Abortion Is Now on TV, but Barriers to Obtaining the Procedure Remain Largely Invisible

Reproductive Justice

A new study from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) examining portrayals of abortion access on television from 2005 to 2015, found that abortion is depicted as more accessible than it is in real life, even in circumstances where characters encounter obstacles. Challenges that real American women face—both personal and legal—are largely absent from television plot lines.

Researchers from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), a reproductive health research organization based at UCSF, identified 89 plotlines from 2005 to 2015, including in popular shows such as “Shameless,” “Orange is the New Black” and “Friday Night Lights,” in which characters considered or had an abortion. Their analysis, published in Feminism & Psychology, found that these plotlines often underrepresent the various difficulties, including legal barriers, financial constraints and social pressures, that real women face when pursuing abortions.

“Television portrayals of women not encountering or easily overcoming barriers to abortion access simply do not reflect reality for many women across the country,” said Gretchen Sisson, Ph.D., a sociologist at UCSF and lead author on the publication. “By minimizing the very real and tremendous challenges women often face when seeking abortion care, TV shows can perpetuate misperceptions among the general public about the existence and consequences of real-world restrictions on abortion.”