Midway through this year, the reproductive rights of folks with uteruses living in the U.S. suffered a cataclysmic regression when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. Now, with at least 33 million Americans without access to safe abortion care, how has this seismic change in our reality been reflected in entertainment? This is the central question of the latest study from Abortions Onscreen, a research initiative from the University of California San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH).
The fifth annual report “Abortions Onscreen in 2022” documents several key discoveries, including a continued trend of increased abortion portrayals on TV, with 60 abortion plotlines or mentions from 52 different TV shows, a notable spike from 47 plotlines from 42 shows in 2021. This year’s edition also saw a historic first in abortion representation: one third of plotlines (33%) depict logistical barriers that patients face when accessing safe abortion. While these stats may sound encouraging, Abortions Onscreen concludes that TV continued to misrepresent abortion patients demographically, tellings stories of characters who are whiter and wealthier than real-life counterparts.
The study’s method involves researchers watching each scripted or reality series containing abortion, analyzing them by the metrics abortion of safety, the demographics of characters seeking abortions, type of abortion, reasons for obtaining abortions, and the difficulty or ease with which abortion care is accessed. The type of abortion content is categorized as either a joke, consideration, discussion, or an entire plotline on the procedure. The trends are then compared with the on-screen depictions from prior years, per the study design.
In terms of series genres, Abortion Onscreen discovered that 50% of abortion plotlines occurred on dramas, with comedies (19%), medical dramas (11%), and reality television (7%) following behind.
The report records 20 storylines that portray the contemporary obstacles to access that patients face, including long distance drives to clinics, such as the “Jackson” episode of “P-Valley,” and gestational limits, as seen on drama series “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” and reality program “Life After Lockup.” Abortion Onscreen found that illegality remains most commonly portrayed barrier (40%), in keeping with previous analyses.
“Prior to the 2022 television season, the majority of characters who obtained abortions on television did so with few of the legal, financial, or logistical barriers that plague abortion access in the United States,” the report reminds us. “Importantly, several of these plotlines included compounding barriers, like portraying a character who needs to travel across state lines for abortion care while also raising the money to pay for the abortion, negotiating time off work, and arranging for childcare.”
The on-screen representation of barriers is not without its problematic elements, though. Characters seeking abortions in “FBI: Most Wanted” and “Law & Order,” for example, either die or kill others in the process of obtaining an abortion, the report points out. “Whether intentional or not, this equates abortion both with death and criminal behavior,” the study emphasizes.
Based on their analysis, Abortion Onscreen confirms that TV depictions of abortion continue to distort the demographic reality of abortion patients. The study reports a 58% majority of white cisgender women characters seeking care, though they make up only about one-third of abortion patients in the country. This figure is compared with eight plotlines (23%) that include Black characters either obtaining or disclosing past abortions, which is a historic high but still fails to represent the Black folks who make up 33% of the total patient population.
What the report finds “most disappointing” in such misrepresentation is its erasure of BIPOC, economically disadvantaged folks who are disproportionately impacted by barriers to abortion access. “On television, the vast majority (80%) of characters who faced barriers to abortion care were white and portrayed as middle class (45%) or wealthy (35%), a distinct departure from real life in which the majority of patients who face barriers to abortion care identify as people of color and are living at or below the Federal Poverty Line,” the report details.
Despite the strides made in TV by way of coverage and visibility of abortion care, Abortion Onscreen’s report suggests that not all representation is good representation. There remains blindspots in these portrayals, opportunities to validate the lived experiences of the most marginalized abortion patients by prioritizing their stories: “We hope these shows and others continue to build on these depictions by giving main characters abortion plotlines instead of only guest actors and working to reflect the reality of abortion patients in the U.S,” the report emphasizes.
“Television and film help people make sense of the world,” lead researcher Steph Herold told The 19th. “It’s important to know what messages the media are conveying about abortion, particularly right now in such a politically precarious moment for abortion rights.”
Highlights from the “Abortion Onscreen in 2022” report are below. To see the complete list of abortion on scripted and reality TV, read the full report here.