Abortion on the Big Screen Looks Different Than in Real Life

Television characters considering abortion are whiter, younger, and better educated—and have markedly different reasons for seeking abortions—than in the real world.
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It seems there are a lot of wealthy, white teenagers getting abortions. At least, that's what we see on television, according to a new study—though reality is something else entirely.

Though we all know that most of what we see on television isn't real, it still helps shape our views of the world. For example, local news reports about crime, which often feature black suspects and white victims, lead whites to hold more negative opinions of blacks, according to a 2000 study in the American Journal of Political Science. More recently, researchers showed that watching the film The Cider House Rules, which centers on abortion in a case of incest, could shift opinions on abortion.

Given the power that film and TV have on us, University of California–San Francisco sociologists Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport wanted to look at how abortion is depicted on TV these days.

Contrary to what you see on TV, the majority of women who get abortions are already mothers.

To find out, they trawled the Internet—specifically IMDb—for TV episodes where abortion was central to the plot, yielding 78 plot lines that aired within the last 10 years. Next, the researchers watched a lot of TV to analyze which characters considered getting an abortion and which ones actually followed through with the procedure, and how that disparity compared with real-world statistics.

On TV, the researchers found, women who get abortions are younger, more likely to have a high school diploma (but not a college degree), and vastly more white than in the real world. But the most important difference, Sisson says, may not be who gets abortions, but rather why they're getting them.

"Women in the real world are telling us they're getting abortions because they need to care for children they already have" or because they're not financially prepared. On TV, financial concerns contribute to 10.5 percent of small-screen abortions, compared with 40 percent in the real world. Likewise, just 2.6 percent of the characters who have abortions do so because of the need to focus on other children, while 29 percent of real-life women who have an abortion cite the need to care for other kids as a contributing factor.

Read that again: Contrary to what you see on TV, a large portion—the majority, in fact—of women who get abortions are already mothers.

"That's definitely a story that we found was missing from television," Sisson says.

The results raise concerns about how the public perceives abortion in the United States. While any "single story on television is going to represent someone's reality," Sisson says, the overall on-screen picture is skewed—and that could affect public policy.

"We do know that a lot of abortion policy ... is not supported by evidence," Sisson says, and is instead predicated on abortion myths that TV and film might help perpetuate.

Sisson and Kimport have several similar studies planned, including analyses of how abortion providers, access to abortion, and medical outcomes are portrayed. "We've seen a lot of TV shows that link abortion to infertility [and] depression," Sisson says, "and the medical evidence doesn't support that."

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Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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