Television Just Keeps Getting Abortion Wrong

ABC's "Dirty Dancing" remake brings abortion to the small screen — along with a reminder of how pop culture misrepresents it

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May 25, 2017 at 11:02 AM ET

On Wednesday night, ABC aired its TV remake of the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing.” Just like the original, it’s set in 1963, ten years before Roe v. Wade, so the subplot around an illegal abortion, followed by complications, is realistic enough. In fact, the original movie is considered one of the better pop culture representations of abortion, since it shows main characters rallying around a woman’s need for one and reminds of the dangers in restricting women’s reproductive rights.

But accurate representations of abortion are a rarity on television. Whether set before the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision or not, TV programming often shows abortion as a far more dangerous proposition than it really is, one that often leaves women emotionally and physically scarred.

That’s what Gretchen Sisson, a researcher at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), has found over the past several years studying representations of abortion in American television. Her recent study looked at TV shows aired from 2005 to 2016 and discovered that 37.5 percent of fictional abortions resulted in complications — most commonly serious ones, like hemorrhage. Compare that to the 2.1 percent of real-world patients who experience complications from abortion — most of which are minor.

These fictional TV abortions also too often show major medical interventions, like hysterectomy — “Call the Midwife” being a recent example of this. At the same time, they underrepresent less serious interventions, like medication, which are more common in reality.

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Long-term negative health consequences are also more common on TV, with 22.5 percent of characters facing consequences like mental illness or infertility after an abortion. “House of Cards” is one case — Clare’s doctor is shown explaining that her two prior abortions might contribute to her infertility. “That’s just not backed up by what we know about the long term safety of abortion,” says Sisson.

Worst of all, the death rate for fictional characters who had abortions was 5 percent — approximately 7,000 times what it is in the real world.

Many fictionalized abortion stories are set in the past, so it seem unfair to compare them to current data on the safety of the procedure, Sisson notes. “But for me,” she says, “that just begs the question of, ‘Why are so many abortion stories set in the past?'” While some individual stories of dangerous abortions might be historically accurate — like in “Dirty Dancing” — the overall balance is skewed, she said. “Do they walk away thinking that abortion is an inherently dangerous procedure or do they walk away thinking, ‘Well, thank goodness abortion is legal’?,” said Sisson.

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Even shows set in the future — like ABC’s “Defying Gravity,” which takes place in the year 2052 — cling to the danger narrative. “It’s very bizarre — even though technology has advanced to the point of regular space travel, they can’t get abortion right,” she said.

Sisson’s past research has found that TV typically shows white, young, childless characters getting abortions. In the real world, women who have abortions are typically nonwhite, in their twenties, and have at least one child.

“It skews people’s perceptions of who’s getting abortions and why, and it leaves certain stories untold,” Sisson said. “You can see the direct link to policies — if so many people getting abortions on TV are teenagers, well then maybe things like parental notification and consent start to make sense.” And, if TV typically shows childless women having abortions, it might create the perception that women who have children wouldn’t have abortions and are “un-maternal,” she said.

There are signs, though, that things are getting better with a gradual trend toward matter-of-fact TV abortions, where it is a treated as a normal part of women’s reproductive health care.

In an episode of “Scandal,” viewers didn’t learn that Olivia Pope was pregnant until she was shown on the operating table. On “Girls,” viewers didn’t learn that a character was pregnant until she casually revealed that she’d had an abortion the previous day.

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“These stories are not about this handwringing, heavy-handed, agonizing decision process that comes beforehand,” she said. “It’s ‘these women are getting abortions, what does it mean for their lives, careers and relationships?'”

The same cannot be said for the real world. The future of Roe v. Wade has been seriously called into question, thanks to the current administration’s hostility toward reproductive rights. President Donald Trump’s recently proposed budget calls for an all-out federal ban on Planned Parenthood funding. On the state-level, battles are being fought over severe restrictions on second-trimester abortions, mandated burials of fetal remains, and strict parental notification laws. But, of course, TV can always serve as an escape from reality — and we might need it.