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Abortion stories on TV get closer to reality, says new report

In an episode of<em> P-Valley</em> (Starz), Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and her daughter Terricka (A'zaria Carter) face protesters outside an abortion clinic.
Kyle Kaplan
In an episode of P-Valley (Starz), Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and her daughter Terricka (A'zaria Carter) face protesters outside an abortion clinic.

Law & Order, Grey's Anatomy, Better Things, Station 19, Call the Midwife and Teen Mom: The Next Chapter are all TV shows that had depictions of abortion in 2022, according to the new Abortion Onscreen report. Among the annual study's findings this year:

There's been an uptick in the number of shows and plotlines centered around abortion. Researchers found 60 abortion plotlines or mentions in 52 shows in 2022, versus 47 abortion plotlines in 42 shows in 2021.

For the first time in ten years, a third of the TV plotlines portrayed barriers to abortion access versus only two such plotlines in 2021.

Demographics on TV continue to misrepresent reality. In 2022, 58 percent of TV characters who obtained an abortion were white women when, in reality, it's mostly women of color.

For about ten years now, researchers at the Abortion Onscreen project have scoured scripted and reality TV shows searching for any mention of abortion, but this year the work happened in a new context. "The overturn of Roe v Wade catalyzed a lot of people to really understand the importance of sharing abortion story lines on television," says Steph Herold, author of the report from the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California, San Francisco.

Herold calls the increase in TV plot lines addressing the legal, financial and logistical barriers to access "significant."

"Showrunners, writers, producers have really woken up to the abortion access crisis," she says.

Another first, says Herold, an abortion fund volunteer was a character on television, in an episode of Law & Order. The character accompanies a teenager from Texas to New York to have an abortion.

"A lot of people don't know that abortion funds exist," says Herold, "So having someone there can put a little seed in people's mind... Some organizations do support people through these experiences, you don't have to go through it alone."

Herold also singles out an episode of P-Valley as a "powerful depiction" of abortion that does resemble real life. Set in Mississippi with a mostly Black cast, a mother and her pregnant 14-year-old daughter have difficult and loving conversations about abortion. To learn about their options, they need to drive across the state to a clinic. Once they get there they walk through a crowd of protesters.

P-Valley creator Katori Hall told NPR's Code Switch earlier this year that she felt it was her "responsibility" as a Black female writer to include difficult issues like abortion in her work. "We are just going to be honest, be true. We use, as I say, fiction in order to tell the truth," said Hall.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.