We aim to describe how women who seek abortions are portrayed on television, recognizing that onscreen fictional stories can shape the public's beliefs.
Drawing on a comprehensive online search, we identified all fictional representations of abortion decision making on U.S. television from 2005 through 2014. Characters who considered abortion in these plotlines were quantitatively content coded for their demographic details and reasons for abortion, with 95% intercoder reliability.
Seventy-eight plotlines were identified, including 40 plotlines (51%) wherein a character obtained an abortion. Characters who considered abortion were mostly white, young, in committed relationships and not parenting. Comparing all abortion-considering characters to the subset of abortion-obtaining characters, the higher rates of abortion were found for characters who were white, of lower socioeconomic status and not in committed relationships. Compared to statistics on real women, characters who obtained abortions were disproportionately white, young, wealthy and not parenting. Compared to reports on real women's reasons for abortion, immaturity or interference with future opportunities was overrepresented; financial hardship or pregnancy mistiming was underrepresented.
Taken in aggregate, televised abortion stories misrepresent the demographics of women obtaining abortion and their reasons for doing so, overrepresenting younger white women and underrepresenting women of color, poor women and mothers. Overrepresented reasons were more often self-focused rather than other-focused, contributing to a perception that abortion is a want rather than a need. Findings hint at the politics of onscreen abortions, suggesting that it is easier to portray with peripheral characters and among some demographics (e.g., teens).
Onscreen representations may influence public understandings, contributing to the production of abortion stigma and judgments about appropriate restrictions on abortion care. Understanding the particular shape of inaccuracies around abortion portrayals can enable advocates and healthcare practitioners to identify and respond to popular misperceptions.