Abortions are incredibly common yet remain deeply stigmatized, which is why television portrayals of abortion are important. For some viewers, fictional onscreen depictions may be the primary source of information on what abortion is and how it happens.
Fortunately, a new study shows that when it comes to fictional portrayals of the people who provide abortions, television shows are actually doing a pretty decent job.
Researchers Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport of the University of California, San Francisco reviewed 52 plot lines on 40 shows that depicted abortion providers between 2005 and 2014. Three-quarters of the abortion-related plots took place in dramas ― most medical (both contemporary and historical). Forty-six percent were in network shows, while the rest were on cable or subscription channels.
Overall, the researchers found that when television shows portrayed abortions in modern medical settings the providers were largely safe and competent.
“I think it’s largely good news,” Sisson, a research sociologist with UCSF’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, told The Huffington Post.
“We found that providers who were physicians working in contemporary medical settings were portrayed pretty well,” she added. “They were safe. They were competent. They were invested in their patients’ wellbeing.” Medical dramas like “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “House, M.D.” and “Private Practice” have all showed abortions taking place in doctor’s offices or hospitals, which helps normalize the spaces where abortions take place, the researchers wrote. Shows like “The Knick,” a medical drama set in the 1900s and directed by Steven Soderbergh, have probed the motivations of abortion care providers, showing they do it because they feel it saves lives.
And while that is certainly a good thing, Sisson worries the medicalization of abortion on TV could leave some viewers with the false sense that abortions that take place under any other circumstances ― say, with the abortion pill, or with a nurse practitioner rather than an MD ― are inherently unsafe.
It’s such a common procedure ― over a million American women are dealing with this. So I think it will come up more and more. Gretchen Sisson
The study did find that plot lines showing abortions that took place outside of modern medical settings were seen as generally unsafe and often ineffective, while the providers were painted as unreliable, even deceptive. Those portrayals could reinforce the kind of thinking that supports TRAP regulations, Sisson said, which place unreasonable requirements on health care centers under the guise of protecting women’s health. But abortion is extremely safe. In the United States, the risk of death associated in childbirth is actually 14 times higher.
Sisson also said that she is hopeful the day when a mainstream comedy TV show might thoughtfully tackle abortion is not far off, despite show runners like Mindy Kaling having expressed skepticism in the past.
“I think we will see it eventually,” she said. “We might not be there yet, but it’s such a common procedure ― over a million American women are dealing with this. So I think it will come up more and more.”