While abortion on TV is becoming more diverse, it still doesn’t reflect reality

Abortion on-screen has become a more common occurrence. However, characters depicted seeking an abortion are typically younger, whiter, and of higher socioeconomic status than people who have abortions in real life. ANSIRH reviewed all plotlines involving a character obtaining or disclosing an abortion on scripted, English-language television programs that aired from January 2015 through December 2019 and compared this with similar work done in the early 2000s. 

In the last five years, researchers found more diversity among characters obtaining abortions on American television. Compared to the early 2000s, these more recent depictions included more characters of color, of lower socio-economic status, and in their twenties, patterns that more accurately represent real patients. However, there is still a disconnect between TV characters and the realities of those seeking abortion care in the United States.

Out of the 85 abortion plotlines, two-thirds of the characters obtaining an abortion are white; most are not parenting; two-thirds do not experience barriers to abortion access; and over half were depicted as middle-class or above. Most US abortion patients are people of color, raising children at the time of their abortion, and living at or below the Federal Poverty Line.

They also found only one-third of characters in abortion plotlines encountered a barrier to obtaining an abortion. More common contemporary barriers to access, such as funding for an abortion, forced waiting periods and travel time are all depicted at lower rates over the last five years compared to their past research. Eighteen percent of abortion patients on television experienced adverse medical complications, which is lower than in portrayals from previous years. Even with this decrease, abortion is still much riskier on television than it is in real life.

Depicting abortion accurately on television has the potential to refute myths around who gets abortions and how they obtain them. Compassionate and factual portrayals may lead to increased feelings of support among people who seek abortions and increased knowledge about abortion in the American public.

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