To examine the portrayal of complications and long-term health consequences associated with abortion on television, recognizing the impact that fictional stories can have on public beliefs about abortion's safety.
Using a systematic online search, we identified all instances of abortion on US television from 2005 to 2016. We qualitatively coded these plotlines to identify any occurrences of complications, interventions or long-term health consequences associated with abortion care, with 95% intercoder reliability. We calculated the frequencies and rates of these occurrences in Microsoft Excel.
Our search identified 80 abortion plot lines. A percentage of 37.5 of characters who obtained an abortion experienced complications, interventions and/or negative health consequences. This rate contrasts with the 2.1% of real patients who experience complications or require intervention as a result of their abortions. Most onscreen complications were major events (e.g., hemorrhage), as opposed to real women, whose complications are mostly minor. Major medical interventions (e.g., hysterectomy) were similarly overportrayed, while the most commonly used interventions for real patients (e.g., medication) were not depicted at all. Finally, 22.5% of characters faced a long-term adverse health consequence, including mental illness, infertility or death. The onscreen abortion mortality rate was 5%, about 7000 times the actual mortality rate.
Overall, television dramatically exaggerates the risk associated with abortion procedures, overportraying medical complications — particularly major and life-threatening complications — and long-term adverse health consequences. This pattern of misrepresentation may be partially attributable to the occurrence of stories about illegal abortions or abortions taking place outside of modern medical contexts.
Onscreen abortion portrayals may contribute to inaccurate beliefs about abortion's risk that are common among the public, broadly, and abortion patients, specifically. Abortion advocates and providers will be more equipped to respond misinformation if they understand how and to what extent our popular culture portrays abortion as unsafe.
To read this article in full you will need to make a payment
Purchase one-time access:Academic & Personal: 24 hour online accessCorporate R&D Professionals: 24 hour online access
One-time access price info
- For academic or personal research use, select 'Academic and Personal'
- For corporate R&D use, select 'Corporate R&D Professionals'
Subscribe:Subscribe to Contraception
Already a print subscriber? Claim online access
Already an online subscriber? Sign in
Register: Create an account
Institutional Access: Sign in to ScienceDirect
- The comparative safety of legal induced abortion and childbirth in the United States.Obstet Gynecol. 2012; 119: 215-219
- Abortion surveillance -- United States, 2012, centers for disease control.2015
- Incidence of emergency department visits and complications after abortion.Obstet Gynecol. 2015; 125: 175-183
- Does state-level context matter for individuals' knowledge about abortion, legality and health? Challenging the 'red states v. Blue states' hypothesis.Cult Health Sex. 2015; 17: 733-746
- Beliefs about abortion risks in women returning to the clinic after their abortions: a pilot study.Contraception. 2014; 90: 19-22
- Abortion stigma among low-income women obtaining abortions in western Pennsylvania: a qualitative assessment.Perspect Sex Reprod Health. 2016;
- What do obstetricians think about media influences on their patients?.Aust N Z J Obstet Gynaecol. 2006; 46: 379-383
- Childbirth education, the internet, and reality television: challenges ahead.Birth. 2002; 37: 87-89
- As seen on TV: media influences of pregnancy and birth narratives.in: Ryan K. Macey D. Television and the self: Knowledge, identity, and media representation. Lexington Books, Plymouth, UK2013
- Conceptualising abortion stigma.Cult Health Sex. 2009; 11: 625-639
- Abortion stigma: a reconceptualization of constituents, causes, and consequences.Womens Health Issues. 2011; 21: S49-S54
- Social norms and stigma regarding unintended pregnancy and pregnancy decisions: a qualitative study of young women in Alabama.Perspect Sex Reprod Health. 2016; 48: 73-81
- News that matters: Television and American opinion.2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago2010
- An experimental test of the effects of fictional framing on attitudes.Soc Sci Q. 2011; 92: 79-98
- Analyzing the impacts of abortion clinic structures and processes: a qualitative analysis of women's negative experiences of abortion clinics.Contraception. 2012; 85: 204-210
- Facts and fictions: characters seeking abortion on American television, 2005-2014.Contraception. 2015; 93: 446-451
- Depicting abortion access on American television, 2005-2015.Fem Psychol. 2017; 27: 56-71
- Telling stories about abortion: abortion-related plots in American film and television, 1916–2013.Contraception. 2014; 89: 413-418
- Doctors and witches, conscience and violence: abortion provision on American television, 2005-2014.Perspect Sex Reprod Health. 2016;
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation on television.N Engl J Med. 1996; 334: 1578-1582
- Unsafe abortion: the preventable pandemic.in: The lancet sexual and reproductive health series. 2006
- Self-induction of abortion among women in the United States.Reprod Health Matters. 2010; 18: 136-146
- Texas women's experiences attempting self-induced abortion in the face of dwindling options.University of Texas and Ibis Reproductive Health, Austin2015
- Understanding why women seek abortions in the US.BMC Womens Health. 2013; 13
- Reasons US women have abortions: quantitative and qualitative perspectives.Perspect Sex Reprod Health. 2005; 37: 110-118
- Does abortion reduce self-esteem and life satisfaction?.Qual Life Res. 2014; 23: 2505-2513
- Women's mental health and well-being 5 years after receiving or being denied an abortion: a prospective, longitudinal cohort study.JAMA Psychiat. 2016;
- Mental health diagnoses 3 years after receiving or being denied an abortion in the United States.Am J Public Health. 2015; 105: 2557-2563
- The effect of pregnancy termination on future reproduction.Baillieres Clin Obstet Gynaecol. 1990; 4: 391-405
- Long-term physical and psychological health consequences of induced abortion: review of the evidence.Obstet Gynecol Surv. 2003; 58: 67-79
- The effect of induced abortion on subsequent pregnancy outcome.Br J Obstet Gynaecol. 1991; 98: 1015-1024
- Medical abortion and the risk of subsequent adverse pregnancy outcomes.N Engl J Med. 2007; 357: 648-653
- Evaluating the "baby Jack" storyline on the bold and the beautiful: making a case for bone marrow donations.in: Cases in Public Health Communication & Marketing. 4. 2010: 8-27
- The power of narratives: the effect of organ donation entertainment television storylines on the attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors of donors and non-donors.J Commun. 2009; 59: 135-151
- Covering cancer: examining the incidence and impact of prime time television cancer storylines, in National Conference on health communications, marketing, & media.Atlanta, GA, 2013
- Marriage, abortion, and coming out.116. Columbia Law Review, 2016
Published online: March 29, 2017
Accepted: March 23, 2017
Received in revised form: March 21, 2017
Received: January 24, 2017
☆Disclosures/Conflict of Interest: None.
© 2017 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.