TV portrayals of abortion overplay the risks

In an analysis of abortion portrayals on American TV over the past 12 years (2005-2016), ANSIRH researchers found that TV plots greatly exaggerate the risks associated with abortion. Inaccurate portrayals of abortion in the media can compound the high level of misperceptions and stigma that already surround abortion. 

The 80 abortion plots identified feature exaggerated risks both during and after the abortion. During their abortions, TV characters frequently required intervention (13 percent of plots) and/or experienced complications (27 percent), even though the real-world complication rate is about 2 percent. In the longer term, characters who obtained abortions were far more likely to experience negative consequences, including infertility, poor mental health, and death. In reality, the mortality rate from abortion is a mere .00073 percent, and there is no evidence that women who have abortions are more likely to experience long-term harm to their mental health.

TV set

Credit: CC BY 2.0, by DaGoaty

Interestingly, TV producers do not apply the same negatively dramatic treatment to all medical procedures. For example, TV portrayals of CPR exaggerate in the opposite direction—making it seem safer and more effective than it actually is. TV abortions also frequently take place in illegal or non-medical settings, which make them inherently riskier and less realistic.

By featuring abortion infrequently and in such exaggerated ways, TV reinforces a myth often perpetuated about abortion—that it is rare and dangerous. In reality, the opposite is true.

Read ANSIRH’s other analyses of abortion in the media, including how barriers to abortion access are portrayed.