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Abortion Onscreen in 2020

This year, the Abortion Onscreen report documented fewer abortion plotlines on television than in 2019, but a remarkable increase in the number of movies with abortion plotlines. However, these depictions still do not portray the reality of abortion access, particularly when it comes to demographics and barriers to access: the vast majority of this year’s film and television characters obtaining abortions are white, and a majority of them were also not parenting at the time of their abortions. The majority of television characters faced no obstacles in obtaining an abortion, and only one-third of movie characters faced any barrier at all.   

Key Findings

There were 32 abortion plotlines on television this year (compared with 43 in 2019), with the majority (73%) featuring a character actually getting an abortion
Twelve movies with abortion plotlines premiered this year, compared with three in 2019. This is the most to debut in a single year to date
73% of this year’s TV and movie characters obtaining abortions are white, and only one was parenting at the time of her abortion. This is a major misrepresentation of the reality of abortion patient demographics in the United States
Three TV plotlines depicted characters self-managing their abortions: two characters with herbs and one with blunt surgical instruments. No plotlines showed characters managing their own abortions with pills—a significant missed opportunity to depict a growing reality for many U.S. abortion patients
Slightly more than a third of film characters faced barriers to abortion access, most commonly mandatory parental consent laws and lack of a nearby clinic
A number of horror films included small but important abortion plotlines, linking abortion to ghoulish character defects

Study Design

Abortion Onscreen is a research program aimed at investigating stories of abortion in film and television and their effect on the broader social understanding of abortion. Researchers watch each television plotline or movie and analyze each for abortion safety, the demographics of characters who seek abortions, type of abortion, reasons for obtaining abortions, and how difficult or easy the procedure is to access—comparing these trends to prior years’ depictions.

This year’s increase in white and non-parenting characters represents a reversal of trends from 2019, which documented an increase in both numbers of characters of color and characters who are parenting when seeking abortion. This pattern is also substantially different from recently published research documenting increased portrayals of characters of color obtaining abortions, even if the majority of these characters are still white. The findings suggest that the increased diversity observed last year will not continue without sustained effort.

“[Vida has] the first ever plotline to include a queer Latina character obtaining an abortion, and, importantly, receiving support from her ex-girlfriend.”

For more, read the report Abortion Onscreen in 2020 from our Abortion Onscreen project.