Television has made huge strides in the representation of people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community in recent years— but 2018 highlighted the nuanced experiences of women of color, more specifically Black women, through abortion stories. According to the latest report from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) there were 18 plotlines where a character has an abortion, discloses a past abortion, or considers getting an abortion this year. Of those, four of the five characters who obtained an abortion in the course of the plotline were either Black or biracial women.
Their findings discovered that scripts—thanks to more diverse programming via streaming services like Netflix and Hulu—also highlighted how abortions disproportionately affect women of color, specifically Black women.
As Broadly recently reported, since coming into office in 2017, the Trump administration has slashed funding to global organizations that provide birth control and abortion referrals, ended the birth-control mandate, placed anti-abortion extremists in key positions within his administration, and has appointed a dozen and a half anti-abortion federal district court and appeals court judges.
Dr. Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at ANSIRH, the lead researcher behind the Abortion On Screen program, believes that previous depictions of abortion on television compounded the stigmatization of the experience. “TV often shapes our views of the world, and it’s a powerful tool in correcting misinformation about abortion,” Sisson says in an op-ed for InStyle. “I’ve researched these portrayals extensively and, often, they miss the mark, perpetuating social myths rather than setting the record straight.”
Adding, “My colleagues and I have found that abortion is more dangerous on TV than in reality, that women of color and women who are mothers are dramatically under-represented, that characters tend to get abortions for self-focused reasons (e.g. because of their career ambitions), and that barriers to accessing abortion are either non-existent or easily overcome (clearly this one’s not based on real life). All of these misrepresentations shape what people know and believe about abortion. They could be doing better.”
ANSIRH's study reports that multiple series depicted Black female characters as being supported by friends, partners, and ex-partners as they contemplated whether or not to go forward with the decision to bare a child.
One example would be the character of Becky (portrayed by Gabourey Sidibe) on Empire—a record executive who at first hides her pregnancy and then plans an abortion. Becky remains firm on her decision that she doesn’t want a child, and by the episode’s close her boyfriend accepts and supports her decision and joins her at Planned Parenthood on the day of the procedure.
There were also depictions of relationships where contraceptive protection failed, such as in Netflix’s Dear White People. The character of Coco Connor (Antoinette Robinson)—the popular, ambitious and whip-smart star student at Winchester University— realizes she’s pregnant, and though shocked and initially unsure on how to handle it, has no regrets on the sexual experience that led up to that point. With the emotional support of her roommate, she decides to revisit motherhood later in life.
Though abortion storylines, due to their still taboo stigma, lean toward dramas (Law & Order SVU, House of Cards, and Star are more shows that included abortion-centered storylines in their latest seasons) comedies approached the topic as well.
Netflix’s Big Mouth, an animated, coming-of-age cartoon about young teens navigating puberty, had one of their main characters named Andrew to experience a flashback of his mother’s abortion before he was born. In a twist, he was more disturbed by the reality of his parents’ sex life more than his mother’s terminated pregnancy. In HBO’s Insecure, the four female leads are having a discussion about motherhood and Tiffany’s (Amanda Seales) pregnancy. When Kelli (Natasha Rothwell) frivolously assumed she would have to take care of the child if Tiffany ever unexpectedly died, she quips, “Is that how it works? I hope so because if I wanted a kid I would have kept the last one.”
Nearly one in four women in the United States (23.7 percent) will have an abortion by age 45, according to Guttmacher Institute researchers—however, abortion rates continue to vary widely by race and ethnicity.
“Given that our 2015 report found that nearly 90 percent of television characters getting abortions were white, the finding that almost half of this year’s plot lines in which a character obtained or disclosed an abortion included Black women represents the beginning of a corrective course toward more inclusive storytelling—even as Latina characters remain underrepresented,” says Sisson. “As the majority of American women who have abortions are women of color, it is essential that their stories are told—alongside women who are working, mothers, who are white, and any combination thereof—if we are to capture the current reality of abortion in our country.
Correction: In a previous version of this article incorrectly titled Dr. Gretchen Sisson as ANSIRH director. She is a sociologist at ANSIRH, the lead researcher behind the Abortion On Screen program.