have depictions of abortion on reality TV historically differed than those on scripted shows? Do people respond differently to seeing abortion depicted in one format versus another?
This year was the first time that abortion was both a personal and a political topic on television as far as I can remember. Usually it’s just someone saying, “Oh I had an abortion in the past.” But this year on “Life After Lockup” and “Teen Mom” and “Love is Blind,” we saw people talking about abortion as a political issue. We saw people reference the Dobbs decision and the way they were affected by it, like in the case of “Life After Lockup.”
In watching reality shows, audiences know that these are real people. Even if they know the shows are not exactly reality, they also know that these are real people going through real things. They are people you look up on Twitter and Instagram after watching to see where they are now and what they are going through. So seeing abortion on reality TV is really important because it really does show that abortion touches everyone’s lives, including those of TV stars.