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.
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.
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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- “Induced Abortion in the United States.” Guttmacher Institute. N.p., 03 May 2016. Web. 12 June 2016. ↩
- Barkhorn, Eleanor. “‘Mad Men’ and Abortion: It’s About Plot, Not Politics.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Oct. 2010. Web. 12 June 2016. ↩
- The Week Staff. “How TV Shows Deal with Abortion: A Timeline.” The Week. N.p., 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 June 2016. ↩
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