The TV shows got these things wrong about Roe this year

From characters having to go out of state to access abortion care to an episode of “Law & Order” featuring “the first ever representation of an abortion fund volunteer,” many television programs incorporated stories showing the repercussions of the US Supreme Court’s reversal. Roe v. Wade this year. But as a new report released Thursday lays out, they often produced mixed results and did so in misleading ways that don’t accurately reflect the wide range of abortion stories in the United States.

Over the past decade, researcher Steph Herold and her team at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco, have collected and studied stories about abortion in pop culturewhether it’s a character having an abortion, revealing a past abortion, and/or considering an abortion.

More TV shows in 2022 began describing the legal, financial and logistical barriers to abortion access, according to its most recent report. The TV characters faced obstacles such as having to drive long distances to reach an abortion provider, having to raise money to pay for the abortion, and having trouble taking time off work or finding child care. But for Herold, who for years has pointed to the lack of television arguments that reflect the difficulties of accessing abortion, this change has been “too little, too late.”

“Unfortunately, the Dobbs decision was a big wake-up call for a lot of people,” he said in an interview, referring to the Mississippi abortion access case that led to Roe’s overturn. “I think there are a lot of writers, showrunners, and hopefully producers and networks, who are now here to take a little more risk in the service of telling some of these stories.”

The year 2022 marked an all-time high in television stories about abortion since she and her team began collecting this data. There were at least 60 abortion-related plots or mentions in 52 TV shows, an increase from last year, when there were 47 abortion-related plots in 42 shows. That’s a huge change even from just a few years ago: in 2016, they only met 13 stories related to abortion on major scripted shows in the US

But the shows keep repeating many of the same tropes. Chief among them is that, demographically, TV shows still don’t reflect who is most likely to face barriers to accessing abortion, a trend Herold has long documented. Most TV stars who have abortions are still “young, white, rich characters,” which Herold believes is a product of Hollywood’s risk aversion and the fact that executives to think will earn money

“I think there’s this presumption that the story that audiences want to see, if they want to see stories about abortion, is about that, like an attractive, young, rich white woman, although the reality is that I think audiences really it deserves. much more credit. Most want to see all kinds of different stories represented on television,” he said. “Of course, at the top of it all is capitalism and white supremacy. Even though the writers’ rooms they’re diversifying, that’s not coming to the networks. The people who are ultimately making the decisions are a lot of the older white men or white women who are cutting those stories that could really push boundaries and could tell some of the stories that we keep saying we want to see.”

Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and her daughter Terricka (A'zaria Carter) go to an abortion clinic while surrounded by protesters in the second season of "P-Valley" on Starz.
Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and her daughter Terricka (A’zaria Carter) go to an abortion clinic while surrounded by protesters in “P-Valley” Season 2 on Starz.

According to the Herold’s report, only eight abortion arguments (or 23%) involved black characters, an improvement over previous years, but still not reflective of the reality of abortion in the United States, where around 33% of abortion patients are black. And about 60% of people seeking abortions are already parents, a story not often portrayed on television. As the report notes: “This continues to erase the all-too-common experience of parents who abort, and perpetuates the false dichotomy between parenting and abortion.”

There is still a relative lack of everyday experiences of abortion on television, especially in legal and medical procedurals, which often create stories out of exceptional circumstances, “ripped from the headlines” for maximum dramatic effect. This season of ABC’s long-running medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” (which has often featured abortion admirably, even at times when many shows haven’t) featured two episodes that explored the effects of the decision Supreme Court last summer. As Herold explained, each episode did a few things right, but also reinforced several inaccurate tropes (among them: both abortion-seeking characters are white).

In an October episode, Dr. Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) teaches a teenage girl how to safely take pills for a medical abortion. “Our research has shown that this kind of information can increase people’s knowledge about medication abortion, especially coming from a doctor character, so that’s great,” Herold said. “But in terms of helping people understand who’s having an abortion, why they’re having an abortion, developing empathy, having a one-off character there for a few minutes isn’t really going to do it. You need it to be a character that people have a relationship with for many episodes or a season.”

A few episodes later, Bailey and Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) is treating a pregnant woman from Idaho who had to travel across the border to Washington to get an abortion for an ectopic pregnancy. But while the three of them are stuck in traffic, she dies.

“It’s like this white character who’s just this victim and she’s not having an abortion for the much, much, much more common reasons people have abortions. Like, they can’t afford to have another child, or they don’t want to raise a child with the partner they have now or they don’t want to get pregnant right now, all these reasons that are less dramatic, that’s why we don’t see them on TV.”

Herold understands that shows like “Grey’s” often “turn up the drama,” which leads to these extreme scenarios. “The problem is that people have so little information about abortion that they often see these kinds of depictions and think, like, ‘Oh, OK, this could be how it happens in real life.'” For example, if you see car accident on TV, you have enough information to say, “OK, I know that driving is really safe.” That’s probably not going to happen while I’m doing X, Y, Z. But most people don’t have that kind of counterfactual [for abortion]. And they might not think, like, “Oh, a lot of other people are suffering, not just this mom from the suburbs who has an ectopic pregnancy.” In fact, millions of people now can’t get the abortions they need, not just people with ectopic pregnancies,” Herold said. “I understand why they did that: It’s very dramatic to have a fallopian tube burst on the side of the road I just hope we see more and more everyday types of abortion scenes as well.”

Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and Addison (Kate Walsh) volunteer at an abortion clinic in an episode of ABC. "Grey's Anatomy."
Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and Addison (Kate Walsh) volunteer at an abortion clinic in an episode of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Liliane Lathan/ABC via Getty Images

One of the best shows of 2022 that incorporated abortion into its plot was Starz’s “P-Valley.” created by Katori Hall, who had long wanted to write an episode exploring Mississippi’s restrictive abortion laws. Herold said she appreciated that the show meaningfully explored the relationship between Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and her daughter Terricka (A’zaria Carter) as the daughter pondered whether to have an abortion and that the story focused on low-income black women without being exploitative

“I hope that the success of shows and stories like this will help motivate others to not only tell stories, but to greenlight stories that people already want to share,” Herold said. But he worries about the current wave of financial cuts in Hollywood. In times of economic contraction, executives often disproportionately silence underrepresented voices and re-greenlight stories they consider less risky, which could delay progress in representation.

In an ideal world, Herold would like to see more shows in different genres and time periods that incorporate abortion in a substantial way, or even “a writers’ room full of people who have had abortions.”

“Attracting more people who have had abortions would just lead to so many different creative opportunities. I’m just thinking about all kinds of genres, like, what if we had time-traveling abortion providers — sci-fi but with abortion? Or I would love to see some historical romance that incorporated abortion. There could be a historical romance about an abortion provider who performs safe, illegal abortions for her and all her friends, and the drama and romance there? Could there be some sort of workplace sitcom about abortion fund volunteers? There could be a lot of different possibilities,” he said. “I just want the narrative arc of the show to be about abortion and not just be a one-time thing, so that the audience really gets to know and love these characters and have a relationship with them.”

Read the full report, “Abortion on Screen in 2022,” here.

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