Media Matters has consistently found that evening cable news can’t stop misinforming about abortion, and a new study from the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) demonstrates that the stigma this misinformation supports isn’t just pervasive in the news; it dominates popular culture as well.
Abortion stigma assumes that having an abortion is inherently wrong, and it contributes to negative assumptions about those who have them. Although this definition may seem broad, these assumptions are reinforced through some media coverage and popular culture -- and by many people’s lack of accurate information about the procedure itself. The resulting stigma can cause individuals, including politicians, to push dangerous myths, policies, and laws restricting abortion access.
A study by Media Matters that examined segments about abortion or reproductive rights on evening cable news programs on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC from March 7, 2016 through March 1, 2017, found that 64 percent of cable news segments about abortion contained inaccurate information. More specifically, cable news reported inaccurate information about late-term abortion a staggering 88 percent of the time. While abortion is a safe procedure undergone for a host of different personal reasons, cable news often depicts it as dangerous and morally bankrupt based on misinformation from discredited and biased anti-abortion groups.
Beyond cable news, television plotlines overwhelmingly depict abortion in inaccurate and stigmatizing ways. In a new study, ANSIRH researched plotlines on American television from 2005 and 2016 where a character underwent an abortion or referred to having obtained an abortion. ANSIRH identified 80 abortion plotlines during this time period and found that 37.5 percent of them depicted abortion procedures with complications, medical interventions, or other negative health consequences. In real life, only 2.1 percent of abortion procedures involve these issues.
The most egregious abortion plotlines involved the supposed long-term consequences characters faced after having an abortion. Of the 80 stories, 23.8 percent depicted negative long-term consequences for characters who had an abortion. For example, 4 percent of characters who had an abortion were shown to have committed suicide, 11 percent were rendered infertile, and even 5 percent of characters were shown dying. As ANSIRH and Media Matters have pointed out, other studies have definitively shown that mental health is not substantially impacted following an abortion. In addition, having an abortion -- even multiple abortions -- is not likely to have a negative impact on fertility.
Finally, abortion is a common and overwhelmingly safe medical procedure. Although some of the plotlines examined by ANSIRH were set in time periods or places where abortion was illegal (procedures that have higher rates of complications and death), ANSIRH explained that television exaggerates these dangers, which can negatively impact audience’s views on contemporary, legal abortion. Even in instances where the storylines depicted legal abortion, ANSIRH still found that a “markedly high” percentage misrepresented the long-term health consequences. Depictions like these, ANSIRH explained, “could be a contributing factor in the political erosion of abortion rights.”
Right-wing media and anti-choice organizations have worked relentlessly to stigmatize abortion and vilify abortion providers -- resulting in medically unnecessary laws and decreased abortion access. While depicting medical complications from abortion may make for dramatic television, these representations are inaccurate and ultimately harmful. Right-wing media and cable news don’t need any help misinforming about or stigmatizing abortion. Television shows ought to stop helping them spread lies and discourage public dialogue about a safe, legal, and common medical procedure.
Graphic by Sarah Wasko.