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The Future of Abortion on TV

TV shows are giving sharper, stronger depictions of characters choosing to have abortions than ever before. We spoke to showrunners about the shift — and what might change under Trump.

(CBS/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(CBS/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s Christmas 2015, and Scandal’s Olivia Pope knows exactly what she wants to do, and how to do it. She spends much of Season 5’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” working behind the scenes to help her boyfriend’s (er, the president’s) ex-wife, Virginia Republican Mellie Grant, preserve Planned Parenthood’s federal funding with a Senate filibuster. The episode’s drama dies down by the time we see Kerry Washington’s iconic character quietly head to the doctor’s office to get an abortion she hasn’t told President Fitz about. We hear the whir of the vacuum and see the certainty on her face. “Silent Night” is the soundtrack. Scandal needed only a minute of airtime to get the message across.

One breakup and makeup later, the abortion’s aftermath was still playing out on-screen. In the Season 5 finale, after stumbling upon Olivia’s medical file, Fitz finds out about her decision — and, after whining about it, he ultimately respects it. “I support your choice, Liv,” he tells her, though she assumes he’s referencing a political decision. “Not that you need it.”

Following the inauguration of a president who causes serious concern for proponents of reproductive rights, Scandal is one among a group of TV shows countering real-life setback after setback with thoughtful, understated, and sometimes even subversive abortion plotlines. There were about a dozen abortion stories featured on U.S. TV in 2016 — including in You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, BoJack Horseman, Shameless, and Good Girls Revolt — covering a range of domestic situations and outcomes. That’s not a marked increase over recent years, but is leaps and bounds better compared with a decade ago, says Gretchen Sisson, a lead investigator for Abortion Onscreen, a University of California–San Francisco project that studies how abortions are portrayed on TV. “The reason it seems like they’re going up is they’re on increasingly popular shows, so people are noticing them more, and they’re also involving primary characters, rather than fringe characters on these one-time shows,” Sisson says. This means abortion stories for icons like Olivia Pope and Jane the Virgin’s Xiomara, as opposed to characters like Friday Night Lights student Becky or Jessica Jones prisoner Hope.

Not only are shows centering abortion narratives around main characters, they’re also telling stories that increasingly reflect real-life experiences with reproductive health. “For a really long time, abortion’s been very stigmatized, where it’s this really hard decision and you have to think about how the father feels and you have to wrestle with it for a long time and maybe you’ll decide in the end to go through with it, but only after you put yourself through the emotional ringer,” says Tara Rose, who has reviewed dozens of abortion plotlines on her Tumblr blog, Remember the Abortion Episode?. “[Abortion] doesn’t have to be this scary, horrible thing. It’s exciting now that TV shows are delving into abortion more now than ever before and presenting it as less stigmatized than we’ve seen in the past.” The most recent abortion story lines were written and, in most cases, aired before the presidential election, but the timing worked out nicely for creators with political points of view to share. “I’m so happy that there’s more and more representation and more and more kinds of representation,” says Jane the Virgin showrunner and executive producer Jennie Snyder Urman. “I feel like probably everyone is feeling a little bit of the anxiety of these tightening abortion restrictions and this new administration. It’s part of our responsibility to put a kind of social message that our show believes in on the air.”

This necessary improvement in abortion stories on-screen is tied to reproductive-health conversations happening offscreen. Everything from Wendy Davis’s 2013 filibuster of a Texas abortion-restrictions bill to online campaigns like Lindy West and Amelia Bonow’s #ShoutYourAbortion have prompted people to discuss abortion more openly, not to mention the deluge of recent restrictions on abortion rights, President Trump’s (since-retracted) comments that women who seek illegal abortions should be punished, and concerns about whether Roe v. Wade can survive his presidency. “I think that we have been, for the past five years, experiencing a huge increase in the national conversation about abortion overall,” says Kelly Baden, interim senior director for U.S. policy and advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “I think Hollywood has picked up on that, and it has resulted in increased abortion portrayal.”

How shows portray abortion matters to cisgender and trans women, transgender men, and nonbinary people, because cisgender women are not the only people who seek abortions or have a personal stake in women’s rights. Extrapolating from the 2008 abortion rate as reported by the Guttmacher Institute, about 30 percent of women will have an abortion by the time they turn 45. What they see on television affects how they process this experience. “If you have a story line about a certain health topic and then you have, either within the story line or an actual PSA, an action line that audiences can take, they often do,” says Kate Langrall Folb, director of Hollywood, Health & Society, a USC group that studies and advises on health-related plotlines. It’s clear stories about health topics like breast cancer (90210) and sexual assault (How to Get Away With Murder) can increase viewers’ knowledge, alter their attitudes, and even push them to seek medical care: After watching just a single episode of 90210’s eight-episode breast cancer arc, 16.5 percent of the women studied searched for more information about the disease. Stigmatizing plotlines also impact viewers: Rose recalls watching, as a child, an episode of 21 Jump Street with hostile protests outside an abortion clinic where a teenage girl planned to end her pregnancy. She’s nearby when an explosive goes off, causing her to lose the baby. “I remember watching that when I was like 10 or 11 years old and thinking, ‘Whoa, that’s so scary, I hope that never happens to me,’” says Rose, 39, who chose to have an abortion at 22. “‘I hope I never get pregnant and have to figure out what to do, because someone might kill you.’”

Negative portrayals of abortion were the standard on television for years — a trend that Folb connects to backlash from Norman Lear’s Maude, which aired the first TV abortion for a leading character in 1972, just months before the Roe v. Wade decision. The first airing alone reportedly netted CBS and its affiliates almost 7,000 protest letters. “Networks and television studios and even writers and producers were even terrified to approach the topic,” Folb says. “It’s back, it’s being dealt with a little bit less angst … and we’re seeing characters that are very clear about what they want to do, and it isn’t a huge decision.”

That development took some time. In May 2003, separate characters on Six Feet Under and Everwood had abortions, but one woman was later haunted by her aborted fetus, and the other’s doctor begged for forgiveness after performing the procedure. The next year, Degrassi: The Next Generation aired a two-part episode (the franchise’s second abortion story) that critic Pilot Viruet later described as “the first time I saw abortion presented as something that wasn’t the worst thing in the world.” The catch: The N, which had U.S. distribution rights to the Canadian show, declined to air the two-parter on its first run. In the past decade, critically acclaimed shows like Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and Girls have tackled the subject, but progress toward 2016’s slate of longer story arcs involving main characters was slow — and, to this day, the vast majority of shows that tackle the subject still don’t address how difficult it can be for women to access abortion.

Airing an abortion episode is no longer a guaranteed controversy. For example, Olivia Pope’s abortion was not without its critics, but Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes was surprised by its reception. “When that episode came out, I thought the reaction was going to be so much stronger … which is always awesome when it’s not,” the TV mogul said at 2016’s Vulture Festival. “Because the fans are always much more enlightened than, you know, the studio lawyers are.”

For an abortion plotline that’s both entertaining and destigmatizing, look to Jane the Virgin, the third-season CW show with the premise that Jane (Gina Rodriguez) brings a baby into her Catholic family — rather than getting an abortion — after she’s accidentally artificially inseminated at 23. But in Season 2, Jane’s mom, Xiomara, gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion at the beginning of Season 3. To be blunt: That’s important, since TV generally underrepresents people of color getting abortions. Jane the Virgin marks the first time a Latina woman has done so on prime-time network TV, according to Planned Parenthood, a group Snyder Urman kept in regular contact with during the writing process. Xo’s choice also reflects two other truths about abortion underrepresented on-screen: She’s a mother, as 59 percent of real people getting abortions are, and she obtained a medication abortion. “I think the more specific we can be, the less the burden of representation [we have] because it’s about this specific family,” says Snyder Urman.

Jane’s CW kin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — a show with eight female writers that cocreator Aline Brosh McKenna says she’s heard described as “one of the most gynecologically specific shows on television” — takes a similarly effective approach toward portraying abortion. Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), the responsible, motherly figure to protagonist Rebecca (Rachel Bloom), spends a lot of time weighing her family and career options, but we never see the show impose the idea on her that the abortion would be immoral, much like we don’t see Xo’s mother’s attempts to shame her daughter actually work. Most importantly, neither mother expresses regret about her abortion, just as 95 percent of real women don’t. “The thing we were focusing on is that she makes this decision without her friend, and that she decides not to tell Rebecca about it because she feels like Rebecca is in a fragile state. That was the important part of the story for us, was how it impacts her future,” Brosh McKenna says. “There was no need to get into the medical details of it.”

Jane had a similar philosophy. “I felt like there was a ton of just stories about people who had abortions and were devastated after and really traumatized and were really conflicted about it, and we wanted to show a different kind of story,” Snyder Urman says. “Ours was not a story where we wanted to put the trauma on the medical procedure, because that was not traumatic for Xo.” These aren’t Very Special Episodes that frame abortion as a deep, dark secret viewers should handle with kid gloves or avoid discussing at all costs. Jane, Crazy Ex, and their contemporaries do just the opposite, cracking jokes without sacrificing emotional depth. You’re the Worst takes this concept to the next level, showing Lindsay (Kether Donohue) casually downing pie at the diner until it’s time for her “abobo,” and, in a goofy but effective twist, even the anti-abortion protester outside the clinic ultimately agrees with Lindsay that she’s in no place to raise a child.

But no one in Hollywood has steered the direction of abortions on TV more than Rhimes, who sits on Planned Parenthood Los Angeles’s board. “She’s committed to this issue as a political issue, and her shows have certainly dramatically altered the way we portray abortions on-screen,” Sisson says. Way before Scandal, in Season 1 of Grey’s Anatomy, which aired in 2005, the TV empress considered having pregnant Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) get an abortion, but later said ABC was skittish, so Yang lost the child due to an ectopic pregnancy instead. “It bugged me for years,” Rhimes told Time in 2014. (Rhimes declined to comment for this story.)

So in 2011, when Yang was again pregnant, Grey’s showed her undergoing the procedure while holding her husband’s hand. “The audience stood by these characters. You know, we were in a very different place even politically, socially,” Rhimes said. “Nobody blinked at the studio or the network when I wrote the story line this time. Nobody even brought it up except to say, that was a really well-written episode.”

Taking steps to tell accurate, honest stories about abortion is important, now more than ever. Jane creator Snyder Urman believes her show has a responsibility — heightened now that Trump has taken office — to weave its social and political viewpoints into the plot. “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of every show and every showrunner, but it does feel like it’s ours because of the fabric the show was built on,” she says. “Every decision you make — what’s on-screen, what’s not on-screen, who’s driving the story — are political in and of themselves.” Jason Katims, who served as executive producer and writer on Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, has said that the latter concerned itself with abortion simply because it matters to real people. “It really wasn’t very different from the decision to explore any story, other than we understood that there might be a sensitivity to the subject matter,” he told TV Guide in 2013. Brosh McKenna says Crazy Ex never sets out to write politically motivated plots and notes that Paula’s abortion “was certainly written by people who didn’t know they were going to be under siege. I feel tremendously for the women in states who are about to be barraged with ridiculous laws, so it’s a fundamental right of women’s health. I think if it brings attention to that fact, that’s all for the best.”

Television won’t change any laws, but it does provide a spotlight. “If we’re facing political setback as far as access to abortion, then it could be that these cultural conversations become the primary outlet for moving the conversation forward,” says Sisson. “They’ve found new ways to talk about abortion, and they found that they can include an abortion and make it an interesting part of their story without making it a dangerous, risky, or scary part of the story. I don’t think they’ll stop doing that.” Blatantly political after-school specials aren’t entertaining and don’t change viewpoints. But in the age of Peak TV, the nuance and humor and emotional honesty shows are deploying just might.