Television portrayals of medical procedures may contribute to patient anxieties and cultural myths. We explored how television depicts abortion procedures, focusing on what these portrayals communicate about abortion access and safety.
Researchers identified all abortion procedure plotlines on American television from 2008 to 2018 through Internet searches. We viewed plotlines and coded for type of abortion, health outcome, and whether the abortion occurred on or off screen. We used inductive content analysis to identify themes.
We identified 96 television plotlines between 2008 and 2018 in which a character obtains or discloses an abortion. Of these, 39 plotlines (40%) depict some aspect of the abortion procedure. Twenty-three of the 39 abortion portrayals (59%) depict a surgical abortion procedure, of which about one-half were legal abortions and one-half were illegal. Only 7 of the 39 procedure plotlines (18%) portray medication abortions. Five of these plotlines depict illegal abortions; only two depict legal abortions. Four plotlines depict attempted abortions by supernatural means or ingestion of a toxic liquid.
The majority of abortions on television are surgical, contrasting with the reality of abortion practice in which one-third of U.S. abortions are by medication. Portrayals of surgical abortion often reinforce the misperception that abortion is a surgical intervention requiring hospitalization. The few portrayals of medication abortion also perpetuate inaccuracies, including that it is easily accessible, uncommon, and dangerous. Portrayals of illegal abortions are overrepresented. This misinformation may seed unnecessary fear for patients before an abortion, and may create confusion among the public about abortion access and safety.
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Stephanie Herold, MPH, is a data analyst studying portrayals of abortion in film and television at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, University of California, San Francisco.
Gretchen Sisson, PhD, is a research sociologist studying portrayals of abortion in film and television at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, University of California, San Francisco.
Published online: July 19, 2019
Accepted: June 18, 2019
Received in revised form: June 18, 2019
Received: January 31, 2019
Funding Source: The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation and the Packard Foundation.
Disclosures/Conflict of Interest: None.
© 2019 Jacobs Institute of Women's Health. Published by Elsevier Inc.