opinion | From ‘Dirty Dancing’ to ‘Scandal’, onscreen miscarriage stories carry the impact

In the weeks since Roe v. Wade fell, people supported abortion access and rights in many ways, including spreading information about the abortion pill and defending brave doctors. My contribution was to think about TV and movies.

Abortion has been represented on television and in films dating back to the silent films of the early 20th century. My colleagues at Abortion Onscreen and I have tracked more than 500 abortion streaks across genres, such as historical fiction, medical dramas, science fiction, and even comedies. Over the past decade, as abortion restrictions have spread across the country, the number of abortion stories on screen has increased exponentially as well: in 2012, we documented only 15 abortion lines, and in 2021 we found 47.

But rather than normalizing abortion, the increased visibility of abortion on television and in movies has in many cases contributed to stigma and misinformation. As is often the case with Hollywood’s acting problems, this can have wide-ranging implications. When the public sees abortion depicted on screen, some will incorporate what they see into their general understanding of abortion – who has abortions, how easy or difficult it is to access abortion and how safe (or not) abortion. This has the potential to influence viewers’ knowledge, beliefs, and voting behaviors about abortion.

Take the hit movie “Dirty Dancing”. Would the public interpret Penny’s abortion prior to Roe as unsafe because it was illegal or unsafe because it was an abortion? When the audience sees Annie in “Shrill” or Xiomara on “Jane the Virgin” getting an abortion without being forced to cross significant barriers to access, does the audience infer that abortion is unregulated? Given the ever-dwindling landscape of abortion access, we must address the misconceptions that the media creates and reinforces, especially in a post-Raw world. Film and television makers need to think carefully about how they portray abortion.

The portrayal of abortion on screen often greatly exaggerates the medical risks associated with it, overemphasizing serious complications that are extremely rare or not present in real life, such as infertility, mental illness, and death. My colleagues found that on American television from 2005 to 2016, there was a 5 percent chance of dying from a character abortion—more than 10,000 times the documented rate of legal abortion. Our analysis of the most recent TV plot lines found that the visuals improve when it comes to safety, yet the on-screen characters are still more likely to have significant complications as a result of a miscarriage than a real-life miscarriage patient.

Another issue is demographics. Given Hollywood’s many problems with race, gender, and class representation, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the characters who get abortions on screen are young, white, and at least middle-class; They are also, by and large, not paternalistic. By contrast, true abortion patients in the United States are usually parents, people of disproportionate color, and people who live at or below the federal poverty line.

When a character on TV decides they want an abortion, they usually do not face legal or logistical barriers. And when she does, she usually doesn’t encounter some of the common real-world barriers to abortion, such as not being able to afford child care, taking time off work, or struggling to raise hundreds of dollars for an abortion that isn’t covered by insurance.

Television also constantly tells one story about illegal abortion – a story in which a woman desperately seeks an abortion from an unscrupulous provider. But the future of illegal abortion looks very different: Modern abortion seekers have options, such as abortion pills, that can be ordered online, and that are considered medically safer, even though those options can carry legal risks.

More than half of recent abortions in the United States were abortions by birth control pill, yet depictions of this method on television and in films are still rare. Perhaps it’s no wonder that many Americans are still unaware of abortion pills, let alone how safe they are and what it’s like to take them. When surgical abortions are depicted on screen, they are often portrayed as major medical events rather than as simple outpatient procedures, as is often the case.

As many viewers enter the conversation about abortion with very little basic knowledge, these contradictions fill in the gaps with misguided fantasies. Taken together, inaccurate portrayals of abortion may lead the public to believe we need to regulate it more, not less.

It’s also true that the past several years of on-screen abortion stories have come close to representing the reality of abortion in the United States. Be honest in life and have fun. Recent TV dramas like “A Million Little Things” and “Station 19” have shown how to support your loved ones through medical abortion. And in recent years, we’ve seen more characters of color have or disclose past miscarriages, including Olivia Pope in “Scandal” and Mia in “Love Life.”

Our study of the 2019 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” found that viewers had increased knowledge of abortion pills after watching the episode, demonstrating that television portrayals of abortion can make a meaningful difference, with a degree of intent on the part of the creators.

There are many reasons why we don’t see more – and more accurate – images of miscarriages on screen. In interviews with over 40 TV content creators, my colleague and I have repeatedly heard about the barriers to getting abortion plot lines from page to screen, such as silent show makers and networks fearing negative feedback from advertisers and audiences. Some writers and writers have spoken publicly about this. Shonda Rhimes told HuffPost of Olivia Pope’s miscarriage of Olivia Pope in “Scandal,” “I’ve never fought so hard for a ‘Scandal’ episode.” “The studio came to me and said, ‘OK, Eleanor, we’re going to pay you to go back to the editing room and get the abortion out,'” Eleanor Bergstein, the screenwriter behind “Dirty Dancing,” said in a 2017 interview. “…and I always knew that day would come.”

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

Steve Herold is a researcher with the Abortion Onscreen Program with the development of new standards in reproductive health. She has co-authored peer-reviewed papers on abortion on television and in films, told abortion stories and the stigma of abortion, and is a board member of the All-Options Group.

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