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Hollywood Should Tell More Honest Abortion Stories to End the Stigma (Opinion)

MAUDE, Bea Arthur, Adrienne Barbeau, 1972-1978
Courtesy Everett Collection

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the FDA’s approval of mifepristone, a medication used in combination with misoprostol to safely and legally end an early pregnancy.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on whether people seeking an abortion can obtain mifepristone without visiting a doctor’s office or clinic. The recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a stalwart supporter of the right to an abortion, forces into sharp relief what is now at stake.

How has the false narrative that mifepristone poses an hazard to public health made it all the way to the Supreme Court? One reason may be that reality-based abortion stories aren’t told often enough in popular culture. In spite of the fact that abortion is safe and common, people still don’t talk to one another about their experiences with abortion, because it’s stigmatized. Telling stories about abortion can reduce fear and dispel inaccurate ideas about many aspects of the experience.

Film and television have been important proving grounds for expanding our understanding of other previously stigmatized experiences, like drug and alcohol addiction, single parenthood, and LGBTQ relationships. Diverse stories are the gateway to promoting empathy, which can change attitudes and dissolve stigma. When you watch a character on television who’s a good mom being loving toward her children, and then see her considering abortion, you immediately understand that these experiences can co-exist in one life. 

We’ve come a long way since 1972, when Bea Arthur’s “Maude” was the first TV character and on-screen mother to have an abortion. In 2019, “The Deuce,” “Empire,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Morning Show” Euphoria, Veep, The Good Fight, and a couple dozen other shows all featured abortion storylines. And it’s an encouraging sign that in 2020 we’ve already had not one but two abortion-seeking road trip buddy films (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Unpregnant”). But we still have a long way to go when it comes to reflecting reality, and the discrepancies between abortion in real life and abortion on screen shed light on where stigma and misinformation persist.

Traditionally, abortion stories have been portrayed on TV with heightened drama. Characters agonize over the decision or deal with rare high-stakes situations like a fetal anomaly or a pregnancy that results from rape. People also consider adoption, when facing an unplanned pregnancy, far more frequently on television than they do in real life. 

In real life, most women who have an abortion already have one or more children (59%). Yet on screen, only 15% of those seeking an abortion have children. Another myth perpetuates the idea that abortion is dangerous, even fatal: in real life the risk of death from abortion is statistically near zero. But on screen, 9% of women die as a direct result of an abortion. This disparity points to a significant paradox when it comes to abortion stories: what makes good TV is dramatic, but the overall reality of abortion isn’t. 

The real drama in obtaining an abortion has more to do with overcoming all the obstacles that impede access: getting time off from work; finding childcare and transportation; traveling hours to a clinic; dealing with state-mandated waiting periods and state-mandated disinformation; paying for the procedure; avoiding fake clinics; and battling stigma and constantly shifting restrictions.

People have abortions for many reasons. Writers will never run out of abortion stories, which makes for good drama that is not so much about the decision itself but about whatever is going on in any character’s life. Abortion is about a character’s hopes and dreams, about what they want for their children. It’s about partnership, family, health, autonomy, and community. 

If a writer wanted to make a show about abortion, it would, of course, need to be about sex. Yet we still don’t have comprehensive sex education in the U.S. And many people still don’t know the difference between medication abortion (also known as the abortion pill) and the morning-after pill (currently available as Plan B or ella), or that you can get Plan B without a prescription, even if you’re under 18.

A TV show about abortion would also need to be about religious opposition and religious support; many people of faith support access to abortion, and most people who have abortions describe themselves as religious. A show about abortion would also illustrate how our government, churches, schools, and healthcare system shape and restrict our sex lives and our reproductive options. 

Showrunners and TV executives may be reluctant to tell more abortion stories because of a bias that an abortion story is always a huge downer. But abortion is actually a gold mine for a full range of complex thoughts, feelings, and experiences, including relief, love and even comedy. Organizations are available to consult with writers and executives about myriad health topics including sexual health and abortion to help them avoid spreading misinformation.

In the end, no one needs a justification that other people find acceptable in order to receive a safe, legal, and accessible abortion. However, when people see abortion stories on screen as ordinary events in many characters’ lives, perhaps they will be kinder to themselves and their loved ones — and to strangers — when abortion needs to be considered. Perhaps they’ll have more knowledge about how to get an abortion, what happens in an abortion, and how safe it really is. In that world, no politician will ever get away with pushing the false idea that medication abortion is unsafe, because everyone will know it’s just not true.

Merritt Tierce is a novelist and screenwriter who has written for “Orange Is the New Black” and the upcoming Netflix series “Social Distance.” She is a former executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, a nonprofit abortion fund based in Dallas. 

Neal Baer is a showrunner and a pediatrician whose TV credits include serving as executive produce of “ER,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Under the Dome” and “Designated Survivor.”

(Pictured: Bea Arthur and Adrienne Barbeau in “Maude”)