The Lies of TV's Abortion Storylines

tags: abortion, popular culture, television, reproductive rights

Tanya Melendez (she/her) is an Illinois distinguished fellow at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research is centered on television, rhetoric, and public discourse. Find her on Twitter @tanyamel.

In the second season of Mad Men, perpetually desperate Harry Crane needs to prove himself useful to his colleagues at Sterling Cooper. When he hears the CBS drama The Defenders is losing advertisers because of an abortion plot line — a 1962 real-world event — he tries to convince a lipstick company to buy airtime. The Belle Jolie executive balks at “entering the debate,” leaving Harry aghast at the lack of foresight. “Women,” he says incredulously, “will be watching!”

He was right, but so was the Belle Jolie exec.

For decades, abortion on television was largely depicted as a debate in narrative form, one that pitted melodramatic anti- and pro-abortion rights stances against each other through characters audiences knew and loved. Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport, researchers at the University of California San Francisco, argued in 2014 that, over time, these narratives collectively created “common cultural ideas about what pregnancy, abortion, and women seeking abortion are like.” The result, according to Sisson and Kimport, was an inaccurate picture of who seeks abortions, and why.

Fictional abortions were also overdramatized. From the origins of television all the way through the past decade, overwhelmingly male TV writers created plot lines that framed abortion as a moral issue, amping up conflict for maximum emotional journeys. It isn’t hyperbolic to say that television significantly changed the way America understood abortion and, as a result, deeply influenced public policy.

Andrea Press, a communications professor who documented this relationship in a 1991 study, concluded that “when the moral language adopted by television differs from that of viewers, television viewing influences viewers to adopt its terms.” The medium is not a passive bystander in our social debates; it is an active participant, shaping attitudes and action.

In other words, the stories we see on TV help create who we are.

In fact, the beginning of the end of accessible abortion in Texas began with a story. On May 5, 2021, state Rep. Shelby Slawson introduced Senate Bill 8, a law that the Supreme Court allowed to go into effect that bans abortion after six weeks, by telling her mother’s pregnancy story. Doctors had believed the fetus was developing abnormally, but Slawson’s mother chose to carry to term after hearing the fetal heartbeat. Slawson concluded, “Forty-four years later, that little baby girl is standing in this chamber.”

Narratives like these are common in hearings happening in the many state legislatures considering abortion restrictions in 2021. Abortion rights activists have also embraced the power of storytelling as a strategic tool, launching hashtagsInstagram accountswebsitespodcasts, and more to encourage women to share their abortion stories in the hope of swaying the public to their side.

Yet for all those thousands of competing real-life tales, none has been or will be as widely told as the television abortion narrative. Looking back on how abortion came into our living rooms starting in the 1960s and persisted into our audience-fragmented streaming era can teach us how these stories taught, shaped, and contributed to today’s public discourse about abortion.

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