The Official Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story
Read. Write. Review. Discuss. Succeed.

Abortion on Film & TV

Forums Forums General Writing Art of Writing (for any medium) Abortion on Film & TV

This topic contains 18 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Shaula Evans 6 months, 3 weeks ago.

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 19 total)
  • Author
  • #44359

    Shaula Evans

    Click on image to enlarge

    This inforgraphic on abortion in film and TV was produced by and is based on research by Katrina Kimport and Gretchen Sisson of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSRH), a program of the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF): Telling stories about abortion: abortion-related plots in American film and television, 1916–2013.

    Kimport and Sisson found that despite the pervasive belief that American films and TV do not discuss abortion, they identified 385 abortion-related plotlines from 1916-2013, 87 on primetime network television.

    Safety: They found that while medical procedures like CPR are often portrayed as safer and more effective than they are in real life, in contrast stories misrepresent abortion as more dangerous and more likely to end in the death of the patient than they are in reality. As the infographic points out, in screen fiction 9% of women die from abortion while in present-day reality, (medical) abortions have a 0% statistical risk of resulting in the patient’s death.

    Abortion vs Adoption: They also found that in the past decade, 9% of fictional characters placed a baby up for adoption whereas on real life, only 1% of women will do this.

    Why is the misrepresentation of safety issues around abortion important?

    What does this mean for you as a TV writer or screenwriter?
    When we misrepresent the safety and affectiveness of medical procedures of any kind in our scripts, we are potentially and probably endangering the health of some viewers and interfering with their ability to make informed medical decisions. In the specific case of misrepresenting abortion, we are potentially complicating an already difficult decision for individual women and, separately, we may be influencing the politicians in debates around the safety of abortion, the regulation of abortion providers, and ultimately women’s access to abortion.

    Kimport and Sisson have kindly rolled up their sleeves and done the research for us: to rectify this longstanding error all we have to do is follow their lead and stop perpetuating misinformation.

    Special Moderation Note
    Abortion is a polarizing topic but I am confident that, as usual, we can have a civil discussion about representations of abortion in film and TV. To help, I’m laying out some ground rules:

    1. The Black Board is a site for on-topic discussions of film and TV writing. We do not discuss politics here.  Any attempts to discuss politics or the politics of abortion will result in comment deletion and possible banning.
    2. Attempts to block or derail this discussion will result in comment deletion and possible banning.
    3. We are not debating Kimport and Sisson’s findings as they are not here to speak for themselves. If you take issue with their findings or methodology, take it up with them directly.
    4. If you are uncomfortable with the topic of abortion, or do not feel able to discuss issues around writing abortion-related plotlines, please avoid this discussion.

    Thank you for creating a community where we can discuss sensitive topics in a mature and reasonable manner.


    Lydia Mulvey

    Kimport and Sisson found that despite the pervasive belief that American films and TV do not discuss abortion, they identified 385 abortion-related plotlines from 1916-2013, 87 on primetime network television.

    I’m always fascinated at the differences between what people perceive versus what the reality is. For example, in relation to the presence of women on screen, a study has found that if there’s 17 percent women on screen, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women on screen than men.

    (Have a look at The impact of the lack of screen representation thread for further information on this topic.)

    Anyway, this is a significant number for such a taboo subject. It’s also interesting to note how much more risky the procedure is portrayed as being in TV and film versus real life. And how more risky procedures such as CPR are shown to be much safer in film and TV than they are in real life.

    So why is abortion portrayed as far riskier in entertainment than in real life? Is it all about the drama? Obviously TV and film must entertain its audience and therefore must find the conflict in the story. An abortion that goes smoothly is not that exciting (I’m speaking purely in terms of entertainment from content here). But an abortion that kills the woman or that leads her to kill herself or that somehow causes her harm, well that’s far more tragic and dramatic.

    So is it just about the drama and the conflict? Should abortion be portrayed in an honest way, even if it’s not as “exciting” as the made up version? Is there a hidden agenda at work to influence opinion and feeling in the audience? I don’t know.

    But I am surprised that there is any discussion of the issue at all in TV and film, given that it’s such a divisive and emotive subject.


    Shaula Evans

    Lydia, I’m just as surprised as you are: the received wisdom is that you can’t talk about abortion in pop culture and therefore that no one does. I would never have dreamed that researchers would be able to come up with that many instances.

    Is it all about drama? Well, that wouldn’t account for representing other medical procedures with life-or-death outcomes as safer than they are. In my mind, misrepresenting the danger of abortion for the sake of drama constitutes a kind of subset of putting women in refrigerators: killing off women as cheap plot points.

    As a woman, given the real world stakes for individual women around abortion, this isn’t an issue I want to see dealt with cheaply in narratives.

    > And how more risky procedures such as CPR are shown to be much safer in film and TV than they are in real life.

    The larger topic of misrepresenting the safety of medical procedures is worth its own discussion. I’ve come across information on that recently and I can’t put my hands on it at the moment but when I do, I’ll post it.



    This isn’t actually that surprising. Abortion aside, I’d hazard a guess that most medical issues / procedures are misrepresented simply because it’s a quick and easy plot choice and usually allows for heightened drama. It’s known as taking creative licence.

    I’m sure we could all furnish stories of confused symptoms and inaccurate medical terminology. In fact, I recall reading about an inaccuracy in The English Patient that was written and directed by Anthony Minghella. It happens.

    Having said that I think it’s important to be as accurate and authentic as possible whenever we create new material, and that applies to all aspects of the story world including medicine and health care. Of course, it’s not always possible to be 100% correct and sometimes things slip through the net but that shouldn’t prevent anyone from being professional about ensuring events in their story world mirror the real world where applicable.

    A good way to avoid discrepancies is to do as much research as possible and also speak to professionals to get your facts straight. Ultimately an inaccurate script reflects badly on the writer, there are no two ways about it. It’s your name on the title page so why risk looking amateur or ill informed?

    When it comes to sensitive topics like abortion, and assisted death for example, then it’s even more important that the material is as balanced as possible. These are deeply emotive and divisive issues. Any writer including them in a script has a duty to be fair and accurate.

    It’s no secret that audiences are influenced by what they see and read. Some situations and topics will always generate debate, there will always be opposing viewpoints. But great writers who wish to express an opinion always provide the other side of the argument too. Great writers allow the audience to decide for themselves. And in order for that to occur, great writers present situations and events accurately and truly.



    Shaula Evans

    Great writers allow the audience to decide for themselves.

    That’s a great point, Sutinder. If you have to lie or misrepresent an issue to get your point across, you’re writing propaganda (and you may as well face it). If you trust your audience and your material, you can explore an issue from multiple points of view–and your work will be stronger for it.



    The comparison to the exaggerated success rate of CPR got me thinking – is the outcome of onscreen abortions skewed by the kind of drama they tend to occur in?

    For example – a fictional attempt to save someone’s life with CPR might occur in any genre and tone of film/TV program, anything from grimly realistic drama to a fanciful spy story or superhero story. So the outcome reflects the tone and genre: a super-spy trying to resuscitate the poisoned POTUS is much more likely to succeed than, say, first responders dealing with an elderly drug addict in a ‘realistic’ medical show.

    Abortion plotlines occur largely in ‘realist’ drama. Not much call for them among spies, superheroes and sci-fi heroes. (Which begs the question “why not?”, but anyway…)  So they tend to reflect the more downbeat, tragedy-oriented tone of that genre.

    I bet if you examined the recovery rate from CPR within realist drama *only*, you’d find a dramatic fall in the success rate…

    Would that be a fair assessment?


    Shaula Evans

    I don’t know, Debbie, but it’s a smart and interesting theory. I’d love to see someone compare the success rates of various medical procedures on screen vs real life and break them down by genre.


    asmara bhattacharya

    I’ve never gotten the impression that abortion is a taboo subject, either in real life or on film, from either media sources or face-to-face people.  I’ve seen more fictional abortion storylines and had more abortion-related conversations than I could count.

    I’d guess that abortion isn’t any more misrepresented than many things of varying categories.  According to TV, cheating on your partner, walking alone at night, and being the rookie at any job gives you a much higher chance of death than in real life.  In fact, I’ll bet that the murder-to-natural-death ratio on film is enormously skewed.  Stories seek out dramatic moments to underscore plot points, to wring emotion, to deepen impact, to drive characters to the edge of their world.  So while I completely agree that fictional media has a huge impact and that women are disproportionately killed off as plot points, I’m not sure abortion is being used as a plot device any more than most dramatic real-life events.

    One of my favorites:  over 900,000 police officers currently serving in the U.S., and about 150-160 killed in the line of duty every year.  No way could almost every main character cop on TV have a cop father who was killed on the job!

    ps.  I was stunned (and thankful) years ago to discover that the number of cops killed each year is so low, and I bet most people would be as well.  Which goes straight to Shaula’s point about misrepresentation in media.


    Shaula Evans

    No way could almost every main character cop on TV have a cop father who was killed on the job!

    I love this, Asmara.

    I’d guess that abortion isn’t any more misrepresented than many things of varying categories.  

    And yet portrayals of abortion (like deaths on the job for police officers) skew to the negative, while success rates for CPR skew to the positive, so clearly not all misrepresentations are created equal. I’m finding that part interesting.


    asmara bhattacharya

    I’m sure there’s a vicious cycle of ignorance at play.  Most people don’t realize that things like CPR and the Heimlich are dangerous at all, probably in part because they show up in film so often as not being dangerous.  Then more people show it on film as not dangerous, so more people think it’s not dangerous….  And I’m not sure how much I’d blame the people who perpetuate this.  If something is so readily “common knowledge,” even if it’s wrong, most people probably wouldn’t even think it needs research.

    A similar example:  getting knocked unconscious.  If you’re actually knocked hard enough to be unconscious, you have a concussion.  That is very serious, and that’s brain damage.  One would never know that to see characters knocked out week after week.

    In that way, I’d say abortion, CPR, and concussions are all being used as plot devices to further a story.  Taken objectively as writers’ tools, something potentially heart-wrenching like abortion lends itself much more easily to tragedy, whereas something potentially life-saving like CPR lends itself to miracles and happy endings (that are just as unrealistic as dying from abortion).


    Shaula Evans

    > I’m sure there’s a vicious cycle of ignorance at play.


    It all makes me think: “What am I being casual about assuming is correct in my own writing? What should I double check? Where should I consult an expert?”

    I would be horrified to discover I’d misrepresented the safety or efficacy of a medical procedure in my writing.


    Shaula Evans

    On a related note, one of my best friends is an ER doctor–and she has dramatic stories aplenty that are TRUE. And tons of funny ones, too. (Yes, this is the friend who entertained our guests with stories of “things I have dug out of people’s noses” at our wedding reception.)

    Real life is dramatic. Truth is dramatic. We can get this stuff right AND write well.


    asmara bhattacharya

    Okay, I didn’t know till just now that there actually were very strict rules about if and how to portray abortion in film until the last few decades.  This is coming from an article by Amanda Hess at Slate on the new movie Obvious Child, which deals with abortion in a modern-day romantic comedy.

    In 1956, the [pre-MPAA Motion Picture Production Code] decreed that “the subject of abortion shall be discouraged, shall never be more than suggested, and when referred to shall be condemned” in films. “It must never be treated lightly, or made the subject of comedy. Abortion shall never be shown explicitly or by inference, and a story must not indicate that an abortion has been performed. The word ‘abortion’ shall not be used.”

    No doubt the lingering effects of such grave guidelines still affect the portrayal of abortion today, such as the unrealistically dangerous or tragic outcomes of abortion.  At the very least, writers of the last 20 years grew up watching films still heavily influenced by these restrictions; and it’s challenging to break out of pacing, storylines, characters, etc. that you’re used to or take for granted.

    The article refers to the same Sisson and Kimport study on abortion in film.


    Shaula Evans

    Great point, Asmara. Thank you for the link and the quote. The lingering influence of the Hays Code is clear now that you’ve pointed it out, but I hadn’t connected those dots on my own. Interesting.


    Shaula Evans

    When characters on popular television shows do experience an unintended pregnancy, they suffer miscarriages (see Beverly Hills, 90210; Party of Five; and Revenge) or have unexplained last-minute changes of heart (see Sex and the City, Dawson’s Creek, and Secret Life of the American Teenager). And those are the lucky ones. A recent study showed that 14 percent of women in films and television who have abortions end up dying—either through freak medical accidents with no basis in reality or tragic suicides.

    Far from reflecting reality or sparking honest dialogue, television too often perpetuates myths, stereotypes, and stigma about abortion and about women who made the complex, deeply personal decision to end a pregnancy.

    — Excerpted from The Daily Beast [bolding added]

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 19 total)

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.