Life on screen can be dangerous if you are a woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy. A new study has found that Hollywood grossly exaggerates the risk of abortion: While the number of plotlines featuring abortion has grown in recent decades, movies and television shows often kill off characters for even just contemplating the possibility of this procedure.
"The linking of abortion and death can be very salient in the public's mind," says Gretchen Sisson, a research sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-author of the new study, which will appear in the journal Contraception. "It just creates this social myth of abortion as more dangerous than it actually is.
Sisson and her colleague searched IMDB.com and found 472 films and TV series available to American audiences that have mentioned abortion—the earliest being a 1916 silent film, Where Are My Children. A search on Google yielded 43 further titles. The results show a steady upward trend over time: Between 1963 and 1972 (the year before Roe v. Wade), a total of 29 movies and television shows mentioned abortion, but in the period between 2003 and January of 2013, the total was 116. Although this trend might suggest a greater societal comfort with abortion, Sisson notes that it could simply reflect the fact that there are more films and television shows being produced today than in previous decades.
Of the 310 movies and episodes that featured abortion as a major plotline or featured an abortion provider as a main character, a striking 9 percent portrayed the death of a woman after having—or even deciding on—an abortion. That includes a total of five films and TV shows in which a woman resolves to get an abortion and then changes her mind, but subsequently meets her end. (The actual risk of death from reported legal abortion in the U.S. is less than 1 per 100,000 procedures.) Paradoxically, other medical predicaments appear to have better-than-real-life outcomes on TV and film. Studies have found that CPR is much more effective on TV and soap opera characters are much more likely to wake up from a coma.
Of course, the risk of death from abortion before the procedure was legal was much higher (and continues to be high in many developing nations), and many of the movies in which these deaths occur—Vera Drake, for example, and Revolutionary Road, in which Kate Winslet’s character gives herself a vacuum aspiration abortion and then dies—are period films depicting a time before legal abortion. Sisson notes that some screenwriters might actually want to underscore the importance of legal access to abortion by depicting the fatal outcomes of illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade, but the overall trend in portraying abortion as risky does, she thinks, “indicate an ongoing level of discomfort with abortion.” Also: “Adoption outcomes are also much more common in these fictional stories than in reality.”
One standout moment of television representing reality was a November 1972 two-part episode of Maude, in which Bea Arthur’s character, the 47-year-old Maude Findlay, found herself unexpectedly pregnant and then had an abortion. The episode aired two months before the Roe v. Wade decision, but Maude lived in New York, where abortion was already legal. Girls and Parenthood are two recent examples of shows that have also approached abortion in an honest way, but, considering that more than one million women have abortions every year in this country, it’s pretty amazing that abortion as a safe and viable option for women isn’t a common plotline. Pregnancy certainly is.