Skip to main content

Abortion Onscreen in 2021

This year’s TV abortion plotlines shed light on what meaningful emotional support for loved ones having abortions can look like. At the same time, abortion restrictions remain under-portrayed, despite the reality of dwindling abortion access in the U.S. Creators also missed opportunities to accurately depict who gets abortions and the hardships that can result from diminished services.

Key Findings

This year, 42 television shows portrayed 47 abortion plotlines (compared with 32 last year).
68% of this year’s TV abortion plotlines featured white characters, while most abortion patients are actually women of color. In 2021, we saw only two Black characters obtain abortions, the lowest number in recent years.
About 14% of characters were parenting at the time of their abortion—more accurate than in 2020 (3%), but still a shortfall when compared to the 59% of real-life abortion patients raising children at the time of their abortion.
We saw more medication abortions than before, with portrayals varying greatly regarding accuracy, stigma, and support. Our recent study, "Prime-time abortion on Grey's Anatomy: What do US viewers learn from fictional portrayals of abortion on television?" found that these kinds of plotlines increase audience knowledge about medication abortion, which will be important baseline knowledge for the public to have in a post-Roe world.

Study Design

Abortion Onscreen is a research program aimed at investigating stories of abortion on film and television and their effect on the broader social understanding of abortion. Researchers watch each television plotline 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.


Depictions of abortion restrictions remain largely absent on television, a particularly egregious omission considering that the majority of patients face at least one logistical or financial obstacle to care.

However, there were more depictions of how to support someone before, during, and after an abortion. Many of the portrayals onscreen offer a tangible way for viewers to consider what they would want the experience to be like for a loved one.

The researchers write:

“Even as legal precedents precariously stand and state legislatures subversively undermine access, our ability to tell stories remains unhindered: stories about what is urgent, dire, or hopeful about the current moment, and stories about what the future might hold.”

For more, read the report Abortion Onscreen in 2021 from our Abortion Onscreen project.