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Article

While abortion on TV is becoming more diverse, it still doesn’t reflect reality

In the last five years, we found more diverse characters obtaining abortions on American television, better reflecting real U.S. abortion patients. Compared to samples from the early 2000s, depictions that aired between 2015 to 2019 included a higher proportion of characters of color, of lower socio-economic status, and in their twenties, patterns which more accurately represent real patients. However, in aggregate, characters are still younger, whiter, and of higher socioeconomic status than their real counterparts, and legal barriers to abortion access are still under-portrayed.

Key findings

  • Out of the 85 abortion plotlines on American television in the last five years, 66% of the characters obtaining an abortion are white; 87% are not parenting; 67% do not experience barriers to abortion access; and 59% were depicted as middle class or above. This contrasts with real U.S. abortion patients, most of whom are people of color, raising children at the time of their abortion, and living at or below the Federal Poverty Line.
  • Only 34% of characters in abortion plotlines encounter a barrier to obtaining an abortion, most frequently illegality. More common contemporary barriers to access, such as funding for an abortion, forced waiting periods and travel time are all depicted at lower rates over the last five years compared to our past research.
  • 18% of abortion patients on television experienced adverse medical complications, compared with 27.5% in previous research. These outcomes were most frequently major complications resulting from unsafe illegal abortions. Even with this decrease, abortion is still much riskier on television than it is in real life.
  • The majority (69%) of abortion plotlines happened on television dramas, but the proportion that took place on comedies increased from 7% in previous years to 27% over the last five years.

Study Design 

Researchers viewed all plotlines involving a character obtaining or disclosing an abortion on scripted, English-language television programs that aired from January 2015 through December 2019 and that were available to American audiences on any network, cable channel or streaming service. They analyzed the portrayals for character demographics, barriers, genre and portrayed safety.


Over the last five years (2015 – 2019), the increase in the rates of characters of color (specifically, more Black and Latina characters), characters who are poverty level or below, and characters in their 20s than in earlier samples marks a shift towards more accurate pattern of representation of U.S. abortion patients. The one demographic outlier in this trend is parenting status, which shifted away from more true-to-life depictions. However, the overall pattern is consistent with our previous findings: recent characters are still more likely to be younger, wealthier and white in comparison to the abortion patient population.

Research also suggests that abortion patients contend with financial, logistical and legal barriers at a higher rate than what is depicted onscreen. In addition, though recent depictions portray medical risks associated with abortion at a lower rate than those in prior years, they still drastically over-exaggerate the medical risks associated with abortion. They also unilaterally equate illegal abortion with unsafe abortion, though recent research confirms that self-managed abortion can be safe.

Depicting abortion accurately on television has the potential to refute myths around who gets abortions and how they obtain them. Compassionate and factual portrayals may lead to increased feelings of support among people who seek abortions and increased knowledge about abortion in the American public.

“The continued overrepresentation of white characters obtaining abortions obfuscates racialized barriers to and experiences of abortion access. This may contribute to the fallacy that people of color both do not obtain abortions regularly or willingly and do not encounter barriers related to systemic racism in the healthcare system.”

This study is available in Contraception.

 

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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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