It's About Time Television Turned Away From Abortion Stigma

A recent Washington Post Opinion blog noted that while American television has a “long way” to go until abortion is “treated like a routine medical procedure,” recent programming indicates that a shift in that direction may be underway, which could be a significant step toward reducing the unwarranted stigma and misinformation that surrounds this common reproductive choice.

Television can influence viewers by reflecting what culture thinks falls within the bounds of normal behavior, an effect that is called “normalizing” behavior. When an action is portrayed in fictional stories it creates a frame for an audience to think about such actions when they happen in the real world - which can be particularly important when the viewer has personal experience with the subject matter.

Because abortion has been mostly cloaked with a narrative of tragedy in television it's all the more interesting how some recent television shows are gradually altering depictions of abortion, as was recently highlighted by The Washington Post's television and pop culture Opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg. In a blog titled "TV tentatively starts talking about abortion," Rosenberg described characters discussing abortion as a legitimate option on some recent TV shows and highlighted an episode of “You're The Worst” as unique for "[w]ithout containing an actual abortion, [being] the closest television's gotten to a neutral, or even positive, abortion story" in years. Rosenberg praised certain shows that “have demonstrated a glimmer of refreshing honesty in their willingness to at least mention a subject about which pop culture has been oddly, depressingly coy: abortion.”

Despite the fact that abortion is a safe medical procedure that has been available to U.S. women for the past 42 years, and recent data as of 2008 indicates that 1 in 3 women will have an abortion by age 45, it is still frequently depicted as a negative option in our television shows. According to one study of film and television stories from 1916-2013 by Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport, abortion in fictional stories is often linked to death for female characters -- whether they obtain the procedure or not -- perpetuating the false myth that abortion frequently causes death. In reality, pregnancy actually causes more female deaths than induced abortions.

The cloaking of TV abortion stories with the subtext of tragedy is a prime example of “abortion stigma” which is broadly defined as “a shared understanding that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable.” Abortion stigma is displayed across society from state laws enacted with the express purpose of preventing women from having abortions to outright lies and misinformation about abortion safety. Abortion stigma filtered through society's legal and policy apparatuses also creates a psychological effect, which is entirely intentional. As a research article in Women's Health Issues pointed out, abortion stigma is a key part of the anti-choice movement's playbook as "[t]he anti-abortion movement increasingly seeks both to erect overt barriers to abortion and to change cultural values, beliefs, and norms about abortion so that women will seek abortion less frequently regardless of its legal status. From photographing women entering clinics to distributing flyers to the neighbors of providers, the anti-abortion movement foments abortion stigma as a deliberate tactic, not just as a byproduct of its legislative initiatives. Eroding public support for the idea of abortion is seen as an underpinning of future institutional limits."

In an interview with Tara Culp-Ressler of ThinkProgress, Sisson and Kimport emphasized that these “political framings” of the anti-choice movement are influenced by the “cultural framings” of television they studied:

Culture and politics are often inextricably intertwined. So how much do our cultural perceptions of abortion contribute to that? Is our political atmosphere driving the violent abortion portrayals in the media, or is pop culture creating an atmosphere where it's easy for Americans to agree that abortion is dangerous?

We don't know the answers for sure. But it's probably a bit of both.

“The dramatic components around abortion are very useful for some story lines, but may also be contributing to our social and cultural myths about abortion as something that's dramatic and violent -- when in fact, that doesn't fit with most of the evidence on women's actual experiences with abortion,” Kimport told ThinkProgress. “There's an interactive relationship between politics and culture. It may be that political framings are influencing cultural framings. But at the same time, cultural framings are going to influence political framings.”


Both Sisson and Kimport are realistic about the limitations of pop culture, and aren't suggesting that it should painstakingly reflect the reality of every issue. But they do maintain that fictional depictions of abortion can have very real implications for the women who have decided to end a pregnancy. If those people have never felt safe enough to talk to someone else about their decision, or connect with other women who have made the same choice, seeing abortion reflected on the screen is somewhat revolutionary.

“In our culture, there are so few spaces for people to talk openly and honestly about what abortion looks like, so the media becomes very important,” Sisson told ThinkProgress. “Our conversation around abortion is so polarized and politicized that there are very few opportunities to share their stories, say what their abortions looked like, or even share that they had an abortion. These stories of fictional characters become very resonant. They become a way of telling these stories that real women don't have a space to tell.”

Intentionally or not, American television has been reinforcing a dangerous right-wing campaign to shame American women. Fictional TV has the freedom of the medium to invoke situations that viewers might find both familiar and exotic to their personal experience. It would be a welcome development if the reinforcement of abortion stigma was no longer a part of this programming - and the recent examples may be a reason to stay tuned and watch what happens.

[Infographic via ANSIRH]

Disclosure: The Washington Post Opinion writer referenced above is married to an employee of Media Matters. That employee had no part in the production of this blog.