Abortion Onscreen

At ANSIRH, we’re interested in not only abortion as a healthcare procedure and as a policy issue, but also in terms of how it operates in cultural conversations and narratives. American film and television—the screen—is one place where cultural stories about abortion play out. Abortion Onscreen is a research program aimed at investigating these stories and understanding their effects on broader social understandings of abortion.

Through ongoing and completed research, we have documented that the popular assumption that stories about abortion are absent from movies and television is false—there are abortion plotlines onscreen. Our census of all fictional American television shows and films identified 385 abortion-related plotlines. And our evidence shows that, to the extent that these depictions contribute to social myths about abortion, abortion providers, and abortion patients, they can have real effects on women’s experience of seeking abortion care. Media studies scholars argue that cultural representations have political effects as well, an idea we are currently investigating in a study of viewers’ experience of viewing a documentary about later abortion.

ANSIRH's Abortion Onscreen research program examines how the portrayal of abortion in film and television affects the broader social understandings of abortion

ANSIRH's Abortion Onscreen research program examines how the portrayal of abortion in film and television affects the broader social understandings of abortion

Our work in the Abortion Onscreen program is just beginning. Future research will include:

  • Analysis of the demographics of the women who consider abortion in fictional plotlines and comparison to data on who accesses abortion care in real life;
  • A census of unscripted entertainment around abortion, including reality television and documentary film;
  • Examinations of fictional portrayals of abortion providers;
  • Study of the portrayal of abortion before Roe v. Wade (1973), including in early silent films, and how the Hays Code influenced such portrayals;
  • Analysis of scripted movies and television shows with antiabortion messaging as tactics of the antiabortion movement; and
  • Deeper consideration of the interactive relationship between media portrayals, historical moments, and the political and social climate around abortion in the United States.

Support for Abortion Onscreen projects comes from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. We are seeking additional funding for this program. Please contact Katrina Kimport, PhD, for more information.