The Senate and SCOTUS Won’t Tell You, but TV Might
by Megan Burbank
A few weeks ago, while working on a story about the seemingly inevitable reversal of Roe v. Wade, I heard a source say something I’ve been thinking about ever since: They’d heard from someone who didn’t self-identify as pro-choice but wanted to help offset the costs of abortion care for a person they’d never met.
When I hear stories like this, I get curious about what triggers these changes in perspective. But maybe it’s not so mysterious, given the wider reality rarely acknowledged in most mainstream coverage of reproductive health policy: You wouldn’t know it by what the Supreme Court currently looks like, but most Americans support abortion rights. Fifty-nine percent, to be exact — or about 6 in 10 — according to the Pew Research Center. Although the political fissure over abortion rights has broadened since Roe was decided, Americans’ views on the issue have stayed relatively stable in recent years.
This is what I think of when I hear about someone revisiting their stance on the issue, and it makes me wonder if, despite attacks on reproductive health policy extending all the way back to the years immediately following Roe v. Wade, abortion is losing some of its stigma.
There might not be much evidence of this in national politics, but there is somewhere else: on television.
According to “Abortion Onscreen,” an annual report on television storylines involving abortion care, from Oakland-based reproductive health policy research organization Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), 42 television shows in 2021 included 47 abortion plotlines, an increase from 2020’s tally of 32, and, notably, many of these stories “shed light on what meaningful emotional support for loved ones having abortions can look like.”
Abortion on TV is still majorly out of step with reality in many other ways: Few of the shows meaningfully depicted logistical and financial barriers to abortion care, which ANSIRH describes as “significant missed opportunities.” And entirely too many of the shows’ storylines — 68% — centered the experiences of white women, which raises questions of accuracy and health equity, given that most patients who have abortions are People of Color.
But the storylines did include potentially educational references to medication abortion, which ANSIRH described as “important, given that such pills are likely to become essential means of obtaining abortion care as legal access continues to erode,” and five of the shows in the report told abortion stories rooted in compassion.
Those shows — Love Life, Scenes from a Marriage, Queens, This Is Us, and A Million Little Things — all had abortion plotlines that featured characters supporting friends, partners, or, in one case, a one-time romantic rival as they weighed decisions about pregnancy or seeking abortion care.
These storylines have the power to cultivate empathy in viewers. “Taken together, these portrayals provide important social suggestions for ways to support loved ones before, during, and after their abortions,” said ANSIRH in its analysis. “These examples are important because they are depoliticized and personal — they are rooted in friendship and care, and give a tangible way for those who may be uncomfortable with abortion to consider what they would want a loved one’s abortion experience to be like.”
ANSIRH’s report captures the highly personal experience of supporting someone you care about through an abortion or responding with love and care when someone discloses their past abortion to you. As a person who writes about reproductive health policy for my job, this happens to me a lot, and I am always happy to listen. I hope the trends in ANSIRH’s report reflect the possibility that more people may be open to that kind of listening and that true, nonjudgmental care and support may come — as they so often do — from unlikely places.
I happened to read through ANSIRH’s report the same day the U.S. Senate voted down the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have codified abortion access into federal law. In all honesty, the bill struck me as a long shot. As we face a potential future without Roe v. Wade, it seems clear that support for people who have abortions will not come from the federal government, which has banned the use of public funding for abortion since the Hyde Amendment took effect in 1980.
What can I say? My reporting makes me cynical sometimes.
But when I hear about a stranger making the unlikely choice to support someone making a medical decision they might not make for themselves, and when popular media suggests this sentiment may reflect a larger societal shift, I remember that I don’t know everything and that even on a sometimes-bleak beat like reproductive health policy, there remain reasons to be hopeful.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
Megan Burbank is a writer and editor based in Seattle. Before going full-time freelance, she worked as an editor and reporter at the Portland Mercury and The Seattle Times. She specializes in enterprise reporting on reproductive health policy, and stories at the nexus of gender, politics, and culture.
📸 Featured Image: Illustration by Mary Long/Shutterstock.com.
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