Put More Abortions On Our Screens
One in three women have had an abortion. In 2019 alone, 207,384 abortions were carried out in the U.K, and approximately 891,000 in the U.S. It is a normal and real procedure amongst the reproductive community, and could be even considered common. It seems only natural that the films and television programmes we watch would reflect what is reality for many people, right?
It is undeniable that there has been historical progress in the representation of abortion on our screens. The first film to mention abortion came out in 1916, was called Where Are My Children, and was popular across the States despite it being banned in Pennsylvania. The first TV plotline in 1962 was seen in series, Another World. Yet, the way it was portrayed was abstruse and very questionable by modern standards. The films sent mixed messages to viewers about the subject; with Where Are My Children’s hero ultimately condemning women who have abortions, and Another World’s illegal abortion leaves the protagonist sterile.
The Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code, was implemented in the 1930s. Prior to this, there were no guidelines on the topic, and filmmakers did manage to explore abortion through ambiguous storylines and suggestions. Alias the Doctor was produced in 1931 and told the story of a medical student performing an operation on his girlfriend, which fails, ending in her death. Though this operation was unnamed, the regulators claimed that there would be no way of understanding the operation as anything other than an abortion. Producer Daryl Zanuck was later forced to revise the script and give a specific name to the operation.
The Hays Code initially did not even include abortion in its guidelines because the topic was so taboo. The regulators assumed that writers would just know not to include it in their storylines, and any attempts to broadcast abortions in the theatres were stopped. Any discussions of the intricacies of pregnancy itself, such as the pain of birth, within films were deemed “unacceptable” for audiences.
Following the Code’s implementation, the 1951 film by Paramount, Detective Story, was ordered to be rewritten and all references to abortion removed. The original plot sees Detective Jim McLeod find out his wife had an abortion before they met, with the help of a shady doctor he was trying to put in prison. Despite the obvious condemnation of the procedure within the original script, abortion was considered such an horrific crime, that the illegal activity within the story was changed to a ‘baby farm’. They considered abortion to be akin to neglecting or murdering an adopted child for money.
The term ‘abortion’ only appeared in the 1958 revision of the code, after mounting pressure to change their stance. This kickstarted a more progressive movement on screen.
Change is happening
The end of the 20th century and start of the 21st century saw liberal social changes and secularization, which altered the narrative of abortions. There were more conversations about birth control, women’s rights, gender roles, and the general place of women in society.
To reflect this, film and television started to show the topic of abortion in an increasingly honest way.
The “gold-standard” film for reproductive rights is, of course, the 1963 film, Dirty Dancing. Set when abortion was still illegal in the U.S, a whole decade before Roe v Wade, the film shows how character Penny is forced to resort to an illegal abortion, and none of the characters questioned her decision. In fact, they all support her and do all they can to help. When protagonist Baby tells her doctor father what is happening, he is more concerned about Penny’s health than the ethics of the procedure itself. This film shows brilliantly how banning legal abortions does not stop them from happening; women resort to more dangerous, illegal methods.
More recently, both film and TV shows portray abortion more regularly within storylines, and with the woman’s experience and decision at the centre of the plot. Sex Education depicts female unity across generations when it comes to abortions, showing a teenage audience that abortions are entirely valid and can often be the best option for a woman. Euphoria also positively represents abortion, showing a teenage Cassie taking back control of her life by choosing to have the common and safe procedure. In 13 Reasons Why, an abortion is a chance for Chloe to prioritise her own well-being; and in Grey’s Anatomy, Dr Jo Karev reveals that an abortion was her best choice after falling pregnant in an abusive relationship.
It would be wrong to deny that this progression is having a positive effect in promoting open conversations about abortion and ending an historical taboo on reproductive health. However, there is still something that film and TV is not doing right by the realities of abortion.
What we see on the screen is not reflective of the true state of affairs
Most of the women at the centre of these on-screen conversations about abortion are young, white, semi-wealthy teenage girls. The Conversation investigated 31 films and TV shows that depict abortion, and found that 74% were centred upon white women, none of whom were already parents, and the abortion was easily accessed. Only five of these plot lines saw the characters struggle to access care. Another investigation of 78 films and shows between 2005-2014 saw that 32.5% of the characters were under the age of 20, 87.5% were white and 85% did not have any children.
BAMEs are underrepresented on our screens
The reality is, in 2014, ethnic minorities made up over 60% of all procedures in the US. In the UK in 2019, BAME made up 23% of total abortions. However, on screen between 2005-2014, only 13.5% of those getting an abortion were ethnic minority characters. This statistical disparity means that the abortions shown on screen are not representative of the real people getting the procedure.
Yet, it would be wrong to say representation is not improving, with 2019 seeing a more acceptable figure of 35% of characters getting an abortion to be non-white. Recent programmes that depict BAME abortions include The Bold Type, Orange is the New Black, and Dear White People. However, it is not enough; the figures are not adding up. Producers needs to actively work on creating storylines that accurately represent the reality of our population.
Why the single high school teenager trope is so wrong
The age of the women are also misrepresented, with the shows normally depicting a young, teenager facing the decision to abort their high-school lover’s baby. In reality, abortion rates are highest in the U.K. for those between 20-24 years old, and highest in the U.S. between ages 25-29 years old. Only 9% of people who had an abortion were under the age of 20 (2018). Abortions rates for over 35s are growing, and have actually overtaken the rates for under 18s. These stats are far removed from the popular trope of the high school teenager seeking an abortion that we see on screen.
Most of the women shown on screen to consider an abortion are single, when in real life, the majority has already had a child. 59% of patients in 2014 had already give birth to at least one child, whilst the screens show 85% of characters considering abortion to be child-less. In The Conversation’s investigation, none of the characters were already parents; this is a far cry from the true statistics. The real numbers show that a growing number of women are accessing abortion because their family is already big enough, and they do not want any more children. Though on-screen portrayal of a mother deciding to undergo an abortion is still rather rare, one show that does explore this is Jane the Virgin, where the audience sees Jane’s mother, Xiomara, a Latin woman, decide against another child.
Is reproductive healthcare access really that easy?
The Conversation also found that only five of the 31 films/TV shows analysed featured characters who struggled to receive care. While in the U.K, 99% of abortions have been funded by our NHS, this is not the reality worldwide and legal abortions are not always an option for people.
Northern Ireland only legalised abortion for the general population in 2020; prior to this, women were forced to travel overseas to access aspect of this basic healthcare. Lengthy and costly, this made abortion wholly inaccessible for a lot of women. Similarly, Poland issued a near-total ban on abortion at the start of the year; despite huge protests in October 2020 - this too will force women abroad as doctors refuse to carry out the procedure. If they cannot afford to do so, they are forced to carry out an unwanted pregnancy.
But this issue is by no means limited to Europe - some states in the US such as Texas, Arkansas, Arizona and Indiana make it difficult for women to access this healthcare, by denying Planned Parenthood from accessing federal funding, or just the presence of pro-life activists intimidating patients on their way into the clinic.
Though very few storylines show this common struggle to access abortion care, there are some films that explore this issue. The 2020 film, Unpregnant, shows a young girl having to cross state boarders to successfully get an abortion for her unwanted pregnancy. In 13 Reasons Why, the Crisis Pregnancy Centre tries to convince Chloe not to get the abortion, but, along with the help of her friends, she does eventually success in getting the procedure.
Grey’s Anatomy takes a different angle, exploring the story of a woman attempting to self-induce through herbs from the internet due to not being able to get time off work or get childcare to get an abortion. The topic of self-abortion is also explored through shows such as Chicago Med and Orange is the New Black, but no TV show has yet showed these attempts as being successful.
While we cannot deny the film industry's progress in representing the reality of abortion, there is definitely more work to be done. The chasm between the statistics and what we see on screen is immense, and it must close in order to ignite conversation and allow under-represented people to be seen. Enough with the white-teenage-girl-getting-an-abortion-with-her-white-boyfriend tropes, what is needed is film and TV showing what is truly happening in our society: mothers struggling with the decision to terminate the pregnancy of their fifth child, Polish girls desperate to access the basic healthcare but facing legal obstacles, or women in their mid-20s getting an abortion because they are not emotionally or financially ready. Awareness must be raised to those who fly under the radar of mainstream media, all female struggles need to be aptly explored. Filmmakers need to explore the experiences of BAME, those who cannot access reproductive healthcare, and the older mother’s decisions, in order to accurately represent our society.
It is also important to continue to normalise this extremely common procedure through stories, but we must make sure that problems faced are aptly explored so viewers understand both the simplicity and complexity of abortion. Not every woman on screen needs to have the procedure, nor should it be as casual as a regular doctor’s check-up. But we need women to feel comfortable in their decision, and make sure they know they are not alone – regardless of what they decide. At the end of the day, it is their choice and the content we see on screen needs to reflect that.
Words by Daisy Herman
Art by Fempower Art