Examining TV portrayals of abortion

Television story lines are often more dramatic, bizarre and fantastical than real life – and abortion story lines are no exception. But when it comes to examining who gets or considers an abortion on TV, and how they compare to real women seeking abortion care, these fictional characters can impact how real world abortion patients are understood by the viewing public. These portrayals can skew perceptions of women seeking abortion care, and contribute to ongoing abortion stigma.

In a new study, UCSF Bixby Center researchers examine how women who seek abortions are portrayed on TV. They identified all fictional representations of abortion decision-making on US television from 2005 through 2014, finding that:

  • TV characters who considering abortion were mostly white, young, in committed relationships and not parenting. But characters who were lower in socioeconomic status and not in a committed relationship were more likely to actually obtain an abortion.
  • Compared to statistics on real women, characters who obtained abortions were disproportionately white, young, wealthy and not parenting.
  • Compared to real women’s reasons for abortion, immaturity and interference with future opportunities were overrepresented on TV, while financial hardship and pregnancy mistiming were underrepresented on TV.

Overall, TV abortion stories misrepresented the demographics of real women who seek and obtain abortions, as well as their reasons for doing so. TV abortion stories lacked perspectives from women of color, poor women and mothers. These shows may contribute to a perception that abortion is a luxury rather than an essential health care service. Understanding how abortion is portrayed on TV and popular media can help advocates and healthcare providers to identify and respond to common misperceptions about who obtains abortion care and why.

Learn more:

  • An infographic illustrating the study’s findings.
  • A summary of TV portrayals of abortion in 2015.
  • An interview with study co-author Dr. Gretchen Sisson.