Content creators in Hollywood are known to bend the truth. When it comes to potraying abortion plotlines on the screen, things are no different. A new report by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco looked into the ways abortion patients and topics are portrayed on TV and in movies. Researchers have been compiling annual data since 2012, and publicly releasing the reports since 2016. Researchers use several methods to track information, including web searches, IMDB, following various streaming platforms, and relying on word-of-mouth.
Researchers say that while more accurate depictions of abortion are translating to the screen, there’s still a long way to go. Of the 31 abortion plotlines on TV and film in 2020, 73% featured a character obtaining an abortion. This is a drop from 2019, which had 43 abortion discussions or storylines on television alone. The lower number of abortion plotlines in 2020 is likely due to stalled production and releases for many shows and films due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are so many abortion stories to tell,” said Stephanie Herold, a research analyst with ANSIRH and one of the authors of the study. “There are almost a million abortions that happen in the U.S. every year, and every one of them is unique.”
In the past, many characters considering an abortion had been portrayed as distressed or conflicted about their decision, but in recent years, that trend has shifted.
“It used to be that characters had a lot of trouble deciding to have an abortion and there’d be a lot of emotional turmoil there,” said Herold. “That’s not what we see anymore. We don’t see as much emotional turmoil and we don’t see as many surprise miscarriages. A lot of characters now when they decide to have an abortion, the abortion actually happens.”
ANSIRH’s 2019 report found a rise in the number of portrayals of Black and brown characters seeking or disclosing an abortion, but that trend didn’t continue this year. In 2020, white characters accounted for 73% of abortion cases in film. Thirteen films in 2020 mentioned or had a plotline centered around abortion—the highest number of any year in the last decade. However, single, young, white characters without children who were seeking an abortion were overrepresented on screen. Researchers say this trend ignores the fact that a majority of people seeking an abortion are people or color or are already parents. Only one television show in 2020 reflected this reality.
“As TV and film content creators continue to include abortion in their plotlines, it’s really critical that they [consider] some of the gaps we found so that people can really see themselves represented on screen and understand what reality of getting an abortion in the U.S. is like,” Herold said.
Portrayals of waiting rooms can also be misleading on screen. Often on TV and in movies, characters seeking an abortion wait in sterile, dreary, and depressing rooms. In reality, Herold says, most patients wait in regular doctor’s offices.
One of the more problematic portrayals on screen is abortion access. In 2020, one-third of the films that had abortion plotlines depicted barriers to a character getting the procedure. A majority of shows and movies give the false impression of how easy it is to obtain an abortion. In reality, abortion restrictions in many parts of the country can make the process challenging. On-screen abortion portrayals often leave out the unnecessary waiting period many pregnant people are forced to go through, the cost of abortion when insurance doesn’t cover it, or the distances many people have to drive in order to get the procedure done.
“They don’t show the difficult parts,” Herold said. “If you don’t see the hard parts on on TV, the average person sees that and thinks, ‘Oh, it’s pretty easy to get an abortion. That’s why we need all these laws.’”
In 2020, only three plotlines depicted people with self-managed abortions, which Herald says was a missed opportunity to show the various ways people decide to go through the process. In the next five years or so, she hopes to see more characters on screen actually follow through with the process. She also hopes to see more depictions of the actual procedure, especially since there were fewer films and shows that showed it in 2020 compared to previous years.
“I’m hoping to see more people taking abortion pills, whether from a clinic or getting them in the mail,” Herold said. “We so rarely see that on TV but almost a third of people in the U.S. have [medication] abortions these days. It’s a reality that we just don’t see. Certainly the pandemic has really contributed to the rise of telemedicine, too, and I’m hoping that TV will catch up and be able to show that telemedicine abortion is effective and easy.”
Researchers haven’t yet compiled data on how abortion portrayals on screen shift the attitudes of society, but it’s something they plan to evaluate in the future. Still, Herold is confident there is a connection between depictions in the media and acceptance in society.
“We know that there’s a correlation between the [number] of LGBTQ characters on screen and the rise in acceptance of LGBTQ people in the U.S.,” Herold said. “It’s not causation, but the correlation exists. The same may be true of abortion.”