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What TV and Movies Can Tell Us About Abortion — and What They Can’t

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo Courtesy of Starz

One month after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, P-Valley aired an episode in which Terricka, the 14-year-old daughter of series lead Mercedes, has to decide if she wants to carry a pregnancy to term. The episode, titled “Jackson,” partially takes place in an unnamed clinic we’re meant to understand is Jackson Women’s Health Organization, also known as the Pink House, the only abortion provider in Mississippi before the Supreme Court case bearing its name overturned Roe. “We did not think that it was gonna go all the way to the Supreme Court,” P-Valley creator Katori Hall explains in a recent conversation with Into It host Sam Sanders. But Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization did, and “Jackson” — which frames pregnancy as a matter of life and death, particularly for Black women who face a higher maternal mortality rate — now plays like a “historical document,” Hall says.

P-Valley’s “Jackson” is a more recent example of an abortion narrative onscreen, but this kind of storytelling dates back all the way to the early 20th century and silent film, says Steph Herold, who studies the difference between how TV and movies depict abortion and how abortion actually plays out in reality. (She wrote about her research last year for the Los Angeles Review of Books.) In this week’s episode of Into It, Herold and Hall discuss how entertainment like P-Valley can combat misinformation around abortion and cultivate empathy among its audience. They also acknowledge the limits of onscreen portrayals, and what happens when fiction falls far from reality. Read excerpts of those discussions below.

Into It

Getting Abortion Wrong Onscreen

When we look at depictions of abortion onscreen, what is the biggest difference now between how they happen on TV and movies and how they happen in the real world?
Steph Herold: There are a lot of differences. First, there was this general perception that there aren’t a lot of abortion plotlines on TV and film. And that’s actually not true. There’s a long history of abortion on film, going back all the way to the early 20th century.

SH: Yeah, there were early silent films.

Which silent movie?
SH: Oh, there are actually quite a few. The earliest one that we know about is from 1916, Where Are My Children. It’s this super-racist, very anti-abortion film that loosely follows the trial of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.

SH: Yes. It portrays this woman who’s helped her friends get these safe, illegal abortions as this selfish woman who’s depriving her husband of children. That sets the tone for all future silent abortion movies, of which there are a couple. But it also goes along with this trend we’ve seen over the last century where abortion is often portrayed as extremely unsafe — even when you get to the post-Roe era. Abortion is one of the safest outpatient procedures in the U.S. Less than a quarter of one percent of abortions result in any kind of major complication.

But on TV, about 18 percent of abortions result in a major complication — over 70 times the actual complication rate. Also, the type of characters who have abortions on TV are very different than real-life abortion patients: white, wealthy, not raising kids. It’s a big departure from reality, where the majority of abortion patients are people of color, struggling to make ends meet, raising kids.

In your piece, you pointed out that the majority of characters who are experiencing an abortion onscreen today don’t encounter too many barriers to get it. They can just get it if they want it, when in actuality it ain’t that simple.
SH: Exactly. We found something like 66 percent of characters who have abortions onscreen don’t encounter any barriers at all. When they decide they want an abortion, they can kind of walk into the clinic and get one. Often, the barrier that we do see is protesters in front of the clinic. That’s kind of a mainstay. But we don’t see the logistical, financial, legal hurdles that really make up the experience of getting an abortion in the U.S. today.

If the version of abortion that we see onscreen is actually quite different from the way abortion plays out in the real world, how much does it matter?
SH: People will say, “Of course TV doesn’t mirror reality.” We don’t expect it to, right? Especially entertainment TV. But the truth is, people spend a lot more time watching TV and thinking about the characters that they know and love and getting information there than they do reading textbooks and journal articles about abortion safety, about all of the abortion laws in their state.

Research finds over and over again that people believe all these common myths about abortion: that it’s rare when it’s actually very common, that it’s medically risky when it’s actually very safe, that it’s easy to obtain when actually it’s very difficult to obtain. So TV and film can really address and challenge some of this misinformation and give people a glimpse into who gets abortions, and why, and help people grow that empathy.

In your research, you found that we have seen more abortion restrictions over the last decade, even as depictions of abortion onscreen are up. Either these depictions aren’t having an effect at all, or they’re perhaps having the exact opposite effect of what creators want. Which is it?
SH: It’s hard to get at the truth. There’s something that’s really appealing about thinking that if only we see more of this on TV, that it will form a straight line into culture and policy. But the reality is a lot more messy in a lot of different ways. The way that we consume TV is just so different than it has been in the past: the number of streaming networks, the amount of channels, the ways that you can watch TV on your phone or on your computer or on an actual TV. It’s very challenging to expect one or two shows to have this giant effect on the entire population. That’s one piece. Another piece that is really challenging for us reproductive-health rights and justice supporters is that abortion is, for some aggravating reason, really hard to change people’s minds on.

With things like interracial marriage, or gay marriage, or immigration rights, or any number of things, you can see big opinion shifts in America in the span of a few years or even months sometimes. But it seems like Americans have made their mind up on abortion. Why is abortion so hard to move the needle on?
SH: There are a couple things going on. With a lot of those other issues you mentioned, the movements have really been about supporting people for who they are, right? Marriage equality is like, You love who you love. Immigration? You know somebody who comes from an immigrant family. Those issues are very much about who people are, and loving them no matter what. But abortion is something you do, it’s not who you are. Even when it comes to portrayals of abortion onscreen.

Often, when a character has an abortion, it’s one piece of their story. It’s not their entire story. It’s not the entire TV show. You have all of these other kinds of media that revolve around communities of queer people, communities of immigrant families. Whether those shows are successful with advertisers or with moving audiences may be a different question, but there are no shows that focus specifically on abortion as an identity and really connecting abortion to those values that Americans really gravitate toward, like freedom, independence, family, love.

If you were in a writers’ room and you wanted to write an abortion plotline that moved the needle the most with the folks that needed to see it, what would you write? And who would you write it for? And what format? Tell me your pie-in-the-sky abortion plotline.
SH: I think honestly I would want a whole abortion TV show.

Do you think that’s … a thing that any studio would pick up?
SH: I don’t know. I hope so. I did interviews with more than 40 different showrunners and writers and producers who worked on abortion plotlines in the past. Some of them said that they’ve pitched shows that focused on abortion entirely — whether set at an abortion clinic or about a group of people who have abortions — and networks were really reticent to pick them up.

So if your pie-in-the-sky abortion plotline is an entire abortion show, what is the elevator pitch?
SH: A Parks and Rec–style abortion-clinic comedy. That’s what I want to watch.

I am loving this. Keep going.
SH: I think we probably have some kind of fun, passionate abortion-providing team. We get to see their family lives and their love lives that are both affected by the work that they do but also separate from the work that they do, right? They get to be these full humans who come to work and have these antics that anybody has, no matter where you work. But it just so happens that they’re at an abortion clinic: They’re seeing patients in their community, they’re having to see people from other states. Maybe they’re seeing people who are protesting their clinic. There have to be ways to make those stories really interesting, and funny, and to get audiences invested in these characters.

Also, what if they had that pony like Li’l Sebastian delivering mifepristone and, and misoprostol to people all across Pawnee? I think there are many, many possibilities here. Like, what about involving the people being pregnant and providing this care at the same time? You know, there are so many possibilities.

Can you get this green-lit, please? You’re probably not going to get the rights to use the name Li’l Sebastian for the abortion horse, though. What would you call the abortion horse in your show?
SH: I’d probably call him Li’l Miso. So people know what’s coming.

Aww. I like that.
It sounds very cute. Li’l Misoprostol.

It’s funny we’re having this conversation about TV and movies. When I think of Gen Z, they’re watching YouTube, they’re watching TikTok, they’re watching Snapchat. How does that affect the way to approach the message around things like abortion? It’s different because it’s more real than the TV-movie stuff, which is just pure fiction.
SH: It’s all about different audience segmentation. There are people watching TikTok who are seeing all of that amazing abortion content who would not watch a lot of the mainstream-TV shows that have a couple of abortion plotlines sprinkled in. On the other hand, there are people who watch mainstay TV shows, or even niche shows on Hulu or Netflix, who wouldn’t find the information on TikTok. It’s really about having as many different kinds of stories in as many different venues as possible. The more real people are with their experiences, whether it’s a writer channeling their experience into a depiction on TV, or whether it’s people sharing their activism on TikTok, the better.

Thinking about who needs to be reached by this stuff, there’s a whole world of television and movies made for Evangelical Christians, for people whose faith really influences their politics. And it’s a different world. Is this conversation even ever happening in those spaces?
SH: There are a couple of different distribution platforms that are just for Christian content, and they have a lot of anti-abortion movies on there. When you’re talking about reaching lots of different audiences, we’re not trying to change people’s minds about abortion. That’s very hard, and often media is just one little piece of the broad spectrum of how people learn about abortion and make up their minds about it.

What we’re trying to do is reach people who are grappling with this and are unsure of how they feel, who want some kind of permission to feel complicated about this. They want to understand that, no matter how they feel, someone else might make a different decision than they would — and for that to be okay, that they don’t need to make laws or support laws that govern other people’s decisions.

On the TV shows that still have the biggest audience, those hour-long procedurals like the Law & Orders, is there space for nuanced depiction of abortion?
SH: There have been many abortion plotlines on those shows. And on shows like ER. And on whatever the modern-day medical version of ER is.

Oh, Grey’s Anatomy is still on the TVs.
SH: Yes, many abortion plotlines on Grey’s Anatomy, too. We actually studied one plotline on Grey’s Anatomy where a mom actually tried to self-induce her own abortion with some herbs she found on the internet. She ended up falling down the stairs, went to the hospital, and they gave her a medication abortion. We actually found that when people watched that plotline, their knowledge about medication abortions significantly increased. That was really fascinating to see.

Shonda Rhimes teaching the children.
SH: Yes. But on the other hand, their support for abortion didn’t change at all. So that, again, complicates this idea that TV and film can really change everything. It’s just a small piece of the picture.

We are taught over and over again that visibility and representation mean so much. But it doesn’t mean everything, and it never can.
SH: Right — especially when the representation we have doesn’t actually represent the reality of what’s going on.

Getting Abortion Right Onscreen

Y’all were deciding to tell this story about abortion on P-Valley, right around the time the Supreme Court was signaling that it might rule on Roe v. Wade. How did that happen?
Katori Hall: We did not think that it was gonna go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Really? You didn’t think that?
KH: Absolutely not. It’s the thing of, This is federal law, there’s no way the state of Mississippi is going to flip 50 years of progress. And yet — boom —we’re in a different America.

Do you think you would have written the episode differently had you expected that the Supreme Court would do what they did with Roe?
KH: No. The history of Black folks, if it’s not relegated to the footnotes of history, is not addressed at all, and we are using our fiction in order to tell the truth. I wanted people to look back at season two and almost feel like it was a historical document. I really wanted to stick to the fact that in Mississippi, in 2020, you could get an abortion at 15 weeks.

One of the characters says, “Pregnancy is life-and-death for us,” and that was very powerful. And I know who the “us” is, but what does “life-and-death” mean?
KH: Black women have the highest mortality rate when it comes to pregnancy complications, Mississippi in particular. You know, I actually was pregnant at the time that we were filming this episode.

KH: Mmhmm. Very big and swollen. I was classified as a “high-risk” pregnancy because I was over 40, and I actually ended up having to go into the hospital for pregnancy complications. It is absolutely, absolutely life-or-death for us.

When I do see abortion onscreen, it’s usually a plotline that’s all about some moral quandary that someone finds themselves in: Do I do this or not? Is it ethical to do it? Or should I not do it? And once that choice is made: If they want the abortion, they can just get it. But what I admired about your abortion episode on P-Valley is that the moral quandary is just the start of the struggle. Because once you decide you want one, there’s the logistics. Why doesn’t everyone do that?
KH: It boils down to how much real estate you have to articulate the logistical challenges, which as we all know, amount to actual time. How can you keep up the conflict knowing that there also has to be a two-hour road trip in the middle of an episode. Or a 24-hour waiting period? Luckily, we were able to frame it in such a way where we could articulate all of those steps, which is the reality to most of the South.

Roe has been overturned, and that was not the case when you wrote this episode. If Terricka wanted to get an abortion now, living in Mississippi, what would she have to do?
KH: If she was at 15 weeks, she couldn’t even go to Georgia. At this point in Georgia, the limit is six weeks.

You don’t even know sometimes in six weeks.
KH: Yeah. Most women have no idea that they’re pregnant at six weeks. It may be a thing that she would have to fly to a place like New York in order to get an abortion. To get on a plane? That’s a whole ’nother episode.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

The strip club that forms the locus of P-Valley happens to be called the Pynk. Georgia’s abortion law is still making its way through the courts.
What TV and Movies Can and Can’t Tell Us About Abortion