Two doctors sit despondently on the side of a busy road as they watch an EMT zip their patient’s body into a body bag. The patient died as a direct result of a fatal ectopic pregnancy, which her obstetrician refused to treat because of a new anti-abortion law in her home state.
With tears in her eyes, one of the doctors responds to questions from the EMT about the death. Then she yells, “It’s the legislators, they really should come here…look at the carnage they’ve wreaked. I mean, how are we supposed to be doctors? Women’s lives are at stake, and our hands trained to help them are tied.”
While this could easily have appeared in a documentary about post-Dobbs obstetric care in the US, it’s actually a scene from a recent episode of the hit medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” a show devoted to nuanced stories about abortion. But it’s not the only show to struggle with these issues. In five years of studying abortion on screen, I’ve never seen the kind of images appear on TV.
But even with these poignant scenes, there’s evidence that Hollywood also continues to miss the mark in terms of who will be most affected by abortion restrictions — and what the reality of access to abortion looks like in 2023.
Obstacles in care
In research I conducted with sociologist Gretchen Sisson, we found that the vast majority of television characters who have had abortions encountered little or no legal, financial, or logistical barriers that have long been the troubling features of abortion access in the U.S. . , even before the Dobbs decision that abrogated the constitutional right to abortion.
In the past year, that started to change. In a recent episode of the legal drama “Accused,” a teen turns to her teacher for help driving from Texas to New Mexico and paying $750 for a medicated abortion. Others, such as “P-Valley,” “FBI: Most Wanted,” and “Law & Order,” show characters facing abortion bans that prevent them from getting local abortion care, forcing them to leave the state.
These storylines differ from previous storylines in that the characters deal with the increasing barriers that so many people face when seeking abortion care. It is not only about leaving the state, but also about paying for a flight, shelter, food and the abortion itself. And then there are the logistical hurdles of finding childcare and taking time off from work. They all represent the often unseen cost of abortion.
We are also seeing new types of conversations about abortion on television. In “The Connors,” a character contemplates an abortion, but is hesitant to download a pregnancy tracking app, fearing that the government will be notified of her pregnancy.
In “American Auto,” writers use some dark humor, showing corporate executives trying to come up with abortion-friendly employee policies, such as sending a basket of fruit—”but not with melon”—and gifting amusement park tickets to some post-abortionists. relaxation.
And in medical dramas like “The Good Doctor” and “New Amsterdam,” fictional clinicians share their own past abortions and support patients through abortions.
In a world where many people have so little information about abortion, popular media can play an important role in increasing knowledge about these critical issues.
But despite these newer, more nuanced storylines, television continues to perpetuate myths about what kind of people are actually seeking abortion care.
Television has long misrepresented the demographics of abortion patients, choosing to tell the stories of characters who are whiter and wealthier than their real-life counterparts. In our analysis of 2022 abortion storylines, Sisson and I found that the vast majority of characters who had abortions were middle-class or wealthy white women.
These patterns appear to continue into 2023. At the time of writing, nearly 50% of the characters seeking abortions in this year’s storylines are white. About a third are middle class or wealthy.
In the real world, white women make up only about one-third of U.S. abortion patients, and the majority of patients seeking abortion care live at or below the federal poverty line.
This misrepresentation not only obscures the kind of people who actually seek abortions, but also downplays the fact that access to abortion is a matter of gender, race and class.
Yet demographics aren’t the only inaccuracies perpetuated by these storylines; the majority of abortion patients – 59% – are responsible parents at the time of their abortion. Yet only 18% of 2022 abortion storylines and only 9% of 2023 storylines to date feature characters raising children. This perpetuates a false dichotomy between having children and having abortions.
While wealthy white women can certainly struggle to get an abortion, research continues to show how Dobbs exacerbates the destructive effects of systemic racism on access and quality of health care for communities of color.
It’s not just who gets abortions, but the types of abortions they get don’t reflect the post-Dobbs reality.
Drug-induced abortion accounts for more than half of all U.S. abortions, but in 2022 only four storylines, or less than 6%, specifically portrayed a character having an abortion by pill. Only three so far in 2023 – about 10% – have done so.
No storyline has portrayed characters safely having an abortion on their own using pills, without the intervention or assistance of a doctor. This option is medically safe, but carries significant legal risks in many states, including prosecution and arrest.
Why inaccuracies persist
Months before the opening arguments in Dobbs, Sisson and I interviewed more than three dozen Hollywood directors, executive producers, and writers who had all played a role in getting an abortion storyline from page to screen.
We wanted to understand their experiences behind the cameras and in the writers’ rooms, especially after a decade of research into the massive proliferation of abortion depictions on film and television alongside a myriad of inaccuracies.
We recently published these findings. While our interviews took place when Roe was still in place and before the Dobbs decision overturned it, they nonetheless provide eye-opening context.
First, the content creators we spoke to repeatedly emphasized that they hoped for emotional accuracy in their depictions of abortion. They were less concerned about the political and logistical realities. In post-Dobbs media interviews, several prominent showrunners expressed regret for the omission of this important context.
Our research also revealed the significant barriers many writers face, such as unsupportive showrunners and risk-averse executives. Several interviewees lamented that despite Hollywood’s progressive reputation, many networks feared negative repercussions from advertisers or audiences as a result of broadcasting abortion storylines.
These fears are really inconsistent with the reality that the majority of the American public supports access to abortion, knows someone who has had an abortion, and has responded positively to abortion storylines since the 1960s.
In a country where some lawmakers want to ban even the sharing of information about abortion, popular media may be the most accessible, reliable way to widely disseminate information about abortion. We need to understand both what these images do and don’t say about abortion, and what it takes to get them on screen so we can demand better information and representation.
This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent, non-profit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts, under a Creative Commons license.
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