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Hollywood is personifying abortion like never before

More films and shows are bringing up the topic of abortion than ever before, but experts say their depictions aren't entirely accurate.
Posted at 9:07 PM, Jan 26, 2023

With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it's no surprise the topic of abortion has made its way from Washington to Hollywood. But experts say mentioning abortion is one thing, and accuracy is another.

In 2022, 60 shows or films took on the topic of abortion — a record, according to researcher Steph Herold with the University of California San Francisco's Abortion on Screen project.

"A lot of what is happening in our culture and politics is often reflected in the media that we see," Herold said.

For example, in 2009 when abortion provider George Tiller was murdered, that same storyline appeared in an episode of NBC's Law & Order.

One year before Roe v. Wade, a two-part episode of the sitcom "Maude" featured the title character wrestling with the decision to have an abortion as an older married woman. According to the Chicago Tribune, the episode garnered 7,000 letters of protests for CBS but long-time praise for lead actress Bea Arthur and creator Norman Lear from abortion rights groups.

"It was the first plotline to really focus on the person having the abortion instead of on the doctor, the lawyer, the detective, the police officer," Herold said.

Over the years, films like "Where the Heart Is," "Juno" and "Knocked Up" have been celebrated by anti-abortion advocates for the main character's decision not to have an abortion, whether that was the filmmakers intent or not.

Experts say depicting abortion and the emotions that go along with it is tricky because people are complicated.

According to a study from the University of California San Francisco, 54% of women say it was somewhat or very difficult to terminate their pregnancy. Five years later, 95% of those same women say it was the right decision.

"Most of the people seeking abortions are already parenting and are older," said Kate Langrall Folb, director of Hollywood Health and Society. "You know, they're not they're not a teenager, and they're not the young professional woman, and they're not always white.

Folb says TV and film often focus on things like deadly procedural outcomes and get it wrong on who is having the abortion and how.

According to the CDC and the Guttmacher Institute, most abortions today involve people who have previously given birth; most are minorities and most are done via medication.

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"You can probably conjure an image up in your mind of a show that you saw where someone was getting an abortion, and they're on the operating table, and their hair's in a hairnet, and they've got the gown on," Folb said. "It's very clinical, and and that's not necessarily the case."

One thing experts say shows have depicted accurately recently is the impact of abortion restrictions, like one episode of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy."

But does accuracy matter when it comes to changing an opinion on abortion one way or another? Herold says so far, not according to the research.

"It seems like these accurate plotlines can increase people's knowledge, but what about it meant that they didn't increase their support for abortion? Was it because it was a one off character and so they didn't have a lot of empathy for her, a relationship with her?" Herold said.

She says at the end of the day, it's entertainment, but she hopes the industry will strive to hit a balance.

"I think what's important to me is: Does the story have this kind of emotional complexity in addition to reflecting kind of, like, the medical and social reality of abortion?" Herold said.