Abortion in Media 2023 cover photo

How TV Tackled Abortion in the First Full Year Post-Roe

We're just uteruses living in a post-Roe v. Wade world.
Abortion in Media 2023 cover photo
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2023 was America’s first full year in the post-Roe era. In 2022’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, the U.S. Supreme Court did something unusual (not to mention devastating) and overturned one of its own decisions.

The Dobbs decision eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion before fetal viability, originally guaranteed in 1973’s Roe v. Wade and reaffirmed in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Of more than 25,500 decisions handed down by the Court since 1789, it’s only overturned precedent 146 times, History Channel reports—and historically, those decisions have expanded people’s rights, not restricted them.

The Dobbs decision sparked a need in entertainment for a broader range of authentic abortion stories on screen, but did the industry achieve that in 2023?

Compiled annually by the University of California at San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, “Abortion Onscreen” tracks abortion-related storylines on scripted and reality TV. In 2023, ANSIRH found 49 abortion-related storylines, with 51% of stories involving characters getting an abortion or disclosing a past abortion (legal or illegal), approximately 25% involving characters considering an abortion, and 25% of stories dealing with abortion more broadly.

ANSIRH documented 60 abortion-related storylines in 2022, but the researchers believe the decline is likely due to 2023’s months-long WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, not other motives.

Although fewer shows had abortion stories in 2023, several thoughtfully engaged with the post-Roe landscape, telling of-the-minute stories with characters encountering logistical, financial, and legal barriers to abortion access. Several legal procedurals, like All Rise and Accused, featured stories about logistical extremes, with women crossing state lines, specifically from Texas, to access care in abortion sanctuary states.

In All Rise season 3, episode 17, “I Will Not Go Quietly,” when a Black nursing student is arrested in California on a Texas-issued identity theft warrant, her lawyers fight for her to be released when she tells them that she obtained the fake I.D. to safely get an abortion, fearing Texas’s strict anti-abortion laws. Similarly, Accused’s abortion-related episode, “Jack’s Story,” is about a high school girl in Texas whose teacher drives her to New Mexico for an abortion. Although the episode doesn’t deal with legal repercussions for the girl, the teacher loses his teaching license and spends time in jail.

But one of the best explorations of abortion on TV in 2023 was AppleTV+’s The Morning Show, which may have shown the first in-depth depiction of self-managed abortion on television.

In the show’s season 3 premiere, after reporter Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) works hard on a story about volunteers bringing abortion pills from Mexico to Texas, only to have her bosses kill it, citing potential legal concerns and political pushback. However, when the volunteer is arrested for her efforts, Bradley decides the story is too important to drop, with the subsequent news report underscoring the safety of medication abortions and how they save lives in places where abortion access is difficult. Showing that it’s medically safe but legally very risky is a hard, nuanced balance to strike on TV, but The Morning Show did it well (if in its trademark over-the-top melodramatic fashion). Plus, it gets props for showing that abortion activist work is not only really important, it can also be legally dangerous for people.

Similarly, the long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, which often tackles abortion, continued to do so in season 19, which focused on the risks of providing abortion care. When the Elena Bailey Reproductive Healthcare Clinic, a fictional Seattle-based women’s clinic, starts a fellowship for providers from states with restrictive abortion laws, surgeon Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) is doxxed online by anti-abortion activists, receiving over 500 calls in one night, and protesters throw a brick through the clinic’s window. These situations reflect the personal risks to real-life abortion providers, who are routinely targeted while doing their jobs. Abortion clinics regularly receive bomb threats and have been set on fire, and clinic staff have had acid thrown in their faces on their way to work.

TV must improve abortion storylines in 2024

In 2023, there were also abortion-related storylines on TV that backslid into regressive tropes from the 1990s and early 2000s, like an “averted abortion,” which is when a character has an unplanned pregnancy, considers an abortion, but then either miscarries or changes their mind about the procedure. In season 2 of And Just Like That, the Max revival of HBO’s Sex and the City, when documentary filmmaker Lisa (Nicole Ari Parker) discusses an unplanned pregnancy with her husband, both of them tiptoe around the word “abortion,” and she dismisses the option of getting one, with no explanation, before miscarrying later in the episode. For a franchise known for frankly discussing women’s sexuality, including an abortion-related episode in 2001, it was particularly upsetting to see And Just Like That rely on the averted abortion trope, going out of its way to avoid directly talking about it.

“These kinds of tropes and plotlines stigmatize abortion by not even having characters say the word ‘abortion,'” ANSIRH researcher Steph Herold told HuffPost. “It’s such a low bar, this kind of stigma by avoidance.”

ANSIRH found that characters seen in abortion-related stories on TV in 2023 were disproportionately younger, whiter, and wealthier than most people who get abortions. While teenage characters on TV were the most likely to get abortions, this doesn’t comport with abortion data from the Centers for Disease Control in 2020 (the most recent data available, which feels wholly inadequate for a post-Dobbs analysis), 57% of women who had abortions were in their 20s, while 31% were in their 30s, 8% were teens ages 13 to 19, and 4% are women in their 40s.

Likewise, the racial demographics of characters getting abortions are much different than in real life. In the District of Columbia and 29 states that reported racial and ethnic data on abortion to the CDC in 2020, 39% of all women who had abortions were non-Hispanic Black, while 33% were non-Hispanic white, 21% were Hispanic, and 7% were of other races or ethnicities. However, on TV, 47% of the characters seeking an abortion were white, 16% were Black, 10% were Latinx, 8% were Asian, and 18% were unknown.

Focusing on white abortion stories misses so much. “If they could target the reproduction of black and brown people, they would send limousines to take us to the abortion clinic,” said reproductive justice movement founder Loretta J. Ross in the 2023 documentary Plan C. A Black woman in Mississippi is 118 times more likely to die from continuing a pregnancy than getting an abortion. “So really, whose life are you saving?” wonders an online provider interviewed for the documentary.

Abortion-related stories also need to be in a broader range of shows. Consistent with previous years, many of 2023’s abortion plotlines appeared in medical and legal procedurals, where it’s a one-off story. “Audiences don’t get to follow that person across the season,” she said. “They don’t get to develop that empathy, that parasocial relationship with them. And we know that is part of what can help audiences increase their knowledge about abortion, and increase their empathy for people who have abortions.”

Similarly, there’s a lack of geographic diversity in onscreen abortion stories, with Accused, The Morning Show, All Rise, and more all dealing with Texas’s anti-abortion laws. While this is understandable, as the state is a major battleground for many abortion restrictions, there are dozens of other states where abortion access has reached a crisis point. “People see that this is not just a Texas problem, that this is an American problem,” she said.

(featured image: Apple TV+ / Richard Foreman Jr./A24/Paramount+ / Fox / ABC)

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Rebecca Oliver Kaplan
Rebecca Oliver Kaplan (she/he) is a comics critic and entertainment writer, who's dipping her toes into new types of reporting at The Mary Sue and is stoked. In 2023, he was part of the PanelxPanel comics criticism team honored with an Eisner Award. You can find some more of his writing at Prism Comics, StarTrek.com, Comics Beat, Geek Girl Authority, and in Double Challenge: Being LGBTQ and a Minority, which she co-authored with her wife, Avery Kaplan. Rebecca and her wife live in the California mountains with a herd of cats.