Abortion’s prevalence and safety are well documented in scientific literature, yet cultural products like television may not reflect this reality. TV portrayals of abortion procedures may contribute both to patient knowledge pre-abortion and the public’s beliefs about the procedure. To investigate how scripted television portrayals the medical process of abortion, either surgical or by pill, we viewed every plotline that contained an abortion and coded for type of abortion in addition to health outcomes, legal status, and whether the procedure was portrayed on screen.
We found 96 television plotlines that aired between 2008 and 2018 in which a character obtains or discloses a past abortion, and only 40% of these plotlines depict some aspect of the actual abortion procedure. The majority of these plotlines (59%) depict surgical abortions, half illegal surgical abortions and half legal. Many of these depictions reinforce the myth that surgical abortion requires hospitalization. Only 18% of plotlines portray a medication abortion, the majority of which are illegal abortions.
These portrayals over represent surgical abortions compared to a reality in which about one third of patients have an abortion by pill. They also reinforce misinformation about abortion safety, including that surgical abortion must be performed in a hospital and that abortion pills are both easy to obtain and dangerous. Portrayals of illegal surgical abortions are overrepresented compared to both legal surgical abortions and legal medication abortions. This finding is particularly alarming given increasing legal restrictions on abortion and the well-documented safety of self-managed abortion.
Popular culture portrayals give us the opportunity to address myths and misinformation about abortion, and these data give advocates a tool to argue for more accurate portrayals.
The publication, "Hangers, Potions, and Pills: Abortion Procedures on American Television, 2008 to 2018," is available from Women's Health Issues.