Abortion Stories On Screen Rarely Show Reality. We Deserve Better.

For real people — our families, our friends, our loved ones, ourselves — pregnancy decisions are bound up in whether and how we’re able to care for and support our families and ourselves.

by Vicki Shabo & Steph Herold

If you’ve watched some of the most popular shows on TV over the last few years, you might recognize some of these scenes:

Mercedes and Terricka, a Black mother and daughter from Mississippi, take a road trip to the only abortion clinic in their state to seek abortion care for the young teen. The trip requires the burden of time away from home and the expense of a hotel stay, given the waiting period between their initial visit and the abortion itself. (Starz’s P-Valley)

Vic and Theo, firefighters with an on-again, off-again relationship, obtain abortion pills from a doctor and manage Vic’s abortion at home, taking time away from their jobs to do so. (ABC’s Station 19)

Sierra, a pregnant patient with a history of postpartum depression, receives an outpatient abortion at a hospital. To balance care for herself and her family with her job responsibilities, she finds someone to replace her on her shift at work, and the hospital staff keep her toddler busy during the quick procedure. (ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy)

And years ago, Teddy, a Grey’s Anatomy physician, had a child and considered moving permanently to Germany, where, she explains, paid maternity leave is standard — unlike in the United States. Hospital workers on Grey’s Anatomy also regularly drop their children at an on-site child care center and acknowledge the centrality of child care to their ability to do their jobs.

For real people — our families, our friends, our loved ones, ourselves — pregnancy decisions are bound up in whether and how we’re able to care for and support our families and ourselves. Money, time, the other people in our lives who rely on us, and the plans we have for ourselves with respect to school and work make a big difference in whether and when we choose to have children. On television and in movies, though, pregnancy and abortion decisions are often isolated from these real world interpersonal and systemic issues. The examples above are unique: In these stories, characters who have abortions — most of them people of color, as is true in the United States — deal with the costs, time, and caregiving responsibilities that are common to so many people’s lived experiences.

Yet new research conducted by our two organizations — Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health’s Abortion Onscreen project and New America’s Better Life Lab, focused on media depictions and social science research — shows that onscreen, there’s a huge departure from reality. In fact, over the last five years, only around 5% of TV shows and movies with abortion plotlines involving adults showed or discussed financial circumstances, workplace concerns, child care availability, family responsibilities, or health issues as part of pregnancy decision-making. References to workplace accommodations were even more rare (just 1% of movies and less than 2% of television shows with abortion plotlines), whereas, in the real world, most people who work will need to take time away from their jobs to seek or recover from an abortion. Shows like P-Valley, Grey’s Anatomy, and Station 19 are all too rare.

Moreover, the way abortion is depicted on television generally is inaccurate and misleading. In 2022, the Abortion Onscreen team found more abortion plotlines on television than ever before, but that demographic and medical mischaracterizations remain common. And we found the same with respect to work and caregiving in this new research...

Among characters who mention workplace concerns or caregiving needs, the vast majority are white and either middle class or wealthy, whereas in reality abortion seekers are most often people of color with lower incomes and with jobs that are likely to constrain opportunities for workplace leave or scheduling flexibility and exacerbate caregiving challenges. Most characters on these TV and film plotlines are child-free whereas in reality most abortion-seekers are already raising children at the time of their abortion. This means that viewers don’t get to see the complex interplay between parenting, abortion, caretaking, and health care access that is the reality for the majority of abortion seekers.

What we see on screen matters. Research shows that television influences viewers, particularly when it comes to health issues. Abortion portrayals are no exception. The American public knows little about abortion, and the news is full of misinformation. Entertainment can begin to fill the gap for viewers and replace anti-abortion myths, false stereotypes, and stigma with deeper knowledge and support. Stories that provide sociological context can also help audiences connect the dots between their own experiences and the broader social and political constructs that affect individual lives and communities.

Integrating pregnancy and abortion stories onscreen into characters’ lives, in casual conversations as well as multiple episodes and story arcs, can help normalize abortion; open up honest discussions about health, work, family, and parenting; and connect viewers with crucial resources in their communities. These more detailed representations may also broaden public understandings and cultural conversations about abortion and work-family supports, like the paid family and medical leave programs that do or soon will exist in 13 states and the District of Columbia, and can help audiences better understand the connections between these crucial issues.

At a time when abortion rights are restricted and family-supportive policies are rare, accurate TV and film depictions of the complicated realities of reproductive decision-making and parenting in the United States can help move the country forward. Situating pregnancy decision-making stories in the context of people’s full lives not only makes these stories more accurate and reflective of real-life experiences, but also could inspire more empathy and understanding that can help to cut across political divides.

Perhaps what we see on screen can even help unite people in demanding lawmakers take action, both to restore abortion access and to do a better job supporting families. That’s the power of entertainment, and the power that storytellers — and real people — have to help make change.

Vicki Shabo is senior fellow for gender equity, paid leave, and care policy & strategy for New America’s Better Life Lab. She also is founder and director of the Better Life Lab’s Entertainment-Focused Narrative and Culture Change Practice. She is a lawyer, policy expert, and advocate who has testified numerous times before U.S. House and Senate committees and state Legislatures, spoken to a wide variety of for-profit and nonprofit audiences, advised business and media leaders, and contributed opinion pieces to national, state and regional news outlets.

Steph Herold, MPH, is a researcher who studies the portrayal of abortion on television and in film as part of the Abortion Onscreen team. Herold has more than fifteen years of experience in the reproductive health, rights, and justice fields, and has won several awards, including the Rosie Jimenez Award from the Women’s Medical Fund. Herold has co-authored a dozen peer-reviewed publications and gray literature papers mainly focusing on abortion onscreen, abortion stigma, and self-managed abortion. Steph currently serves on the board of directors of All-Options.