In 2004, a Canadian television program made headlines for a controversial episode in which a pregnant teenage girl decides, to the distress of her boyfriend, to have an abortion. Her mother drives her to the clinic.
Yes it was Degrassi: The Next Generation – and the infamous episode, with the title Accidents will happenwas exposed to American viewers after an American cable channel decided to pull it before it could air.
Experts note that the mid-aughts episode was made during a period when on-screen images of abortion and discussion of the procedure in film and television became more frequent and complex to reflect public feelings about the procedure.
“There are really a lot of rich narratives that have been told, a lot of interesting themes to trace, especially as they relate back to the politics of what was going on at the time,” said Stephanie Herold, a researcher at the University of California San. Francisco (UCSF), who studies how abortion is portrayed in film and television.
With a ban on abortion, roughly expected half of the US states after overturning landmark ruling Roe v. Wade in June – and some Canadian advocates worried on the procedure’s fate here — researchers and filmmakers say abortion must evolve to accurately reflect real-life experiences.
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A ‘disturbing deviation’ from reality
Although the stories have improved since early cases of on-screen abortion in the 1960s and 1970s, it has not been a perfect development, according to Herold.
The project to which Herold contributes, Abortion Onscreen, began when UCSF sociologist Gretchen Sisson began researching the history of abortion in Hollywood.
The two have since compiled a massive database of on-screen abortions, studying the race, age, socioeconomics and health outcomes of characters who receive the procedure in film and television.
Herold and Sisson have found that there is a significant gap between fictional and real stories. For example, less than one percent of abortions result in one major complicationaccording to a 2014 study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology — but on the screen, that number rises to 18 percent, more than 70 times the actual complication rate, Herold says.
“The majority of characters who have abortions on TV and film are white, are wealthy, have no children at the time of their abortions, which is a really worrying departure from the reality of who is having abortions,” she added.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research firm that supports abortion rights, 59 percent of abortion patients in the United States already have children; 49 percent live below the poverty line (75 percent are poor or have low income); and the majority are racialized, with black and Hispanic patients making up 28 percent and 25 percent of patients, respectively.
“Characters face almost none of the logistical, financial, legal hurdles that real abortion patients face,” Herold said, which — especially in the U.S. — can include out-of-state travel, finding child care and out-of-pocket costs.
She pointed to an episode of the CBC show Working mothers as someone who faithfully portrays the challenges of accessing abortion in Canada’s health care system: Anne (Dani Kind) is frustrated when she learns that there is a significant wait before she can obtain an abortion.
TV shows like Scandal, Alias Grace, Shrill, Wynonna Earp and Ember has aired various abortion stories in recent years. IN ShrillAnnie (Aidy Bryant) visits an abortion clinic when she learns that morning-after pills aren’t as effective for plus-size women.
Movies like obviously child and Never Rarely Sometimes Always have explored the emotional and logistical challenges of abortion. In the latter, a 17-year-old girl from Pennsylvania travels to New York City with his cousin to have the procedure, desperate to scrape together money to afford it.
“Our job is not to make choices for young people”
“What I like to say is that our job is not to over-sensationalize these issues,” Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler told CBC News in a 2020 interview discussing the episode.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about abortion or gay rights or whatever. Our job is not to make choices for young people. It’s to give them information to make their own choices,” she said.
Samantha Loney, a Métis screenwriter in Barrie, Ont., is currently working on two original films with an abortion story. One is a short film called Expecting where a woman and her boyfriend discuss terminating a pregnancy. The ending is left purposefully ambiguous.
“I always like to leave things open for my audience when I’m doing projects because I never want to present my views — that’s kind of not my job as a filmmaker,” Loney said. “My job as a filmmaker is to put my own life experience into my work.”
“It’s up to the audience to have these discussions and change people’s minds together, right? I think that’s the beauty of art, is that it can change people’s lives when they see a film.”
Toronto actor and filmmaker Emily Schooley’s first feature, a queer horror romance called Bloodlines, features a character named Laura who is considering an abortion. Schooley herself went through an abortion when she was much younger, she said.
“The way I approach the discussion around abortion is not so much what happens in the room, but what are the repercussions and what goes into the difficult decisions that many women have to make,” she said.
The Future of Abortion Storytelling
TV and movie abortions are often what Herold calls “self-motivated:” driven by a desire to have a career, to be independent, or to continue an education. While these are valid reasons for an abortion, she said, they are not the only reasons.
Women may be considering whether they have enough money to support a child, whether they want to focus on children they already have, or whether the person they are partnered with is not someone they want to raise a child with.
“We rarely see that kind of structural consideration when characters have their abortions on TV,” she said.
What might abortion storytelling in TV and film look like in the near future? Herold hopes these portrayals dig deeper to address existing barriers to access and show a variety of backgrounds and experiences.
“We really need portrayals that bring abortion to life as an issue of race, class, gender or family love stories that really bridge the gap between who gets an abortion in real life and who gets an abortion on screen,” she said.
“Which would mean prioritizing the stories of characters of color, of people raising families at the time of their abortion, characters struggling to make ends meet, queer characters, disabled characters, Indigenous characters, and characters living in the intersections of all these identities. .”
Just as the subject has been referred to differently since the first televised portrayal of abortion in 1962 episode of courtroom drama The defendersstories about abortion after the Roe era might take a different approach.
Loney said she’s unsure whether the art emerging from this period will play a role in changing laws or the political landscape — but time will tell how the political climate has affected media portrayals of abortion and the conversations around that.
“Art reflects the times,” she said.