Study: Abortions on TV remain unrealistic — but 'Morning Show' treatment was nuanced
Scripted television continues to be unrealistic when it comes to depictions of abortion, though there's some improvement, according to the annual Abortion Onscreen reportreleased Tuesday by a research program on reproductive health based at the University of California San Francisco.
There was a slight decline in the number of abortion plotlines on TV in 2023, which researchers attribute not to "a lack of interest" but rather the lengthy writers' and actors' strikes.
Among the highlights of this year's report:
- A quarter of the abortion plotlines this year depicted the "logistical, financial, and legal barriers" to abortion access. But that was less than in 2022, when one-third of plotlines depicted those barriers.
- Almost half the characters who got abortions on TV this season were white, while the majority of people who have abortions in real life are people of color. TV characters were also younger, wealthier and less likely to have children than their real-life counterparts.
- There were six storylines about medication abortion, the highest representation ever.
- This year featured the most in-depth plotline about self-managed abortion, which was on The Morning Show.
This is the eighth year that the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program has been evaluating onscreen abortion plotlines. Researcher Steph Herold says depictions are getting closer to reality, but there are still gaps.
"We still don't see characters on TV trying to come up with the money for the cost of their abortion, trying to figure out if their insurance covers the abortion or not, trying to figure out if they can get somebody to cover their shift at work, if they can get somebody to watch their kids for them," Herold said.
Self-managed abortion on The Morning Show shows nuance
This year, in Season 3 of The Morning Show on Apple TV+, network anchor Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) pursues a story about a woman in Texas who helps people get abortion pills from Mexico. Herold said she found the series' treatment of this topic to be "really nuanced."
"This network of self-managed abortion advocates in Texas" is real, she said, and "legally very risky." Herold also applauded the language used to describe these medication abortions, which is when mifepristone and misoprostol are used to end a pregnancy.
"On TV, we rarely ever see people talk about medication abortion, let alone self-managed abortion," said Herold, "And in the process of the plotline unfolding, both she and her co-workers talk about how safe medication abortion is."
The study also singles out ABC's Grey's Anatomy for episodes that focus on "the persistent violent harassment that abortion providers face on a daily basis." This past season mirrors reality, when Dr. Miranda Bailey's reproductive health clinic is met with violent protests.
Herold said TV can help educate viewers about a topic that can be confusing, because people are more likely to watch TV than read medical journals or read other scientific information about abortion.
"The American public has such low knowledge about abortion," she said. "And that makes sense to me because ... the legal status of abortion seems to change [all the time] ... And I think people are very confused, not just about if abortion is legal, but if abortion is safe."
This story was edited by Jennifer Vanasco.
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