Why authentic abortion stories in TV and film are a sign of the times in the post-Roe era

In 2004, a Canadian TV show made headlines for a controversial episode in which a pregnant teenage girl, much to her boyfriend’s chagrin, decides to have an abortion. Her mother drives her to the clinic.

Yes that’s right Degrassi: the next generation — and the infamous episode, titled Accidents will happenwas postponed to US viewers after a US cable channel decided to remove it before it could air.

Experts note that the mid-aughts episode was shot at a time when on-screen depictions of abortion and discussions about the procedure in film and TV became more frequent and complex, in order to reflect public sentiment about the procedure.

“There are really a lot of rich stories told, a lot of interesting themes to trace, especially as they relate to the politics of what was going on at the time,” said Stephanie Herold, a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco. Francisco (UCSF) investigating how abortion is portrayed in film and TV.

With abortion bans expected in about half of U.S. states following the quashing of the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in June — and some Canadian proponents worried about the fate of the procedure here — scientists and filmmakers say abortion must evolve to accurately reflect real life experiences .

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Kate Kelly, of the Shout Your Abortion advocacy group, says multiple groups in the US are working to educate people about the availability of abortion medications after Roe v. Wade was quashed.

A ‘disturbing departure’ from reality

While the storylines have improved since early on-screen abortions in the 1960s and 1970s, it hasn’t been a perfect evolution, according to Herold.

Herold’s contributing project, Abortion Onscreen, began when UCSF sociologist Gretchen Sisson began researching the history of abortion in Hollywood.

The two have since compiled a massive database of on-screen abortions, studying the race, age, socioeconomic conditions and health outcomes of characters who receive the procedure in film and TV.

Stephanie Herold is a New York-based researcher who helped compile a massive database of on-screen abortions, studying the race, age, socioeconomic conditions, and health outcomes of characters who receive the procedure in film and TV. (Stephanie Herold)

Herold and Sisson have discovered that there is a big gap between fictional and real stories. For example, less than one percent of abortions lead to a serious complication, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology — but on-screen, that figure rises to 18 percent, more than 70 times the actual complication rate, Herold says. .

“The majority of the characters who have abortions on TV and film are white, are rich, have no children at the time of their abortion, which is a really disturbing departure from the reality of who has abortions,” she added.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research firm that supports abortion rights, 59 percent of abortion patients in the US already have children; 49 percent live below the poverty line (75 percent are poor or have a low income); and the majority are racialized, with black and Hispanic patients making up 28 percent and 25 percent of patients, respectively.

“Characters have almost none of the logistical, financial, legal hurdles that real abortion patients face,” said Herold, which — especially in the US — can include traveling out of state, finding childcare and out-of-pocket expenses.

She pointed to an episode of the CBC show working moms as one that faithfully portrays the challenges of access to abortion in the Canadian health care system: Anne (Dani Kind) is frustrated when she discovers that there is a significant wait before she can have an abortion.

TV shows like Scandal, Alias ​​Grace, shrill, Wynonna Earp and Glow have aired several abortion storylines in recent years. In shrillAnnie (Aidy Bryant) visits an abortion clinic when she discovers that morning after pills aren’t as effective for plus-sized women.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in the season finale of the ABC series Scandal. In a 2015 episode, the character undergoes an abortion. (Nicole Wilder/ABC/The Associated Press)

Movies like Clear child and Never Seldom Sometimes Always have explored the emotional and logistical challenges of abortion. In the latter, a 17-year-old girl travels from Pennsylvania to New York City with her cousin to get the procedure, desperate to scrape together the money to pay for it.

‘Our job is not to make choices for young people’

“What I like to say is that our job is not to make these topics too sensational,” degrassia co-creator Linda Schuyler told CBC News in a 2020 interview where she discussed the drawn episode.

“It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about abortion or gay rights or whatever we’re talking about. Our job is not to make choices for young people. It’s to give them information to make their own choices,” he said. they.

Samantha Loney, a screenwriter for Métis in Barrie, Ontario, is currently working on two original films featuring an abortion story. One of them is a short film called Assuming in which a woman and her boyfriend discuss the termination of a pregnancy. The ending is purposely left ambiguous.

“I always like to leave things open to my audience when I’m making projects because I never want to give my opinion — that’s not my job as a filmmaker,” Loney said. “My job as a filmmaker is to put my own life experience into my work.”

“My job as a filmmaker is to put my own life experience into my work,” says Samantha Loney, a screenwriter from Métis who is currently working on two original films with an abortion story. (Samantha Loney)

“It’s up to the public to have these discussions and change people’s minds together, right? I think that’s the beauty of art, that it can change people’s lives when they see a movie.”

Toronto actor and filmmaker Emily Schooley’s first feature film, called a queer horror romance Bloodlines, features a character named Laura who is considering an abortion. Schooley herself had an abortion when she was much younger, she said.

“The way I approach the discussion about abortion is not so much what happens in the room, but what is the aftermath and what goes into the tough decisions that many women have to make,” she said.

Toronto actor and filmmaker Emily Schooley, who had an abortion as a young woman, says her first feature film follows a character named Laura as she ponders the procedure. (Emily Schooley)

The future of abortion storytelling

Abortions on TV and film are often what Herold calls “self-motivated”: driven by a desire to pursue a career, be independent, or continue an education. While these are valid reasons for an abortion, she said, they’re not the only reasons.

Women may consider whether they have enough money to support a child, whether they want to focus on children they already have, or whether the person they are partnering with is not someone they want to raise a child with.

“We rarely see these kinds of structural considerations when characters show their abortions on TV,” she said.

What might telling abortion stories in TV and film look like in the near future? Herold hopes these images dig deeper to address existing barriers to entry and show a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Dani Kind is portrayed as Anne Carlson in Workin’ Moms. Anne’s season one character arc ends with getting an abortion, indicating that many of the women who want to undergo the procedure are already parents. (Working Moms/CBC)

“We really need images that bring abortion to life as a matter of race, class, gender or family love stories that really bridge the gap between who has abortions in real life and who has abortions on screen,” she said.

“That would mean giving priority to the stories of characters of color, of people raising families at the time of their abortion, characters struggling to make ends meet, queer characters, disabled characters, indigenous characters and characters who living at the intersections of all these identities.”

Just as the subject has changed since the first TV portrayal of abortion in 1962 courtroom drama episode The Defenderspost-Roe era stories about abortion may take a different approach.

Loney said she’s not sure if the art emerging from this period will play a role in changing laws or the political landscape — but time will tell how the political climate has affected the media portrayal of abortion and the conversation around it.

“Art reflects time,” she said.

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