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Article

History of abortion on American TV: different genres, new narratives

How do different types of TV programs portray abortion? What do these plotlines convey about our cultural understanding of abortion? This study provides a historical analysis for how drama, soap opera, horror, science fiction, and comedy TV shows have depicted abortion over the years and what these representations tell us about how Americans make meaning out of abortion onscreen.

These data come from a comprehensive dataset of abortion plotlines that covers instances of abortion on TV since 1962. Some patterns that we found were expected (such as period dramas portraying abortion as illegal and dangerous, or medical dramas using risk to heighten tension). However, we also observed surprising patterns by genre: TV horror often uses abortion (or lack thereof) to highlight reproductive coercion; comedies use abortion not to mock women in need of care, but to satirize restrictions and political debate. We identified potential new ways for television to depict abortion, most particularly in science fiction and fantasy, where there is clearly a missed opportunity for imagining futuristic abortion provision. Given the mounting state and national restrictions on abortion, media creators have a unique platform to create new cultural narratives that disrupt stigma and provide accurate information about abortion patients, providers, and procedures.

Read more about the study, titled "From Humor to Horror: Genre and Narrative Purpose in Abortion Stories on American Television," published in the journal Feminist Media Studies.

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Banner photo: © Aura Orozco-Fuentes

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ANSIRH is a program within the UCSF Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health and is a part of UCSF's Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences.

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