Why we need more shame-free TV characters who reflect the reality of abortion

YES! Magazine

Kerry Washington in ABC's "Scandal."

Eric McCandless/ABC

During the second season of AMC’s "Halt and Catch Fire," Donna Clark, a computer engineer and mother of two, makes a decision one in three women will make in her lifetime. She has an abortion.

It’s not a swift decision — it’s a rational one. She feels her family is complete, and a new baby would interfere with her burgeoning career and further strain her tense marriage. When Donna walks into the clinic, arm in arm with her friend Cameron, there is no debate or shame. Instead, there’s a profound celebration of the sisterly support she’s found.

Meanwhile, over on ABC, "Scandal’s" Olivia Pope recently got some attention for having an abortion in the season finale. After Pope discovers she’s pregnant with the president’s child, viewers see her lying in an operating room with her feet in stirrups, waiting for the procedure to begin. Meanwhile, across town, Senator Mellie Grant, the president’s ex-wife, filibusters for the guaranteed funding of Planned Parenthood. The political and personal solidarity between these two rivals is a rare moment onthe prime-time drama.

While feminist perspectives are often absent from mainstream television, shows like "Scandal," "Halt and Catch Fire," "Jessica Jones" and "Girls" are doing their part to portray strong female characters dealing with unwanted pregnancies. These shows have huge audiences, and the potential to help end stigmas around abortion. Through its work bringing positive LGBT stories to mainstream media, GLAAD has shown how compassionate and accurate representations on TV have the power to shift real-world thinking.

In 2005, only two percent of characters on broadcast networks represented the LGBT community. A decade later, that number has nearly doubled. This coincided with a vast shift in public thought and policy around LGBT communities. No, positive representation on TV wasn’t the only factor in this shift, but Americans watch a lot of TV and what we watch can shape our world-view.

Portrayals of reproductive autonomy shouldn’t be considered radical, but they often are. While nearly one-third of American women will have an abortion by age 45, scenes like these are hard to come by. Television would have you believe women only get abortions in dire and shameful situations. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, that’s simply not true. More than half of women who have abortions are already mothers when they make that decision. When women were asked why they decided to terminate their pregnancy, three-fourths cited their responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths said they could’t afford a child; three-fourths said having a baby would interfere with work, school or their ability to care for dependents; and half said they didn’t want to be a single parent or were having problems with their partner.

The reality is abortion is rarely represented with even a modicum of accuracy on television.

“Women have been shamed and stigmatized for choosing abortion in real life for centuries — and in the visual media since the 1900s,” writes Heather MacGibbon, a film scholar, health care professional, and author of "Screening Choice: The Abortion Issue in American Film 1900-2000." Through her research, MacGibbon found female characters who seek abortion are commonly portrayed as “evil women” who normally die as a result of their “selfish decision” or “martyrs of sexual predators forced into abortion.” She says many women often situate their own lives in the context of what they see on TV. So when a woman is faced with an unwanted pregnancy and the decision to have an abortion, it’s easy for the shame and stigma portrayed on TV to creep in.

"The Walking Dead" aired one of the most egregious examples in recent memory of how television can perpetuate and reinforce shaming around abortion. In season two of the highly popular zombie drama, Lori Grimes, a wife and mother, is struggling to survive in the Georgian wilderness when she becomes pregnant. After finding out the news, Grimes swallows nearly a dozen morning-after pills. But then, in a fit of guilt and shame, Grimes vomits up the pills. She eventually has the baby, and dies during childbirth. For the creators of "The Walking Dead," birthing a child in a post-apocalyptic zombie land was a preferable alternative to the guilt Grimes would feel terminating her pregnancy.

“Not only is it insulting but also medically inaccurate and reinforces the idea that non-surgical abortion can be reversed without consequence,” says MacGibbon about "The Walking Dead" scene.

The fact that the show’s writers even touched on abortion is surprising. A lot of television writers shy away from reproductive decisions altogether, and instead rely on a “convenient miscarriage” to deal with unwanted pregnancy. Shows like "Grey’s Anatomy," "Party of Five" and "Degrassi" are just a few of the programs that have relied on miscarriages to avoid writing an abortion into the script. “Having a miscarriage is not a choice — it is a ‘natural process’ where the body rejects a pregnancy,” MacGibbon says.

“While the outcome is the same in TV and film terms the woman who then loses the pregnancy is not to blame and not held to the same narrative consequences.”

Until mainstream media accurately portrays women and their reproductive choices, many people are looking to online grassroots initiatives to share their stories and their truths. The #ShoutYourAbortion social media campaign encouraged women to share their experiences without shame or stigma, in an effort to normalize the decision to have an abortion. And to some degree it worked. The explosive online response got the attention of media outlets like The New York Times and CNN, and pushed the issue into the mainstream. It’s these kind of compassionate and humanizing efforts that can slowly impact broader media. Until then, we’ll be clinging to the few Donnas and Olivias we can find on screen.

Jessica Gentile is a writer and cultural critic living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Pitchfork, The Atlantic, and Paste Magazine. This story was originally published by YES!, a nonprofit publication that supports people’s active engagement in solving today’s social, political, and environmental challenges. 

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