How television can change the abortion debate
As we marked the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade last week, women across America are bracing themselves for its possible demise. In 2018, anti-abortion legislation won several significant state victories, and the appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court could pose the greatest threat to reproductive freedoms since the landmark ruling in 1973. In the first days of 2019 alone, Senate Republicans wasted no time pursuing anti-abortion legislation, notably prioritizing it before an end to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Analysts predict that 2019 will be a watershed year for abortion legislation.
In this environment, the struggle over public perception of abortion is more consequential than ever. Stigma, shame, and moral judgment paint abortion as marginal and scandalous. As pundits and advocates jostled to control the narrative in the news media (with Fox News promulgating misinformation about abortion, and efforts like Shout Your Abortion encouraging individuals to tell their own stories), television shows last year offered an unexpected and valuable platform for abortion storytelling. A report released last month by the research group Advancing New Standards In Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) titled Abortion Onscreen in 2018 found that not only did plotlines dispel commonly held myths about abortion, but they also humanized and destigmatized the experience for characters.
The study identified 18 plotlines on American television with characters who either had an abortion in the course of the episode, disclosed a past abortion, or considered getting an abortion. Though the shows had a lower proportion of abortions obtained than had been shown on TV in previous years, the proportion of disclosures of past abortions greatly increased, offering a bit more variance to abortion stories as we’ve seen them. Among the characters who obtain an abortion, four of the five were Black or biracial women, and this year, more of the past disclosures were also by Black women. The plotlines were also notably diverse: for example, some characters considered their abortions with humor, determination, and with much less hardship. “We’re definitely on the right track,” Gretchen Sisson, Ph.D., the researcher who led the report, told WMC. Speaking of the social stigma that persists for many women in disclosing abortion, she said, “When we have that deficit of [sharing of abortion experiences], then fictional characters can become really resonant.”
What’s more, abortion plotlines are appearing in a new genre. “We’ve seen in the past couple years a number of comedies pick up abortion stories and how they’re told. Abortion used to be exclusively the domain of medical, legal, or historical dramas that revolved more around the woman, the consequences, and what they mean for her life. [But in comedy,] for a lot of these characters, the decision is easy,” says Sisson. In Insecure, for example, the character Kelli alludes to a past abortion as a passing joke: “If I wanted a kid I would have kept the last one.” Treating abortion with humor is certainly a departure from how television has historically approached it as a plot device, and that’s a good thing. To have abortion represented with much less gravitas is an encouraging sign that abortion stories onscreen are gaining more dimension and more closely reflecting the lived experiences of American women. “We’re even seeing some dramas treat [abortion] with less of a hardship,” said Sisson. “There’s less handwringing about what she should do and what this means for her. We see her and she’s fine afterward.”
Indeed, the depiction of confident decision-making is a welcome and critical picture of women’s experiences with abortion. Currently, 34 states require counseling before an abortion, and 27 of those states require women to wait a specified amount of time between the counseling and the abortion procedure. Several states even require that a patient be given medically inaccurate information about abortion, including information that misrepresents the risks of the procedure. To see, onscreen, a woman’s determination over her own family planning choices offers a powerful counter to the false notion that women are indecisive about having an abortion, which, ANSIRH notes, “has historically been the cornerstone of TV’s abortion stories.” Of course, several plotlines in 2018 resulted in changes of heart (such as in Superstore, A Million Little Things, and Law & Order: SVU), but Hollywood’s offer of another narrative for public consumption — and one that reflects a truth for many American women — signals promising progress that onscreen representation is better mirroring women’s real-life experiences.
There are, however, plenty of gaps in the narrative that remain. First, there was the lack of representation of medication abortion on TV last year, which Sisson notes is a critical omission when “portrayals of the safe self-administration of abortion pills could be extremely valuable.” In addition, she notes a lack of representation of low-income characters, as well as an unrealistic representation of the barriers to an abortion. “[These] characters have barriers that are easily overcome. Barriers to abortion, if any, are usually due to illegality, but it doesn’t become a prohibitive barrier for most characters. There are no characters who remain determined to get abortions and can’t get it.” That, certainly, is not the reality for many American women, least of all for poor and low-income women who, according to Guttmacher Institute research, represent 75 percent of abortion patients today, and who face significant economic obstacles that sometimes force them to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
For example, there are no depictions of characters grappling with the obstacle of abortion deserts. An ANSIRH study last May found that “abortion deserts,” identified as cities in which people would have to travel 100 miles or more to reach an abortion facility, exist in every region of the country except the Northeast. There are six states with only one abortion clinic, which would make the journey to a facility far exceed 100 miles for many. If the distance wasn’t enough of an impediment, then the added expenses for the journey, including gas and overnight accommodation, makes access nearly impossible for many women in these deserts, and disproportionately so for low-income women. What would this journey look like represented through an empathetic, humanized television lens?
When asked what responsibility Hollywood has to accurately portray abortion stories, Sisson told WMC, “They’re there to entertain. They’re interested in creating representations [of abortion], first and foremost, as a compelling story. But these stories are already, inherently, very everyday and dramatic and heartbreaking. If we can show Hollywood that diverse abortion stories will really resonate with audiences and can pull them in, then they’ll do it.”
As 2019 is shaping up to be a decisive year for reproductive rights, the messaging battleground could be pivotal. Whichever side can control the conversation can control the debate and, possibly, the outcome. It’s more important than ever for the public to accept abortion as safe and commonplace, as well as acknowledge the true extent of the threat that overturning Roe poses to all women. Television offers a creative opportunity to fill a critical gap in public understanding of what abortion is actually like. With inclusive, complex, and even humorous portrayals of abortion onscreen, television can give diverse abortion experiences a platform to be represented honestly and compassionately. But can Hollywood catch up in time?
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