How TV Depicts Abortion: From Maude to Miranda

Abortion has been a significant part of the womenʼs rights movement for the last fifty years, and it has been a part of television for just as long. Televisionʼs first abortion story occurred in 1964 on NBCʼs Another World, 1 before abortion was even legal in the United States. In the episode, Pat Matthewsʼ boyfriend convinces her to have an abortion. She goes through with it but worries it has left her sterile. Pat eventually murders her boyfriend in a fit of rage. While Another Worldʼs story line was progressive for its time, its melodrama seems almost cringe worthy nowadays. But does TV today depict abortion any more realistically? While abortion is being brought up more often in scripted television, it does not always paint an accurate picture of what abortion looks like in the United States today.

Abortion story lines have become much more frequent on television and incite less controversy than they did before Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in 1973 (When Maudeʼs abortion episode aired in 1972, CBS received over 24,000 letters of protest). In the last twenty years, major television series like Sex and the City, Girls, Dawsonʼs Creek and House, MD have all tackled the topic. From 2005 to 2014 alone there were 78 story lines on American television where a character considered getting an abortion. 2 When nearly half of pregnancies among women in the United States are unintended, it is unsurprising that the topic would arise on television.

Maude reveals her unintended pregnancy to her daughter.
Maude reveals her unintended pregnancy to her daughter.

But does abortion on television look the same as in real life? The answer is, overwhelmingly, no. A study by the University of California-San Francisco research group, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, revealed that there is a great discrepancy between the women depicted on television undergoing an abortion and women in real life. On television, only 30% of women are between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine. However, in real life nearly 60% of women are. Almost half of women on television who get abortions have a college degree, but in real life, less than 20% do.

An even greater chasm begins to appear when looking at the difference in race between women on television and in real life. On television, 87.5% of women who undergo abortion are white, as compared to only 36.1% in real life. A woman undergoing an abortion in real life is twice as likely to be a woman of color than a white woman, yet only a small fraction of abortion stories on television feature a woman of color. On television, only 15% of women undergoing abortion have other children to care for. In real life, however, 61% of these women already have at least one other child. These statistics inform what is, perhaps, the most telling difference between television and reality. The top reason why characters on television get abortions is that raising a child will interfere with future opportunities. Whereas, in real life, the top reason women have abortions is because they are not financially prepared to raise a (or another) child.

While these statistics show that abortion on television is not representative as a whole of womenʼs experiences in real life, it doesn’t mean that the experiences represented on television are invalid or untrue. Many are probably accurate on an individual level. It also doesn’t mean that there are no realistic depictions of abortion experiences on television. Olivia Popeʼs abortion story line on Scandal was notable for its depiction of a woman of color undergoing an abortion on a high profile, prime time program. While Jane, another woman of color, of Jane the Virgin did not get an abortion, the topic was discussed with the possibility of there being anything wrong with her baby. Parenthood and Friday Night Lights have both had story lines dealing with teenagers having abortions. Parenthood was particularly notable for depicting Planned Parenthood employees walking Amy through all her options before she confirmed that she wanted the procedure.

Olivia Pope, of primetime drama Scandal, has an abortion.
Olivia Pope, of prime time drama Scandal, has an abortion.

In the 1990s, Roseanne brought up the subject of abortion not once, but twice during the programʼs run. It was first discussed in detail when an expectant Dan and Roseanne were led to believe that there could be something wrong with their baby. During this discussion, Roseanneʼs grandmother, Nana Mary, revealed that she had previously had two abortions, and Roseanneʼs mother, Bev, reacted to this revelation with disgust. The scene brought in multiple viewpoints on the issue, which ended up being moot when results of a second amnio test came back clear of any issues. It also depicted a lower to middle class woman, over twenty-nine years old and with three children, discussing the possibility of an abortion, a scenario that data shows is much more likely to occur in real life than most depictions of abortion on television. A later episode brought up abortion again when Darlene reveals she is pregnant. Roseanne asks if she had considered all her options, to which Darlene replies that she has decided to keep the baby and not undergo an abortion. Roseanne proves that television can be used to bring up important but touchy subjects, like abortion, in a way that can prompt discussion, both on screen and among its viewers.

If 21% of pregnancies in real life end in abortions 3 (and if women on such popular programs as Scandal, Parenthood and Friday Night Lights have had abortions), why donʼt more story lines dealing with unintended pregnancy end in abortion? Eleanor Barkhorn of The Atlantic put it clearly, “Babies advance plot lines, whereas abortions end them.” 4 Abortions may supply fodder for an episode or two, but a baby presents seasons and seasons of material. An example of this occurs in Sex and the City. 5 When Miranda finds out she is pregnant after a one night stand with her ex-boyfriend, she decides to have an abortion; however, she changes her mind in the clinic waiting room. Her decision raises many questions for the showʼs creators to answer. How will Miranda juggle her career and the baby? Will her ex-boyfriend find out? Will the baby bring them back together? Will this start a new chapter in Mirandaʼs life? Will her relationship with Carrie, Samantha and Charlotte change? And even, what will her maternity wardrobe look like?

Above all, there is little incentive for abortion stories to be told on television. Hollywood wants to make money and provide entertainment. Abortion is serious, and story lines dealing with it are rarely happy. However, it is important for such divisive issues, to be depicted accurately, as television often helps shape its viewers’ perceptions of the real world. More stories about women of color, women who are already mothers, and women from poor economic backgrounds should be told. Doing so may shed some light on what abortion in the United States actually looks like and provide fodder for important conversation in the media and among the public.

Works Cited

  1. Lane, Penny. “A Timeline of Abortion Stories in U.S. Popular Media.” Web log post. Penny Lane. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 June 2016.
  2. Blay, Zeba. “Here’s The Difference Between Abortion On TV And In Real Life.” Huffington Post. N.p., 22 Dec. 2015. Web. 12 June 2016.
  3. “Induced Abortion in the United States.” Guttmacher Institute. N.p., 03 May 2016. Web. 12 June 2016.
  4. Barkhorn, Eleanor. “‘Mad Men’ and Abortion: It’s About Plot, Not Politics.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 June 2016.
  5. The Week Staff. “How TV Shows Deal with Abortion: A Timeline.” The Week. N.p., 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 June 2016.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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After spending seven years in marketing writing for national brands, Marcie is traveling the world and consuming content, unrestricted by the 9 to 5.

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  1. Allison

    I haven’t watched these, but I always appreciate shows that portray abortion not just as a viable option, but as one that is sometimes (often) the correct one for a character. I have not regretted the one I had for one second, and would have one again if I somehow got pregnant, but society still tries to force a lot of guilt on women for making that choice. There’s still the idea even among ostensibly pro-choice people that if you DO have an abortion you must feel sad and regretful about it: only get it if you’re full of contrition, basically. Anything that opens up the dialogue that those feelings of guilt or sadness can be understandable, but aren’t necessary, is important.

    • Obvious Child is the best current example I can think of that portrays abortion matter-of-factly with no stigma attached, but Scandal has a wider audience, so good for it.

      • Marcie Waters

        There are some great examples (like Obvious Child) in film. What I find to be interesting about how abortion plays out on television is that TV has a wider reach, like you mentioned, both in numbers and types of people. A lot of people who are against an issue like abortion will consciously decide not to watch a movie that prominently features an abortion storyline. It’s much easier, however, for those people to turn on the TV and have an episode about abortion pop up or to be invested in a show where an abortion story line unfolds. I guess with television, it’s easier to come across view points you may not agree with or may not have thought about. That’s why it’s so important to represent issues accurately!

    • I won’t get into much of that since I’m very, very much on the opposite side of the issue, but I do think it’s interesting and fine that Scandal depicted the “2nd category” of abortions that happen in the United States. I would uncharitably describe it as birth control for upper-middle class people, or charitably as a medical procedure to keep their independence.

  2. When you’re pregnant, you’re sharing your body with another human. It’s not as simple as a decision to protect your body, you have to consider what’s right for the baby growing inside of you who needs your protection. If you’re sexually active, you need to be mature enough to be prepared for a pregnancy and the tough decisions that come with it, even if you’re not planning on becoming pregnant.

    People need to stop convincing themselves that an unborn child is just a fetus. It’s an intricate human forming inside of you. It’s life. Imagine what it could do. A life full of infinite possibilities is just beginning for your “fetus”.

    • Francesca Turauskis

      You obviously feel passionately about this, but a comment on the article would have been more suitable for this forum. I think it raises some very interesting points about the representation of the reality of who gets abortions and why.

  3. Francesca Turauskis

    Interesting article, thank you for writing. It is also interesting that the health aspects of the mother don’t seem to be represented as much as the ones for the baby. There are many women (myself included) for whom having a child could be very unhealthy, even dangerous or life-threatening. Every situation is different!

    • Marcie Waters

      Very true! Hopefully in the future there will be an even larger (and therefore more accurate) range of experiences depicted on TV.

  4. Frederic

    It’s a baby when you want it, and a fetus when you don’t. All else is semantics and rationalizing.

    • Tigey

      Couldn’t agree more, but stating the problem doesn’t solve the problem: adoption costs a load of money and takes forever.

  5. Beula Shumaker

    I’m going to reference this article in my university thesis, thank you for writing it.

  6. When I realized she was aborting Fitz baby, I realized that she wants to be in control more than she wants to be in love. That episode annoyed me because it seems like the wives of Washington boring – as if things like food were boring or too basic for Oliva.

  7. Racheal

    I watch Scandal mostly because I was invested since the beginning when it was a halfway decent show.

    Anyway, a large percentage of the Scandal fandom lost their minds when 1) Olivia had an abortion and 2) Didn’t tell Fitz about it. Even Scandal fans who would describe the Olitz relationship as a very, very dysfunctional one. For them the it was simple: “if you love someone you don’t kill their baby”.

    I have a much different opinion. It’s her body and her private healthcare information. She doesn’t have to share either if she doesn’t want to.

  8. I wish this topic weren’t political. Abortion is legal and has been for decades.

  9. Once a child is conceived that child is not “the woman’s body”. This newly created child has it’s own body with its own DNA and its own heart and brain. The woman is the steward for this new creation.

    • Eremon1

      Some of the shows mentioned tried to shoe that being responsible is also about not bringing a child into a place they are unwanted…

  10. Relevant topic. You handled it very well.

  11. Etta Calvin

    The reaction to the Scnadal episode has been fascinating. I had one friend who outright REFUSED to believe that what actually happened was an abortion. At first she said it was an unknown medical procedure, then she swore that the doctors were evacuating the remnants of a miscarriage. She was totally uncomfortable with the thought that someone would choose to have an abortion when a) they were financially stable and b) in a “loving” relationship with the father.

  12. Now it’s time for them to take on the subject of the abortion of a wanted pregnancy because of complications. This seems to be a third rail of abortion discourse yet it is what is being legislated out of existence right now.

  13. danielle577

    This article is excellent as you do a wonderful job of amalgamating television depictions with actual statistics in regard to the pertinent topic of abortion. Your mentioning of Maude’s situation is fascinating, as I do not even remember this being played out on TV that long ago! Well done on your researching of television series’ that appeal to a broad audience, as well as your inclusion of abortion statistics. Great work!!

  14. Munjeera

    A sensitive topic handled well. Kudos!

  15. As I see it, abortion on TV has two different sets of issues in terms of why it isn’t used.

    A very big one, undeniably, is that abortion is so controversial and shows either don’t want or aren’t allowed by the network to have a character actually go through with it (whenever a character gets pregnant and then ends up not having the baby by some other contrivance, such as a miscarriage or accident, fair bet this is in play).

    The other one, though, is simply when the show wants the character to actually have the baby, but to do so in a scenario where they weren’t intending to get pregnant and/or the pregnancy has real complications for the mother’s personal situation (i.e., when it is dramatic). I think this is a particular problem for comedies, as “unintended pregnancy leads to wacky consequences” (e.g., Knocked up) is a longstanding plot, and even discussing abortion raises issues, since abortion isn’t generally thought of as funny (unless it’s a black comedy).

    • TV characters have an absurdly high number of miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. If you want to introduce the drama of an unplanned pregnancy but don’t want to retool the show to have a baby, abortion is really the only gical way to conclude the arc.

    • Clifton

      Shameless has covered its bases: two are pregnant, one is keeping it and the other isn’t. Ta da!

  16. Did you watch the sequence in Jessica Jones? The scene in Jessica Jones involved a character having a medication abortion. This is very different than taking the morning after pill.

  17. Great piece.

  18. It’s really the only sensible thing to do, if it’s done safely. Therapeutically, there’s no danger involved.

  19. Lexzie

    The statistics presented in the article actually surprised me quite a bit.

    I applaud you for tackling such a controversial and sensitive topic in an informative, eloquent way.

  20. Tv is dramatized all the time and that’s why it feels that Tv has gotten it all wrong when speaking on abortion. It is very interesting to see how this controversial topic has been on tv for over 30 years.

  21. I’m glad you referenced Sex and the City. That episode did make abortion seem more “normal”, to be frank, when Samantha admits that she has had more than one abortion. I wish more shows would address the issue of guilt and depression that comes along with the decision.

  22. I think abortion is hard to portray accurately, because it is different for everyone. However, I’ve seen Scandal, Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, and I think each of those shows handled it admirably in different ways. I think a lot of shows have characters contemplate or go through with abortions, but I haven’t seen too much in terms of the effects afterwards. How do these characters feel? How should they feel? What symptoms accompany a decision like this? Guilt? Relief? Depression? Fear? All things that should be explored after making the decision to have or not have an abortion.

  23. X

    When I think of most television shows (sitcoms, dramas, etc.) there is a typically white, middle-class, college-educated fantasy which influences the ways with which consumers of all different backgrounds engage with a subject. For that reason, the depiction of abortion as a “white-only luxury” continue to have this pervasive connotation, despite the fact that most of the people who get abortions do not have access to such fantastic resources. I agree that representation is important, but abortion rights have always been and continue to be something that white women want as a “basic human right” despite the fact that women of color need abortions because they cannot support other people.

  24. ASeriousLady

    I love this topic–great article. This ties in so intimately with what types of women are portrayed in television ion a grander scale. Part of the reason why so many abortion stories are presented with young, white, middle or upper-middle class women as the character considering having an abortion is is because these are the types of female characters who are represented in television, period. The first step is to diversify the characters, then greater diversity in situations and circumstances can, and hopefully will, follow.

  25. I think you raise some fantastic points here, thank you Marcie! I am intrigued by the comment you have quoted about abortion being bad for a continuing narrative – I think this idea, as you say, has been noted by TV writers for years. I’m trying now to think of examples of when this has been disregarded.

    Recently I’ve seen some depictions of abortion that have been used to further a character arc or to provoke important discussion. Obvious Child has been mentioned in these comments already, and I loved it because of how the topic of abortion brought the protagonist and her friend into a conversation about their lives and their pasts, and it was a beautiful bonding moment that didn’t hinge upon any ethical questions. I also recently watched NW on BBC, an adaptation of a Zadie Smith story, in which an abortion threatened a character’s relationship because of her sense of guilt, but ultimately allowed her to open up about her desire to remain childless. I thought the storyline represented progressive ideas, because the character was able to confront societal pressures to embrace motherhood. These pressures are definitely relevant in many women’s lives, and I was glad to see them depicted on screen.

    I was wondering if you’d ever thought about representations of miscarriage – I read recently that about 1/4 of pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and yet I can barely think of any on-screen examples of characters experiencing this. I am keen to investigate further!

  26. The topic of abortion can be considered taboo by some, so many women turn to television and Hollywood for guidance, so it is very important to have this discussion on the screen. More than the medical procedure itself, it is helpful when the character contemplates the effects of her actions. Very thought-provoking article!

  27. I think that you’re topic choice here is very poignant and relevant considering all that is going on in the world. I do think Hollywood tends to glamorize abortion. They surround these women with like minded people and don’t include the judgement that women even considering the procedure have to endure. That is why I appreciated your mention of the show Roseanne. It showed that not everyone in your life is going to support your decisions, even those closest to you. And while that might not be the most entertaining thing to watch, it is reality to some.

  28. caitlinm

    A sensitive topic well handled, and your points were very interesting. Though I found the words of Eleanor Barkhorn quite harsh at first, I do agree that pregnancies in television shows are often carried on, even when abortion is considered, to create more material. A good read, Marcie!

  29. Josh Thomas’s Australian comedy Please Like Me presents a highly realistic account of abortion (by television standards). Not only does it show how Claire – the pregnant young woman at hand – comes to the decision to terminate her pregnancy, but how the process of getting a medical abortion works. In the show, Claire sits over the toilet as she passes the fetus and flushes it away. This more graphic and slightly unsettling depiction is a more realistic example of abortion that is experienced by so many women.

  30. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. I wrote an essay on abortion in films for The Artifice and did not realize one on how TV shows presented the topic was done. Again, a good essay.

  31. This article should be reposted now in July, 2022!

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