Television is, of course, fake, but it can provide an opportunity to consider controversial topics like abortion in a comfortable, fictional setting. Yet, as researchers with the University of California, San Francisco, group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health found, abortion on TV is often unlike abortion in real life — and the mismatch could affect how people perceive women who terminate pregnancies.
For a study published in the journal Contraception, researchers looked at depictions of abortion on all U.S. television shows (including networks, premium channels, and streaming services) from 2005 to 2014 and identified 78 plotlines where characters considered abortion, including 40 where a woman had one. They found that women on TV who had abortions were younger, whiter, wealthier, and less likely to already have children than the average American woman who ends a pregnancy.
“All these factors work together to build an interesting social myth, which is that women who get abortions aren’t mothers and they don’t want to be mothers,” study co-author Gretchen Sisson told NPR. More often, these women are already parents who can’t afford or care for another child.
Here are the ways that TV terminations diverge from those in real life:
Nearly a third of the characters were under 20; 30 percent were in their 20s; another 30 percent were in their 30s; and about 8 percent were over 40. But in the U.S., women in their 20s account for 58 percent of all abortions. (About 18 percent of women are under 20 and 22 percent are in their 30s.)
A whopping 88 percent of the fictional women who got an abortion were white, 5 percent were black, and 7.5 percent were classified as “other.” In reality, it’s much more evenly split, at 36 percent white, 30 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent “other.”
4. Parental Status
On TV, just 15 percent of characters who got an abortion already had children, compared to the 61 percent of real-life abortion patients who are already parents.
5. Reasons for Abortion
Sisson said TV characters most commonly got abortions for “self-focused” reasons, like a child interfering with work or educational plans, not being mature enough for a baby, or not wanting kids at all. Meanwhile, real women more often cite “other-focused” reasons, like not being able to afford a baby, needing to care for their other children, or it not being the right time to have a baby.
Overall, the fictional patterns seem to contribute to the perception that women get abortions based on personal desires rather than economic need. Sisson told NPR that while these portrayals do represent reality for some, she would like to see a wider range of abortion stories on TV that reflect what’s happening in the real world. “So very few people have a context for the reality of abortion care, so these fictional stories that happen on-screen can have greater power to influence perceptions of what that care looks like in real life,” she said.
In the meantime, the small screen’s inclusion of the topic is improving in other ways. In the above study, only 51 percent of TV characters considering an abortion actually went through with it — the last-minute change of heart has been a common trope over the years — but that seems to be changing. The UCSF team did a mini-analysis of 2015 shows and found that 67 percent of the characters mulling the decision eventually chose to terminate their pregnancies, and in three cases, it happened onscreen. Abortion on TV is becoming more and more normalized, but we still have progress to make.