Television’s abortion plotlines are an interesting gauge of the cultural mood. There have often been long periods of time in which every single unintended pregnancy on television ends when a convenient miscarriage that makes the decision for the protagonist — or when a sudden waiting-room change of heart turns her into a loving mom. Even shows like Sex and the City or Girls have gone in those stereotypical directions.
But even if the taboo is broken and an actual abortion is portrayed, clichés still abound. In many of these shows, including the best episodes (like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood), the decision is agonizing, marked by tears and hand-wringing. Furthermore, studies have shown that women who have abortions on TV, even on progressive shows, are more likely to end up dying in subsequent episodes. On television, abortions almost always happen because the protagonist is young or a victim or rape — which is to say, because she’s in some sort of vulnerable, compromised position. Yet often in reality, women choosing abortion are already mothers who can’t care for another child, or hard-pressed women who simply cannot afford a child. Abortion is often seen as dangerous on TV, whereas in practice, most abortions are largely safe and even mundane procedures.
This makes sense, of course, in that most of us live in a a much more prosaic world than TV ever shows. But the combination of a need for dramatic arcs and a lack of good information about the reality of abortions has created a number of sub-taboos that were broken this year thanks to Shonda Rhimes and several other courageous TV writers and showrunners.
Pro-choice group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) has a subsidiary Abortion Onscreen project whose members studied all the discussions of abortion on television in 2015. They found some heartening developments that show a positive trend:
Each of these 12 storylines included a character making (or who had made) a decision about getting an abortion. In 8 cases, the character actually got an abortion—that means 67% of the characters depicted consider[ing] abortion had an abortion. (This is on par with our 2014 data, where 11 abortion stories featured 7 characters getting abortions. However, it does represent a noticeable uptick from previous decades, where only 50% of characters considering abortion obtained one.) Three abortions were shown onscreen, including 2 contemporary abortion procedures, which had not previously been shown on television. Additionally, we saw the first portrayal of safe, accurate, and effective use of medication abortion.
Those two “contemporary abortion procedures” took place on Rhimes’ beloved show Scandal, and in both instances, Rhimes broke taboo in a major way. First, she actually showed the abortion scenes, which almost never happens. Usually, the closest viewers get is a waiting room. As ANSIRH noted, one episode featured the “first example of a contemporary abortion procedure actually being shown onscreen: the doctor is shown turning on the vacuum aspirator and inserting tools between the patient’s legs, while Olivia holds her hand.” In the second episode, Olivia Pope herself terminates a pregnancy. Beyond just showing the procedures, though, Rhimes dispensed with the agonizing. Her characters, including a Navy officer who was raped as well as Olivia, each felt that they were making the right decision, went ahead with it, and then the abortion happened.
It’s marvelous that a series known for melodrama and unrealistic plotlines got so close to depicting what having an abortion is actually like. Other shows that broke these smaller taboos included Australia’s Please Like Me and the Netflix hit Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which both featured a safe, medication-induced abortion (although — spoiler alert! — the Jessica Jones character later dies), while Halt and Catch Fire showed a mother getting the procedure, an extremely rare television storyline that is extremely common in the real world. Even Girls reversed its earlier mealy abortion plot by showing new character Mimi Rose refusing to be shamed for her quiet choice to have an abortion without consulting her boyfriend.
The irony is that, just as TV is creating its most groundbreaking depictions of abortion, in the political sphere, abortion rights continue to erode at a startling pace. Meanwhile, we’ve also seen an uptick of violent threats — and deadly violence — against abortion providers in the wake of recent Planned Parenthood video smears. It may be that the climate of extremism is empowering artists to be more honest about abortion — just as celebrities have been. Or it may simply be that the polarization between our feminist-minded pop culture and the regressive reality of local politics is continuing to grow more and more pronounced. Either way, the more the viewing public really understands what abortion entails, the more prepared we’ll be to counteract the stigma that lingers around abortion and enables fanatics.