Abortion is often depicted as the key battle in the “culture wars,” a term that can seem dismissive of the importance of abortion rights to people’s lives. But abortion is a cultural issue as well as a health and rights issue, and the way we understand it is informed by how it’s represented in our entertainment.
Unfortunately for us, television and movies rarely do a solid job of showing the reality of abortion. According to the research group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), abortions onscreen are nearly 20 times more dangerous than they are in real life, while characters are typically shown agonizing over whether to get one. (Think Blue Valentine‘s Cindy backing out of a scheduled abortion, Juno‘s title character fleeing the abortion-providing clinic she visits, or Sex and the City‘s Miranda revealing after her abortion appointment that she didn’t go through with the procedure).
The truth is that women seeking abortion are even more confident about it than they are about other health care decisions, and that the procedure is common and safe. It’s not difficult to portray it in an accurate light — here are five ways screenwriters and showrunners can make abortion storylines less fraught, less heavy-handed, and more reflective of reality.
1. Show abortion is common.
As many as one in three women in the U.S. will have an abortion in her lifetime, making abortion one of the most common medical experiences. Despite that, it remains mired in stigma and is too little discussed — and when television and movies deal with abortion, they often leave out how everyday it is. Although Sex and the City‘s Miranda ultimately opts out of an abortion, the show did make an attempt at showing abortion as a shared experience among friends. As Carrie, Miranda, and Samantha discuss the procedure in the fourth-season episode “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” Samantha flippantly notes that she’s had two abortions, while Carrie says she’s had one. Abortion isn’t rare, and it’s something women should feel comfortable discussing with each other.
2. Show abortion is safe.
When abortion is legal, it is safe — very safe. You are more likely to die from a colonoscopy or knee replacement surgery than from a legal surgical abortion. But you wouldn’t know that from onscreen depictions, which often misrepresent the safety of abortion and the professionalism of the people who provide it. Remember the rude, neglectful receptionist at the clinic in Juno? She illustrated the compassion-free demeanor anti-choice activists often attribute to clinic staff. Then there’s the bizarre abortion storyline in The Walking Dead: When Lori decides to terminate a pregnancy, she takes what the show calls “morning-after pills,” which make her violently ill (note that medication abortion and the morning-after pill are not the same thing).
Juxtapose this with Netflix’s summer hit GLOW, a show about women wrestlers in the 1980s, which deftly challenges this trope. Ruth Wilder, played by Alison Brie, discovers she’s pregnant just as the women’s wrestling show in which she has been cast is about to premiere. Ruth’s decision isn’t difficult for her. It’s clear — so clear that the show doesn’t even have to spell out her thought process. She simply calls a friend and goes to a Planned Parenthood clinic, with clean facilities and compassionate staff. Ruth has the procedure, which is safe and without complications, as is true for more than 99 percent of abortions in the U.S. She then goes on to wrestle in the pilot episode of her show. Ruth is fine and healthy, because abortion is fine and healthy.
3. Don’t default to portraying the choice to get an abortion as dramatic and difficult.
Even supporters of abortion rights can make abortion seem tragic, continually referring to the “difficult” decision of whether to get one. This simply isn’t the case for everyone who has an abortion (in fact, the overwhelming majority of women note that the primary emotion they experience after an abortion is relief). The 2014 film Obvious Child captured this so well. When Jennie Slate’s character Donna gets pregnant after a one-night stand and loses her job, she seems poised to agonize over whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. But the script is flipped in this raucous romantic comedy and Donna’s abortion is scheduled at a Planned Parenthood on that high holy day of romance, Valentine’s Day. Donna gets the guy she’s after and also gets to exercise her autonomy. She doesn’t back out of getting an abortion, she doesn’t regret it, and it doesn’t ruin the trajectory of her life — it enhances it.
4. Keep in mind that while abortion is often painted as a divisive, us-versus-them issue, it’s way more nuanced on a personal level.
Abortion has long been a political firestorm, and that didn’t change when it was legalized nationwide in 1973. While nearly seven in ten Americans support Roe v. Wade, there’s a near-even split between those who identify as pro-choice and those who identify as pro-life. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, most Americans support access to safe abortion for others, even if they personally disagree with it. Few shows have conveyed this stance as well as the CW’s Jane the Virgin. Jane’s mother, Xiomara, chooses to terminate a pregnancy for the perfectly valid reason that she doesn’t want to have another child. There is very little drama in Xiomara’s decision.
There is drama, however, in Xiomara’s interaction with her mother, Jane’s abuela Alba. Alba is Catholic and deeply anti-abortion, and once she finds out about her daughter’s decision, she’s very upset — but Xiomara refuses to apologize. Xiomara doesn’t regret her choice, and her “fight” with Alba mirrors the often-ignored reality of abortion: While many people don’t personally support abortion, they know and love someone who has had one and ultimately back their right to make that choice. In the end, Alba accepts Xiomara’s decision — even if it isn’t the one she would have made for herself — and they move on and continue to love each other.
5. Show that a hugely diverse group of people need — and get — abortions.
Who has abortions and who we think has abortions may very well be two different things. The demographic breakdown of women who have abortions in the U.S. shows great diversity: The Guttmacher Institute reports that while white women make up the plurality of abortion patients, women of color are the majority. More than half of patients identify as Christian, and 59 percent of abortions in 2014 were obtained by patients who had already had at least one birth. That means most people who get abortions in the U.S. are already parents.
That’s another facet of abortion Jane the Virgin showcased so well. While more than half of all abortions in the U.S. are obtained by people in their 20s, many of those same patients already have children of their own. Xiomara is a mother herself — she has a grown daughter and doesn’t want to have another child. If screenwriters want to reflect women’s lived experiences, more of the characters opting to terminate pregnancies should be mothers, too.
Of course, screenwriters have license to punch up the drama of their scripts. But a legal, safe medical procedure that improves women’s health and lives shouldn’t be the source of that drama over and over again. Even when we know what we’re watching is fiction, what we see affects what we think. That’s why realistic depictions of abortion in TV and movies are important: They challenge the harmful narrative that abortion is bad, shameful, and rare. The truth is that you know someone who has had an abortion, and it’s not unlikely you’ve had one yourself. Abortion is normal. Abortion is common. Abortion is quotidian. That’s the reality of abortion. It’s time our entertainment showed it.
More on abortion:
- Research Says You Can Safely Induce Your Own Abortion
- Rape Survivors in Texas May Have to Pay for Their Own Abortions Thanks to This Bill
- Using Birth Control or Getting an Abortion Could Disqualify You From Jobs in Missouri
- 1 1. Show abortion is common.
- 2 2. Show abortion is safe.
- 3 3. Don’t default to portraying the choice to get an abortion as dramatic and difficult.
- 4 4. Keep in mind that while abortion is often painted as a divisive, us-versus-them issue, it’s way more nuanced on a personal level.
- 5 5. Show that a hugely diverse group of people need — and get — abortions.