Majority of TV abortion plotlines reinforce myths about the procedure

scene from Please Like Me
It’s well documented that abortion is safe and common. Yet our culture, including television shows, may not reflect this reality. Abortion providers have reported that patients often come in with high levels of fear or anxiety, and misconceptions about how invasive or complicated an abortion procedure is. TV portrayals of abortion procedures may contribute both to patient knowledge and the public’s beliefs about the procedure. To understand how television portrays abortion procedures, ANSIRH viewed every plotline that contained an abortion over a ten-year period, looking at the type of abortion in addition to health outcomes, legal status, and whether the procedure was portrayed on screen.

They found 96 television plotlines that aired between 2008 and 2018 in which a character obtains or discloses a past abortion, and only 40% of these plotlines depict some aspect of the actual abortion procedure. The majority of these plotlines depict surgical abortions, half illegal and half legal. Many of these depictions reinforce the myth that surgical abortion requires hospitalization. Only 18% of plotlines portray a medication abortion, and the majority of those were illegal abortions.

These portrayals overrepresent surgical abortions compared to a reality in which about one third of patients have an abortion by pill. They also reinforce misinformation about abortion safety, including that surgical abortion must be performed in a hospital and that abortion pills are both easy to obtain and dangerous. Portrayals of illegal surgical abortions are overrepresented compared to both legal surgical abortions and legal medication abortions. This finding is particularly alarming given increasing legal restrictions on abortion and the well-documented safety of self-managed abortion.

Popular culture portrayals give us the opportunity to address myths and misinformation about abortion, and these findings about American television provide a tool to argue for more accurate portrayals.