Actress Kerry Washington explained how the lack of accurate and representative media portrayals of abortion can increase stigma, explaining to Women's Wear Daily that “by not having those moments represented in media, we add to the idea that there's something shameful to be talked about.”
In a November episode of ABC thriller Scandal, Washington's Olivia Pope character had an abortion. In a January 27 interview with Women's Wear Daily, Washington explained the need for TV to reflect the full experiences of women who have abortions:
"[Abortion is] a reality, and more often than not, it's a really difficult choice to make. The same was true for Olivia," Washington said. “But by not having those moments represented in media, we add to the idea that there's something shameful to be talked about. It's always important that our storytelling reflects the real experiences of human beings, because it allows us to not feel as alone.”
Fictional TV shows depict a wide range of human experiences, but until recently the stories told about abortion have rarely showed the common experience of a procedure that nearly one in three women will have by age 45.
The portrait of abortion in our fictional TV shows and movies has been typically distorted from reality in several ways, including over-associating abortion with maternal death, and rarely showing women of color accessing abortion care. Women on TV who obtain abortions rarely look like Kerry Washington's character, a black woman and a professional who is not a teenager and was not made pregnant as a result of rape. Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport, academic researchers who study pop-culture depictions of abortion, have previously offered similar assessments to Washington's commentary, explaining that when fictional TV series fail to depict abortion, it “could contribute to feelings of internalized stigma or isolation among real women who obtain abortions.” Sisson discussed the Scandal episode in an email to Media Matters:
Scandal represents the first time that a Black woman as a lead character has obtained an abortion on network television. While Black women account for about 30 percent of all abortions in the U.S., they only account for 5 percent of the abortion plot lines that are shown on television. This leaves just a handful of stories -- usually centered around peripheral characters -- representing an experience shared by millions of Black women in the U.S. Before Scandal, this meant that there were only two examples of a Black woman getting an abortion on TV (with an additional depiction of a biracial Black woman).
Additionally, Scandal has been the first show to depict a modern abortion procedure in a medical setting, without cutting away immediately before the abortion begins. It did this twice in 2015: an episode in May, where Olivia helped a Naval officer obtain an abortion, and again in November, with Olivia's own abortion.
According to Sisson, the only previous depictions of black women having abortions were on the broadcast show The Good Wife -- where it was a peripheral character -- as well on The L Word and The Fosters.
The portrayal of a black woman having a non-tragic abortion shouldn't be a nearly singular event in television history. Media that distort “the real experiences of human beings” -- as Washington aptly put it -- contribute to stigmatizing those experiences and those human beings. It's time for media -- all media -- to stop contributing to the stigmatization of health care services that are necessary for women.