In a Law and Order: SVU episode earlier this year, a teenage girl of color, Nydia, is hospitalized, and it’s revealed her abusive foster father who impregnated her had crushed up and added medication abortion pills — mifepristone and misoprostol — to a smoothie she drank, to attempt to induce an abortion against her will. A nurse says that not only has a toxicology test indicated the pills in Nydia’s system, but that the nurse has shared this revelation with the cops investigating Nydia’s case.
Renee Bracey Sherman, founder of We Testify, was outraged by this particular SVU storyline. Bracey Sherman, who’s had an abortion herself, leads and supports other people who have had abortions — including a number who have used abortion pills — in sharing their stories, and told Jezebel the SVU plot was not only wildly inaccurate, but also dangerous.
“As we’re looking at a moment where abortion is potentially becoming and already criminalized in a number of states, to have that on a show about a police savior complex, that reaches a lot of people — that’s really scary because then somebody might not go to a hospital, or go to anybody if they need help,” Bracey Sherman said. “They’re afraid somebody will call the police and show their toxicology scan, whether or not they took the pills. But it’s literally not true.”
Contrary to SVU’s portrayal, abortion pills are highly safe and can’t be detected by toxicology scans; nor can the pills be medically discerned from a miscarriage. Even if that were the case, health providers disclosing such medical records with law enforcement could have a devastating impact: A number of disproportionately people of color, like Purvi Patel and Bei-Bei Shuai in Indiana, have faced criminalization for feticide and child endangerment after going to the hospital following pregnancy loss.
This SVU plotline from earlier this year is one of dozens of abortion storylines throughout 2021 that reflect how, for better and worse, on-screen abortion storytelling is changing. According to the reproductive health research organization ANSIRH’s 2021 on-screen abortion report, this year, there were 47 abortion plotlines on 42 television shows — up from just 31 plotlines last year. These plotlines included more depictions of medication abortion than ever, as well as more depictions of parents getting abortions and people supporting friends after their abortions.
ANSIRH’s report focuses on television, but this year also saw a number of new movies focused entirely on abortion and reproductive health care-related barriers, like Hulu’s buddy road trip comedy Plan B and the horror movie False Positive, which depicted abortion, pregnancy complications, and medical abuse. Just last year, Never Rarely Sometimes Always focused specifically on one young woman’s journey to overcome barriers to abortion access in Pennsylvania.
More — and more accurate — representation of abortion has always been important, and all the more so right now, with a case likely to gut Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court, and amid a year that’s seen more state-level abortion restrictions enacted than any other year on record.
“It’s important for TV and film to help us understand what it really takes to get an abortion in the US,” ANSIRH researcher Steph Herold told Jezebel. Unfortunately, of the 47 abortion stories on-screen this year, Herold says, “Just two plotlines actually show barriers to abortion access”: This Is Us, which features a teenage Kate in 1999 forced to wait 24 hours before getting an abortion, and The Handmaid’s Tale, which shows a flashback of Janine trying to get an abortion and being preyed upon by an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center that feeds her misinformation.
Mandatory waiting periods and predatory crisis pregnancy centers are just two pieces of a vast, sticky web of legislative, geographic and cost-related barriers to getting care. Of the roughly 1,300 state-level abortion restrictions in the books, almost half have been enacted in the last decade — but on-screen storytelling doesn’t depict these realities.
The aforementioned abortion storyline in The Handmaid’s Tale is just one example of how most storylines leave out a crucial detail in the process of getting care, which is cost, Bracey Sherman notes. “What’s really frustrating is there’s no actual depictions of, say, how did [Janine] pay for it? They show her having a hard time getting off work, she already has a kid, she’s clearly living in a small apartment and doesn’t have a whole lot of money. But then she just has the abortion.”
On-screen abortion stories can certainly impact people’s knowledge of the procedure or medication regimen. Another study Herold has worked on found accurate plotlines that show how abortion pills are taken, as seen in Grey’s Anatomy, increase audiences’ knowledge about the pills. This could be pivotal as restrictions increasingly shutter abortion clinics, and make self-managed abortion with pills the more accessible option for many people, Herold notes.
“A lot of people get information about things from TV and politics, and see abortion as a political issue rather than a cultural or personal issue,” Herold said. “People who have abortions feel worried about being judged and may not share that with people in their lives.
“So, when some audiences hear about it on TV and may absorb the messages from that, whether it’s about abortion safety, how easy or difficult it is to get care, the type of person who has an abortion — these messages might influence people, what they learn about abortion from these different sources.”
Per ANSIRH’s 2021 report, of the 47 on-screen abortion storylines, 68% featured white women, 14% featured parents seeking abortions, and there was an increase in depictions of medication abortion, including in the first episode of the HBO hit Scenes From a Marriage. But there are some notable discrepancies between these numbers and real life statistics—for example, 60% of abortion patients aren’t white women, but people of color — yet ANSIRH’s report found just two on-screen abortion patients this year were Black women.
Despite 2021’s shortcomings to represent the full realities of getting abortions in the US right now, Bracey Sherman and Herold both agree on a plotline in HBO’s Love Life as their favorite abortion and pregnancy decision-making plotline this year. Marcus, the protagonist of this season, is a Black man who listens to and supports his Black friend who shares her abortion story with him and also discusses pregnancy options with his sexual partner, Becca. Becca happens to be white, requiring Marcus to educate her about stereotypes about absentee Black fathers, which would open any co-parenting situation between them to racist scrutiny. Ultimately, as Marcus grapples with what becoming a father will mean for him, Becca winds up losing the pregnancy.
“There’s this idea that if somebody has a baby, they didn’t consider abortion,” Bracey Sherman said. “But most people, in any pregnancy, will at some point think, ‘OK, what are my options? Do I want to do this pregnancy? Do I want abortion?’ They might decide no, for a lot of different reasons, or be unable to obtain an abortion. But to say no one, especially those who have kids, ever thinks about abortion isn’t true.”
Herold particularly praised the Love Life plotline’s exploration of race. “We just haven’t seen that on TV where characters reconcile with race, parenting, and representation as part of the decision about pregnancy,” she said.
Despite room for improvement in accurate and inclusive representation of abortion storytelling on TV, Bracey Sherman is glad to see “more influence of real people’s experiences in depictions” in recent years and hopes for even more “real stories, like depictions of how somebody pays for an abortion, of queer people having abortions, a trans person having an abortion,” in the future.
For writers and others in the entertainment industry, Herold notes that listening to abortion storytellers can sometimes be as simple as listening to their co-workers. “There are a lot of people in Hollywood who work in the industry who’ve had abortions themselves,” she said. “You can bring those experiences to bear as you’re writing episodes or thinking about these plotlines. But I think it’s incumbent to also think about people whose experiences accessing abortion look different from yours.”
Ultimately, as bleak as the political landscape around abortion may be right now, Bracey Sherman is optimistic about important cultural progress around abortion storytelling, including the ANSIRH report’s finding that more television plotlines this year than ever depicted people supporting someone after having an abortion.
“We’re getting to this point of moving away from the drama being around the abortion decision itself, to instead helping people understand abortion is a fact of life, and any stressors are usually due to trying to find a provider or support,” Bracey Sherman said. “It’s been cool to see more just disclosures of an abortion, a character who’s like, ‘I had an abortion,’ rather than the whole plot arc. It can just be a part of your character’s life — and that’s beautiful.”