More Than Four Decades After Roe v. Wade, What Stories Are We Telling About Abortion?

On Wednesday, the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion marks its 41st birthday. But even after more than four decades under Roe v. Wade, many of society’s assumptions about abortion haven’t changed. Despite the fact that choosing to end a pregnancy is a very common experience among U.S. women, a pervasive stigma surrounding abortion makes many of those women feel like they’re not supposed to talk about it. The procedure has remained largely taboo — which communicates to women that it’s ultimately something to be ashamed about.

Some of that stigma certainly comes from a political culture that continues to attack abortion rights from every angle. But how much of it is seeped in our culture, and reinforced by the images and stories in our mass media? What narratives are we creating around abortion, and how do they influence our perceptions about it?

Those are the questions that guide Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport, two researchers from the think tank Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH). They’re interested in investigating the abortion-related plots in American television and movies, and they’ve completed a research paper on the subject that will soon be published in the Contraception journal. Although there’s been some discussion about the media’s portrayal of abortion, this is perhaps the first research project to systematically track and analyze the abortion-related plotlines in TV and film in the United States.

More common than you might think

The typical assumption about American media is that abortion is ignored altogether. But after reviewing data stretching back to the early 1900s, Sisson and Kimport found that abortion actually appears on the screen more often than most people might imagine. There’s been an increase in abortion story lines over the past 50 or 60 years — pretty unsurprising, since there are more TV shows and movies now than there were back then — and many of those stories appeared in TV shows and movies with large audiences.

“We found that abortion is there, it is in these stories, and it’s not really hidden,” Sisson, the lead researcher on the project, told ThinkProgress in an interview. “We found a lot of examples on network television, on prime time on network television, and in popular movies — Dirty Dancing, Ides of March — that people are actually watching. It’s not like representations of these stories are shoved to the side in media that people aren’t actually consuming.”

One of the critiques of recent story lines about unplanned pregnancies is that TV and movie characters hardly ever actually choose abortion, even if they initially consider it. Sisson and Kimport found hard data to give some context to that: overall, among the on-screen women who considered what to do about an unplanned pregnancy, about 57 percent of all those plots ended in an abortion.

Interestingly, fictional characters faced with an unintended pregnancy were more likely to choose abortion before Roe, compared to the characters that appeared in the media after 1973 — a trend that has intensified in recent years. Between 1973 and 2002, abortion represented about 60 percent of the pregnancy outcomes in pop culture plots. But from 2003 and 2012, that dropped to about 48 percent.

Abortion and violence

Of course, there are a lot more issues related to media representation of abortion than simply whether a character discusses one or chooses one. Sisson and Kimport are also interested in studying how those abortion procedures are portrayed, what happens to character’s story lines after they have an abortion, and how that stacks up with what we know about abortion in real life. Many of the U.S. women who have abortions are low-income, non-white, and are already parenting at least one child — but are any of those portrayals reflected in pop culture?

Their new study just begins to scratch the surface of all those questions, and both of them cautioned that they need to conduct more research to further delve into these topics. But their first examination of the data does reveal one significant finding: in U.S. media, abortion is strongly linked to violence.

First of all, abortions on the screen are portrayed as much more dangerous than the procedure is in real life. While real life women have virtually zero chance of dying from a legal abortion, statistically speaking, characters in TV shows and movies die from abortion a lot. Some of those stories take place before Roe, when abortion really was much less safe. But even in plots set in time periods after 1973, fictional abortions are linked to death at a rate that’s much higher than the medical reality.

Sisson pointed out that popular media obviously doesn’t always mirror real life, and not every medical procedure is portrayed accurately. “CPR is much more successful on TV than it is in real life, and people wake up from comas a lot more on TV and in movies than they do in real life. Some medical situations are a lot safer on television,” she noted. “But abortion is consistently more dangerous.”

Notably, it’s not just more dangerous during the procedure itself. Sisson and Kimport also found a disproportionate link to violence after the abortion occurred. The female characters who had abortions — as well as the female characters who considered having an abortion, but ended up deciding against it — were more likely to be murdered, or commit suicide, or encounter some other dire fate. There was no such link to violence for the characters who gave their children up for adoption.

“This linking of abortion and violence isn’t just a question of creating medical drama. It seems to be an ongoing linking between abortion and violence or risk,” Sisson explained. “And that of course will create stigma. It conveys an ongoing discomfort with the idea that abortion happens very frequently in our culture, and happens without drama, and is of course very safe.”

Why pop culture matters

Over the past several years, conservative lawmakers have become particularly preoccupied with making sure that abortion is safe. Despite the fact that abortion clinics are already highly regulated and the rate of complications from the procedure is already incredibly low, politicians have furthered a narrative that abortion is dangerous. It’s been largely successful. Under the guise of patient safety, state lawmakers have advanced harsh clinic regulations that have forced dozens of clinics to close their doors. Six states have just one public clinic left that will perform abortions. Ironically, since women’s access to legal abortion has been severely compromised, some of them are being forced to resort to illegal alternatives — something that really can be dangerous.

Culture and politics are often inextricably intertwined. So how much do our cultural perceptions of abortion contribute to that? Is our political atmosphere driving the violent abortion portrayals in the media, or is pop culture creating an atmosphere where it’s easy for Americans to agree that abortion is dangerous?

We don’t know the answers for sure. But it’s probably a bit of both.

“The dramatic components around abortion are very useful for some story lines, but may also be contributing to our social and cultural myths about abortion as something that’s dramatic and violent — when in fact, that doesn’t fit with most of the evidence on women’s actual experiences with abortion,” Kimport told ThinkProgress. “There’s an interactive relationship between politics and culture. It may be that political framings are influencing cultural framings. But at the same time, cultural framings are going to influence political framings.”

Sisson pointed out that there was a peak in abortion-related stories in 1972, right before Roe. The next year, that dropped off. That’s the type of data point she’s interested in examining further. Was that an example of abortion stories becoming more frequent, increasing public comfort with the issue and ultimately creating an environment in which broader legalization was possible? Was that a case of the TV and film industries responding to the push for legal abortion access? Or was it something else?

“There’s a lot going on here. You have the industry standards, and what’s happening in the political climate, and it’s hard to pinpoint. So we’d like to look more at that interaction effect between culture, politics, and what’s going on on-screen,” Sisson explained.

Both Sisson and Kimport are realistic about the limitations of pop culture, and aren’t suggesting that it should painstakingly reflect the reality of every issue. But they do maintain that fictional depictions of abortion can have very real implications for the women who have decided to end a pregnancy. If those people have never felt safe enough to talk to someone else about their decision, or connect with other women who have made the same choice, seeing abortion reflected on the screen is somewhat revolutionary.

“In our culture, there are so few spaces for people to talk openly and honestly about what abortion looks like, so the media becomes very important,” Sisson told ThinkProgress. “Our conversation around abortion is so polarized and politicized that there are very few opportunities to share their stories, say what their abortions looked like, or even share that they had an abortion. These stories of fictional characters become very resonant. They become a way of telling these stories that real women don’t have a space to tell.”

The future of the media

In some ways, it is possible to see subtle shifts in popular media.

Just this week, a 20-minute short film called “Obvious Child” premiered at Sundance — and it’s being billed as a romantic comedy about abortion. The director and screenwriter, Gillian Robespierre, told Salon that she felt “frustrated” that most of the story lines about unplanned pregnancy in popular movies ended with the woman having a baby. That didn’t ring true to her, or fit with the experiences of many people she knew, and she wanted to tell a story with a different ending.

“It turns out that a lot of people were waiting to hear this story — men and women,” Robespierre explained. “I had a lot of emails from men saying, ‘Thank you for writing this, because the guy is a good guy.’ And women writing to say, ‘Thank you so much for writing a story that actually makes sense to me.’”

And on Tuesday, MTV’s popular “Teen Mom” reality franchise depicted a storyline that diverges sharply from the show’s typical plot. One of the young women who gave birth as a teenager, Jenelle Evans, got pregnant again and chose to have an abortion. She decided that she wasn’t financially stable enough to have another baby, especially since she doesn’t currently have custody of her son. Jenelle allowed MTV to film her decision making process and her trip to a clinic. It represented somewhat of a departure for the network, which has previously relegated abortion-related plot lines to a separate special episode, rather than integrating them into the main structure of the series.

Although short films and reality television weren’t included in Sisson and Kimport’s new study, the two researchers are interested in continuing to explore this shift. They want to hone in on the media’s representations of abortion over the past five or ten years, tracking those story lines in greater detail, and eventually plan to launch a larger research project dedicated to the field.

“We feel like we’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg with these interesting questions about abortion,” Kimport told ThinkProgress. “There are huge opportunities for insight and informing media producers, health care practitioners, and advocates.”

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