Recent television seasons have brought a new and welcome frankness to television characters’ conversations about abortion. And a paper University of California, San Francisco sociologists Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport are publishing in a forthcoming issue of the academic journal Contraception sheds new light on which fictional women have abortions on television shows and the reasons they have the procedure. The results suggest that while abortion might feel less taboo on television, TV shows still have a tendency to misrepresent which women seek out abortions and the reasons they want to terminate their pregnancies in ways that could have consequences for abortion rights.
The sociologists found 78 storylines where characters considered having abortions during the 10-year period from 2005 to 2014. Forty of those stories resulted in the woman in question going through with the procedure.
Eighty percent of the women contemplating abortion were white, 85.7 percent of them were at least middle class if not outright wealthy, 63 percent of them were in committed relationships and 83.3 percent of them weren’t parents already. The women who went through with their abortions fit similar demographics: 87.5 percent of them were white, 80 percent were middle class, 55 percent were in committed relationships and 82.5 percent did not have children.
These numbers don’t exactly line up with the demographic profiles of women who actually obtain abortions. Just over 36 percent of women who have abortions are white. African American women have 29.6 percent of real-life abortions, as compared with only 5 percent of the procedures that happen on TV. Forty percent of American women who have abortions fall below the federal poverty level, while only two TV characters did. And while most of the women on television who have abortions have never given birth before, a 2008 study found that 60 percent of American women who have abortions have given birth at least once.
“Any individual story is probably going to reflect some woman’s story. They only become unrealistic in the aggregate,” Sisson noted when I talked to her on Friday. “The characters who are getting abortions tend to be younger. They tend to be teenagers. They tend to be white. They tend to be middle class or above. Plenty of young, white, middle class girls are getting abortions. Plenty of wealthy, white older women are getting abortions. Plenty of women who don’t have children are getting abortions. It’s just that when that pattern becomes all you see on TV, that’s where it becomes unrealistic.”
She said she was particularly struck by how few television mothers have abortions.
“There are certainly plenty of mothers on TV, plenty of married women on TV. Their lack of representation [among women considering or having abortions] I thought was really interesting,” Sisson told me. “Not only are mothers getting abortions really missing, almost completely, but a lot of women are getting abortions because they never want to have children … In the real world, you have a lot of women getting abortions because they have to care for the children that they already have.”
The under-representation of mothers having abortions is part of a larger distortion Sisson and Kimport noticed in the reasons fictional women choose to terminate their pregnancies.
Fictional women are much more likely to say that continuing a pregnancy would make it harder them to pursue their education or career dreams, though just 20 percent of women report that those are the reasons they want to have abortions. Slightly more than 13 percent of the characters who were considering having abortions did so because the pregnancies that were the result of rape, even though just 1 percent of women who try to have abortions cite this as their reason in real life. Rape and incest are some of the few circumstances where American support for legal abortion is consistently very strong, and Sisson suggested that TV writers might choose those circumstances so they can depict abortions under situations where audiences are likely to sympathize with the woman who wants to have one.
But public opinion is much more negative about whether abortion should be legal when a child would pose financial hardship, and such reasoning is rarely present on television. Forty percent of women who seek abortions in the real world do so because of “financial unpreparedness,” though only 10.5 percent of fictional characters do. And the authors noted that “Other reasons that were more common among real women, such as the mistiming of a pregnancy and the need to focus on existing children, were also portrayed much less frequently.”
The result of television’s emphasis on women who don’t want to have children at all, who want to prioritize their careers or educations, or who have other reasons that are “self-focused rather than other-focused,” is, as Sisson and Kimport argue in their paper, “a perception that abortion is a want rather than a need.”
That tricky dichotomy shows up even in the work of one of the showrunners who takes television’s most progressive approach to abortion.
“Shonda Rhimes is probably the best example of a Hollywood television producer who is very clearly committed to including abortion in her storylines,” Sisson said, pointing to the consistent presence of abortion as a subject in “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal,” where Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) recently aborted her pregnancy by President Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) to the strains of “Silent Night.”
She continued, “The women are determined, decided, the abortions are safe, she’s shown the abortions on screen, now on ‘Scandal’ twice, the actual procedure happening. She’s been the first creator to do that. And I think that all those things are really about how changing how abortion is shown on television. I don’t think I can really overstate the ground that she’s made in that way. But that doesn’t mean her depictions are perfect.”
In particular, Rhimes’s characters who have abortions often do so in the context of fraught relationships with men, either to preserve their autonomy or because they have concluded, as Olivia Pope did, that a relationship isn’t working at all. And these storylines often suggest that it’s impossible to parent and pursue professional ambitions.
“The abortions are really about their relationships …T hat’s a story we don’t see a lot on screen, the supportive partner agreeing, showing up at the clinic,” Sisson noted. “Abortion isn’t always a woman going out on her own against the wishes or without the knowledge of her male partner.”
“Ultimately,” Sisson and Kimport write in their paper, “the aggregate pattern of onscreen representations in the portrayal of abortion patients creates an inaccurate portrait of who gets abortions and for what reasons….The overrepresentation of teenagers, for example, might encourage support for parental notification and consent laws, as viewers may believe minors to comprise a large proportion of the real patient population. Similarly, the underrepresentation of characters of lower socioeconomic status might portray abortion as less of a financial necessity for some women, while also representing it as affordable and thus impacting perceptions of the need for public funding for abortion care.”