Abortion Plotlines On TV Shows Misrepresent Racial, Socioeconomic Diversity Of American Women

A new study produced by the University of California, San Francisco-based research group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) has found that plotlines about abortion in popular television shows overwhelmingly focus on characters who are white women, drastically understating the ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity of the millions of American women who choose to undergo the medical procedure.

A new study by ANSIRH researchers Katrina Kimport and Gretchen Sisson has found that abortion depictions and plotlines on TV poorly represent the population of women who have abortions in real life, according a review of the study by Bitch Media editor Sarah Mink. The study, published on December 3 in the journal Contraception (paywall), reveals a glaring lack of diversity among characters who seek abortions by highlighting the underrepresentation of women of color as well as other demographics such as age, income, parental status, and even stated reasons for seeking an abortion.

The study found that from 2005 to 2014, there were 78 television shows that featured a plotline where a character considered an abortion. Of those 78 instances, the featured character went through with the procedure 40 times. By comparing their findings against actual demographic data for American women who have abortions, the researchers concluded that while in the real world white women account for only 36.1 percent of abortions, on TV they accounted for 87.5 percent of abortions. Meanwhile, black women, whom the researchers show represent 29.6 percent of actual abortions, were only five percent of TV abortions. The researchers also found that Latina women were completely absent from any depictions of characters obtaining an abortion, despite the fact that in the real world they account for 24.9 percent of abortion procedures. In the study, the authors note that some discrepancies of abortion depictions, are “consistent with a generally unrepresentative character population on television that is whiter, wealthier and younger than the real American populations, however other discrepancies are harder to contextualize” such as the underrepresentation of parents obtaining abortions.

The study authors speculated on the cultural implications of overrepresentation of white women in abortion TV plotlines. From Bitch Media:

Generally, the underrepresentation of certain populations of women considering abortion onscreen could contribute to feelings of internalized stigma or isolation among real women who obtain abortions but do not see themselves or their experiences represented in popular culture. For example, the dearth of Latina and black characters shown obtaining abortions may convey the idea that women of color do not need or willingly get abortions.

The relatively few depictions of women of color on TV obtaining an abortion is precisely why actress Kerry Washington's character, Oliver Pope, a black woman, having an abortion on the show “Scandal” was seen as groundbreaking. A positive and safe depiction of an abortion procedure is rare for television -- which too often associates abortion with maternal death, another form of cultural distortion. Right-wing media aren't pleased when abortion is portrayed in a positive light, the critically-acclaimed episode of “Scandal” prompted Rush Limbaugh to call it “genuinely, literally sickening.”

If TV is truly beginning to tell different types of abortion stories, it would be a step in the right direction if women of color's stories of abortion would be part of the show. ANSIRH's summarized study findings can be viewed below: