The entertainment industry isn't exactly known for realistic portrayals of abortion. It's a common trope that women facing unintended pregnancies onscreen either don't consider abortion as an option, or have the choice made for them by a convenient miscarriage. When women do have abortions onscreen, their risk of death is comically exaggerated. And aside from a recent episode of Scandal, it's almost unheard of to see a realistic depiction of the procedure itself.
Abortion plot lines on American television aren't quite as rare as you might think, according to a new report, at least in the last decade. From 2005-2014, researchers with the University of California, San Francisco, group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health identified 78 plot lines where a character considered abortion, including 40 where a woman had one.
But the researchers also found that the characters who do have abortions on TV, and their reasons for doing so, are wildly unrepresentative of reality — which could affect how people see women who have abortions.
TV portrays women who have abortions as young and self-centered
Most women who have abortions, about 61 percent, are already mothers, and most are in their 20s. But you wouldn't know that from TV. Just 15 percent of television characters who had abortions in the last decade already had children. And there were a lot more teen abortions on TV than in real life, even at a time when teen pregnancy rates have reached historic lows.
These factors help "build an interesting social myth, which is that women who get abortions aren't mothers and they don't want to be mothers," researcher Gretchen Sisson told NPR. In reality, she said, "the majority of women getting abortions are already parenting, and the vast majority intend to parent during their lives."
The reasons these characters had for getting an abortion, Sisson said, tended to be more "self-focused" than "other-focused." TV characters are more likely to get an abortion because it interferes with their education or career path, and there's a big focus on immaturity given how many teens have abortions on TV. But most real-life women get an abortion for very adult reasons: they know they can't afford to raise a child (or another child), they know it's not the right time for a baby, and they want to put their current family first.
Women who get abortions on TV are much whiter and wealthier than in real life
Television practically ignores the role of poverty and other socioeconomic factors in women's abortion decisions. Researchers found that 82 percent of TV characters having abortions were affluent or middle class, while 40 percent of real US women who have abortions have incomes below the federal poverty level.
The racial demographics are also completely out of whack:
Some of this disparity is probably a result of TV's general bias against marginalized characters. These findings are "consistent with a generally unrepresentative character population on television that is whiter, wealthier and younger than the real American populations," the report notes.
It also makes sense that a younger, whiter, richer set of female characters wouldn't have abortions for financial- or family-related reasons, since they have more options available to them than poorer women.
But it's clear that current TV plot lines aren't doing much to combat stereotypes that paint women who have abortions as selfish, lazy teenagers who don't put much thought into their decision.