Abortion in America
Who Gets Abortions? Not Who You’d Think from Watching TV

Even as abortions in America are becoming increasingly concentrated among low-income women, especially African Americans and Hispanics (graph h/t Ross Douthat), TV shows tend to depict abortion as a choice made mostly by affluent whites, according to a new study. From NPR (h/t Reihan Salam):

Characters on television who consider or obtain abortions don’t reflect the demographics of American women who choose them or their reasons for doing so, according to a recent analysis from researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.

The group looked at all depictions of abortion on U.S. television shows from 2005 to 2014. This included both network television shows and other distributors, including Netflix and Showtime. They found that TV characters who had abortions were younger, whiter, wealthier and less likely to be raising children than the average American woman who has an abortion. […]

Nearly 90 percent of the fictional characters were white, versus 36 percent in real life. About 30 percent of American women who choose abortions are black and about 25 percent are Latino. Fictional characters were also far less likely to be parents — about 15 percent versus more than 60 percent in real life.

These findings could be spun in several ways. Pro-choice advocates, for example, might argue that abortion rights are important precisely because they help protect vulnerable women from the economic shock of an unplanned pregnancy, and that the popular culture’s failure to convey this is harmful to the pro-choice cause. This appears to be more or less the interpretation of Gretchen Sisson, the study’s author, who suggests that if TV shows did a better job depicting “the reality of abortion care,” the public might be more skeptical of pro-life policies.

However, it’s also possible to imagine social conservatives making the opposite case. Pro-lifers have long maintained that America’s abortion regime has undertones of eugenics—that it is a kind of hidden violence with a disparate impact on poor and minority populations. TV’s depiction of abortion primarily as a selective practice undertaken by enlightened elites—rather than as an act of despair undertaken by people in vulnerable communities with few other options—might obscure some of the more uncomfortable implications of America’s abortion regime. And the way TV depicts abortion, the pro-lifers could argue, also unrealistically reinforces the “my body, my choice” framing of the abortion debate that is popular among pro-choice activists.

Either way, the study highlights the fact that with abortion, as with so many other issues related to sex and love and family and religion, there is a significant gap between popular culture and social reality.

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