A new study looking at television portrayals of abortion found that fictional abortion patients are overwhelmingly younger, wealthier, and whiter than abortion patients in real life. “That’s true of everything on TV,” you could argue, correctly, but the authors point out it could contribute to public misunderstanding of the procedure.
The study was authored by the University of California-San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health and published in the journal Contraception; we saw it via Media Matters. The authors looked at television characters seeking abortions between 2005 and 2014, and found about what you’d expect:
Comparing all abortion-considering characters to the subset of abortion-obtaining characters, the higher rates of abortion were found for characters who were white, of lower socioeconomic status, and not in committed relationships. Compared to statistics on real women, characters who obtained abortions were disproportionately white, young, wealthy, and not parenting. Compared to reports on real women’s reasons for abortion, immaturity or interference with future opportunities were overrepresented; financial hardship or pregnancy mistiming were underrepresented.
In other words, some of the most common reasons real people choose to abort, including financial hardship or needing to care for existing children, are sorely underrepresented. The racial demographics were incredibly skewed: while 36.1 one percent of American abortion patients are white in real life, on TV they accounted for a full 87 percent. Black and Latina women make up 3o percent and 25 percent, respectively, of real-life abortion patients; on TV, they were five percent and zero.
As Bitch points out, the same group published a study last year where the authors found that abortion on TV is depicted as significantly more dangerous than it actually is: while the risk of death ranges from low to astronomically low depending on the length of the pregnancy, about nine percent of TV and film characters from 1916 to the present day died from the procedure.
Fictional representations matter, the authors argue, because of how the impact public perception of who aborts and why:
Onscreen representations may influence public understandings, contributing to the production of abortion stigma and judgments about appropriate restrictions on abortion care. Understanding the particular shape of inaccuracies around abortion portrayals can enable advocates and healthcare practitioners to identify and respond to popular misperceptions.
Screengrab via Girls/HBO