Medical Examiner

How Television Misrepresents Abortion

Scandal’s season finale had a rare realistic depiction of abortion.

Olivia Pope abortion.
Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal.

Photo by Nicole Wilder/ABS

When I was 16 and anti-choice, I thought abortion was murder. I thought anyone who even considered it was selfish, cold-hearted, and godless. But then the pastor’s daughter got knocked up, and I knew she wasn’t godless. If anyone had a direct line to the Almighty, it was her, right? So why did she then go through with it—that unambiguous sin, that unmitigated, call-it-a-day, demonizing act that everyone else in youth group knew was wrong? Simple. She was human, and she made a thoughtful decision about her future.

I would be lying if I said that right then and there I had an epiphany and would forever after be an advocate for reproductive rights. It took several more years of soul-searching and encountering stories like hers before I realized one basic, underlying truth: Abortion isn’t what you may think it is. Abortion is normal. It’s not rare, and it’s rarely tragic. Abortion is not what the media says it is.

In his book Every Third Woman in America, David Grimes points out that 1 in 3 reproductive-age women in this country has an abortion. Think you don’t know anyone who has had one? Think again. Abortion is everywhere, and it isn’t going away. So why is there so much confusion on the subject? Well, people believe what they see on TV.

Television tells us that abortion is dangerous. An alarming 15.6 percent of women who undergo abortion on screen end up dead, according to the research group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health. Most of those deaths are the result of procedural complications—botched abortions, you could say. In reality, the risk of death from an abortion (regardless of how far along in pregnancy it occurs) is less than 0.01 percent. In the United States, you actually have a higher risk of dying from a lightning strike than you do of dying from an abortion. What about the risk of being harmed if you’re the one providing abortions? Well, the media has it pretty straight on that issue. Anti-choice terrorism is a real threat.

The media also tells us that unplanned and undesired pregnancies are rare, nonrampant issues that are often dealt with in other ways besides abortion. Of women considering abortion on screen, 9 percent ultimately elect adoption because they know abortion to be wrong. In reality, that figure is also less than 1 percent, because women are thoughtful and courageous enough to not be pressured by external agendas.

The reasons women choose to have abortions are also miscalculated. Many abortion portrayals in the media feature young, selfish-appearing women choosing their own freedom over their fetuses. This is a gross misrepresentation. The majority of women seeking abortions are already mothers. These are women who are holding the interests of their children and/or families at the forefront of their minds when they make these decisions. They are also poor. More than 40 percent of women who have abortions have incomes that are below the federal poverty level. Having another child will make it much more difficult to feed and care for the kids they already have.

And what about abortion as a traumatic event that inevitably leads to mental illness and crippling regret? This is also untrue. As of 2015, nine U.S. states require medical providers to inform patients that abortion leads to negative psychological outcomes like depression and suicide. Science disagrees. The highest quality medical research available states that women who have abortions are no more likely to experience mental illness than women who do not have abortions. In fact, research shows that the vast majority of women who undergo abortion feel relief immediately afterward, not regret.

Probably the most blatant misrepresentation is the sheer number of on-screen women who never have to consider abortion. If television characters were true reflections of the average American woman, we would be inundated with abortion plot lines left and right. That’s how common abortion is. And that’s why, as of this week, we can all thank Shonda Rhimes for taking a daring leap in the right direction.

Thursday night’s midseason finale of the hit television show Scandal features lead character Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) going through with that so-called unspeakable act. Lying on an exam room bed, Pope is calm, contemplative, and steadfast in her decision to end an unwanted pregnancy. She has a simple, straightforward, and safe procedure, just like thousands of American women have done before her and thousands more will do here on out.

Keep in mind however, that this is a rare television sighting. The media misinterprets many aspects of normal life, but that’s entertainment—the ability to portray life in unrealistically simplistic or melodramatic ways. The real danger is when these misleading accounts begin to shape reality.

In the current presidential primary race, you can see this misperception playing out in real time.  Presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina’s erroneous portrayal of an already deceptive sting video aimed at taking down Planned Parenthood is the perfect example of this distortion. What’s most concerning is that her message—a bending of an already crooked lie—is believable to many Americans. For people who aren’t immersed in abortion politics, only one thing emerges from this story: Abortion is murder, and it should be stopped.

Media studies scholars agree that cultural representations online and on screen have huge political impact. As such, the strategy employed by the anti-choice group behind those Planned Parenthood videos is pretty astute: Find common ground with the American public (nobody likes babies dying, even if that’s not exactly what’s happening) and keep tugging at their heartstrings until everyone agrees that abortion is wrong. It’s on TV, so it must be true.

So deep are we in these contorted, spun-out messages that we can’t see how thick the falsification truly is. The reality, however, is this: In deciding whether to remain pregnant, too many American women face legislative interrogations that grill them on whether they really know what’s best for their lives and media propaganda that misrepresents almost everything about their decisions. We need to start trusting women and treating them with the respect and humanity that is deserving of all. Are you listening, television?