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Opinion | From ‘Dirty Dancing’ to ‘Scandal,’ On-Screen Abortion Stories Carry Sway

In the weeks since the fall of Roe v. Wade, people have supported abortion access and rights in many ways, including spreading information about abortion pills and defending brave doctors. My contribution has been thinking about TV and movies.

Abortion has been represented on television and in film going back to the silent films of the early 20th century. My colleagues and I at the Abortion Onscreen program have tracked over 500 abortion plotlines across genres, such as historical fiction, medical dramas, science fiction and even buddy comedies. Over the past decade, as abortion restrictions have proliferated around the country, the number of abortion stories onscreen has increased As well: In 2012, we documented just 15 abortion plotlines, and in 2021, we found 47.

But rather than normalize abortion, the increased visibility of abortion on television and in film has in many cases contributed to stigma and misinformation. As is so often the case with problems of Hollywood representation, this can have wide-ranging implications. When audiences see abortion depicted onscreen, some will incorporate what they see into their general understanding of abortion — who has abortions, how easy or challenging it is to access an abortion and how safe (or not) abortion is. And that has the potential to influence viewer knowledge, beliefs and voting behaviors around abortion.

Take the hit film “Dirty Dancing.” Do audiences interpret Penny’s pre-Roe abortion as unsafe because it was illegal or unsafe because it was an abortion? When audiences see Annie on “Shrill” or Xiomara on “Jane the Virgin” obtain an abortion without being forced to navigate significant barriers to access, do audiences extrapolate that abortion is underregulated? Given the ever-dwindling landscape of abortion access, we must address the misperceptions the media creates and reinforces, especially in a post-Roe world. And it’s incumbent on TV and film creators to think harder about how they portrayed abortion.

Onscreen depictions of abortion often significantly exaggerate The medical risk associated with it, overemphasizing serious complications that are extremely rare or nonexistent in real life, like infertility, mental illness and death. My colleagues found that on American television from 2005 to 2016, a character having an abortion had a 5 percent chance of dying from the procedure — which is more than 10,000 times the documented rate for legal abortions. Our analysis of more recent television Plotlines found that depictions are improving when it comes to safety, yet characters onscreen are still much more likely to have a major complication as a result of an abortion than a real-life abortion patient.

Another issue is demographics. Given Hollywood’s many problems with race, gender and class representation, it’s perhaps no surprise that most characters obtaining abortions onscreen are young, white and at least middle class; they are also, by and large, not parenting. By contrast, real US abortion patients are usually parents and are disproportionately people of color and people who live at or below the federal poverty line.

When a character on television decides she wants an abortion, she typically does not encounter legal or logistical barriers. And when she does, she’s usually not encountering some of the common real-world barriers to abortion, like being unable to afford child care or take time off work or struggling to cobble together hundreds of dollars for an abortion not covered by insurance.

Television also consistently tells a single story about illegal abortion — one in which a desperate woman seeks an abortion from an unscrupulous provider. But the future of illegal abortion looks quite different: Contemporary abortion seekers have options, like abortion pills, which can be ordered online, that are much more medically safe, though those options can carry legal risk.

More than half of recent abortions in the US were abortions by pill, yet portrayals of this method on television and in film remain scarce. Perhaps it’s no wonder that many Americans remain unaware of abortion pills, let alone how safe they are and what it’s like to take them. When surgical abortions are portrayed onscreen, they are often depicted as major medical events rather than simple outpatient procedures, which they typically are.

Because many viewers enter the conversation about abortion with so little baseline knowledge, these discrepancies fill in the gaps with misleading fictions. And taken together, inaccurate depictions of abortion may lead audiences to believe that we need to regulate it more, not less.

It is also true that the past several years of onscreen abortion stories have come closer to representing the reality of abortion in the US Films like “Unpregnant” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” built narratives around navigating barriers to abortion — showing that abortion storytelling can be both truer to life and entertaining. Recent television dramas like “A Million Little Things” and “Station 19” have shown how to support a loved one through a medication abortion. And in recent years we’ve seen more characters of color have or disclosed past abortions, including Olivia Pope on “Scandal and Mia on “Love Life.”

Our study of a 2019 episode of a “Grey’s Anatomy” abortion plotline found that viewers had an increased knowledge of abortion pills after viewing the episode, showing that television depictions of abortion can make a meaningful difference, with a degree of intention on the part of creators.

There are many reasons we don’t see more — and more accurate — depictions of abortion onscreen. In interviews With over 40 television content creators, my colleague and I heard over and over again about barriers to getting abortion plotlines from the page to the screen, such as reticent showrunners and networks afraid of blowback from advertisers and audiences. Some showrunners and writers have talked publicly about this. Shonda Rhimes told HuffPost of Olivia Pope’s abortion on “Scandal,” “I have never fought so hard for a ‘Scandal’ episode.” And Eleanor Bergstein, the screenwriter behind “Dirty Dancing,” said in a 2017 interview: “The studio came to me and said, ‘OK, Eleanor, we’ll pay for you to go back into the editing room and take the abortion out.’ And I had always known this day would come.”

Regardless of the legal status of abortion, screenwriters have found ways to tell abortion stories. Today’s content creators must meet this critical moment with creativity, incisiveness, collaboration and determination. It is time for Hollywood to embrace telling bigger, bolder stories about abortion.

Steph Herold is a researcher for the Abortion Onscreen program with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health. She has co-written peer-reviewed papers on abortion on television and in film, abortion storytelling and abortion stigma, and she serves on the board of the group All-Options.

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