The Website Abortion Onscreen Keeps Track Of Shows And Films That Address Abortion

by Debbie Stoller

“I just felt so shocked that they couldn’t even use the word abortion!” says Steph Herold, 36, regarding an episode of And Just Like That…, the sequel to the series Sex and the City. In the episode that aired last summer, a wealthy, married woman with three school-age children and a burgeoning career discovers she is pregnant, and wishes she wasn’t. But when the possibility of terminating the pregnancy is raised, she can only say, “I thought about it, but I can’t. I mean, I’m really grateful that I have that option but…,” and resigns herself to having the kid. For Herold, the contrast to an episode of SATC from 20 years before, in which two main characters admit to having had abortions, and a third is seriously considering one, is striking. “It’s one of the most-cited abortion plotlines,” she says. “There are a couple of others that really stand out in people’s minds, like Maude from the ’70s, Dirty Dancing from the ’80s, and Scandal from the mid 2000s.”

Those are just four of over 600 entries at Abortion Onscreen, a database of shows and movies that feature abortion in their storylines dating back to 1916. Herold has been on the team of sociologists that has maintained the database for six years, and despite the disappointing AJLT episode, she reports seeing an increase in abortion plotlines over the past year and a half. “It’s not perfect representation by any means,” she says. “[Scripts are] still largely focused on young white teens, who are not the ones most affected by abortion restrictions.” The information presented on shows is also frequently inaccurate. “Their prerogative is not to educate, but to entertain,” says Herold. “And what’s more dramatic than someone who’s had an abortion lying on the sidewalk, bleeding? TV abortion is much riskier than in real life.” 

Still, including abortion plotlines on shows like Grey’s Anatomy, New Amsterdam, Law & Order, and others with enormous audiences is a net-positive, says Herold. “In a world with so little information about abortion, television shows with characters who support each other through abortions can be very powerful,” she says. Are you listening, Michael Patrick King


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