tv How TV Shows Changed Their Abortion Plotlines After Dobbs
Truth or Fiction? A doctor in Idaho tells a pregnant working mom she has a cesarean scar ectopic pregnancy, a rare but life-threatening medical complication in which the embryo implants onto a c-section scar. Although time is of the essence, the Idaho doctor is nervous about the legal implications of an abortion, because he can still hear a heartbeat, so he refuses to provide her life-saving treatment. The 39-year-old is forced to travel across the border to Washington, but even though she’s accompanied by two doctors, one of whom is an OB-GYN, the van gets stuck in traffic. Her pregnancy ruptures and she bleeds out on the side of the road, leaving behind a husband and a daughter who is about to turn 6.
If this anecdote sounds familiar, you might be a Shonda Rhimes fan: The storyline was a plot in Grey’s Anatomy episode “When I Get to the Border” that aired in November. After the woman dies, Addison Montgomery (played by Kate Walsh) anguishes about her unnecessary death, saying, “How are we supposed to treat patients if we’re hamstrung by laws that are written by people that are so far away from this?”
Her words, when I watched the episode, felt like deja vu. The day before it aired, I had spoken to doctors in Louisiana about how challenging it has become to provide medical care within the bounds of the law. And here I was (in what had started out as a relaxing bubble bath) watching a fictional woman dying from lack of care because a vague abortion law spooked her doctor.
These kinds of scenes used to be pretty rare on mainstream TV—but in the aftermath of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion plotlines are starting to look a lot like the actual news. An annual Abortion Onscreen report released Thursday by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) found that of the 60 abortion plotlines in 2022, a third portrayed legal barriers to abortion access. Last year, only two of the 47 abortion plotlines on TV had anything to do with contemporary barriers to access, like having to travel across state lines.
Researcher Steph Herold, who tracks abortion portrayals in entertainment, told me in an interview that these very real and honest scenes are a welcome shift in television. “I didn’t expect that at all, even though the landscape has changed,” she said. In addition to long distance drives to overrun abortion clinics, she said television series also included depictions of challenges like gestational age limits, financial assistance, childcare, as well as what she thinks is the first depiction of an abortion fund worker. “It shows that writers, producers and networks really want to tell this story and shape them and want to reflect reality,” says Herold.
P-Valley, a drama series about people working at a Mississippi strip club, depicted a Black mother and daughter enduring multiple abortion restrictions. They travel to Jackson where they learn the 14-year-old daughter Terricka is only two days away from missing the 15-week gestational cutoff date. They check into a hotel for a mandatory 24-hour waiting period. “This episode is about two Black women trying to access medical care and what that means and what they have to endure,” says Herold. She praised P-Valley for centering the stories of southern, Black characters and contextualizing them within a “racist, sexist healthcare system.” She said the “Jackson” episode associated abortion with love and care and support.
“We felt it our responsibility to depict the war on Black women’s bodies raging in this conservative state,” P-Valley’s creator and showrunner Katori Hall wrote in a Hollywood Reporter essay about the episode. “I am thankful that as a storyteller I have the platform to create empathy where law and policy have failed.”
ANSIRH’s report found that while a “huge leap” has been made in depicting barriers, the demographics of the people who most commonly encounter these restrictions in real life are not accurately represented. In 2022, 58 percent of TV characters who obtained abortion were white cisgender women, while in reality white women make up only about a third of the U.S. abortion patient population.
“Characters on TV who get abortions are often younger, whiter and wealthier compared to the actual population of people who bear the brunt of abortion restrictions in the U.S., like parents of color who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Herold. Eighty percent of the characters facing barriers to abortion access on television were white and either middle class or wealthy.
Her hunch is that storytellers often have a misconception that if white audiences saw that even people like them are affected by bans, then things would change. “I wish that’s how it works, but it doesn’t, so you might as well show the reality of it and build empathy,” she said.
Interestingly, ANSIRH’s report found that only four plotlines portrayed someone having a medication abortion onscreen in 2022, and no stories at all depicted characters safely self-managing an abortion with pills. Herold did point out that Station 19 and Grey’s Anatomy included doctors accurately detailing the abortion pill protocol, which, given the strong fan base of the shows, gives her hope the shows spread knowledge about the safe procedure.
On the other side of the coin is Law and Order, which is also a repeat offender in abortion misinformation (although it did have one of the first post-Roe portrayals on television). Herold says the series, as well as Law and Order: SVU, often talks about mifepristone and misoprostol showing up in blood toxicology screens, which is categorically untrue.
“That’s so wrong. I just worry that will seep into people’s minds, contributing to a lot of fear,” said Herold. “If there is one thing I could change, as tiny as it is, that would be it.”
Nevertheless, seeing more true-to-life abortion stories on screen (and just more abortion plotlines in general) goes a long way toward destigmatizing the procedure and humanizing the horror stories we keep reading in the news. And while it’s certainly no silver lining in the context of losing our reproductive rights, it’s a step in the right direction for Hollywood.