Fewer abortion plotlines on TV in 2023, new report shows

The Morning Show

There was a significant drop in abortion plotlines on scripted television programs in 2023, according to an annual report from the University of California San Francisco.

There were 49 abortion plotlines in 2023 and 60 in 2022. While the authors of the report, published by a research program at the university called Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, suggest that the difference may be in large part due to strikes by the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild in 2023, they note, “With their new contracts in place, we hope to see even more brave and bold abortion storytelling in the years to come.” 

This year marked the first time a television show — “The Morning Show” on Apple TV+ — featured an in-depth plotline about self-managed abortion care, according to the report. 

Six plotlines in 2023 included discussions of medication abortion or featured characters who had medication abortions. 

“Though none of these plotlines depicted the actual experience of having an abortion by pill, they did provide much-needed blueprints for treating abortion seekers with compassion and care,” the report reads. 

Medication abortions account for over half of all abortions in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

“We hope future plotlines will explore the broad landscape of abortion pill provision, including different regimens (using mifepristone and misoprostol or misoprostol only), obtaining abortion pills via telehealth, via a clinic, or via an online provider, and the plethora of possible support before, during, and after medication abortions,” the authors of the report said. 

The report’s authors argued that abortion care was poorly represented in the show “And Just Like That…,” a spinoff of “Sex And The City,” which the report characterized as depicting a “troubling trope seen in the early 1990’s and 2000’s.” According to the report, while a character faces an unplanned pregnancy and ends up having a miscarriage, the portrayal stigmatizes abortion by showing “avoidance instead of providing more depth and nuance to depictions of miscarriage or pregnancy ambivalence.”

The report also noted:”

[block quote] As in past years, the demographics of characters who obtain abortions continue to be out of step with today’s abortion seekers,” the report reads. Nearly half (47%) of this year’s characters are white, with small percentages of characters of color across the board (16% Black characters, 10% Latinx characters, 8% Asian characters, and 18% unknown). The racial demographics of U.S. abortion patients are quite different from what we see onscreen (in real life, about 39% of patients are white, 28% are Black, 25% are Latinx, and 9% identify as other races or ethnicities), continuing longstanding patterns of onscreen misrepresentations. [end quote]

The report said that TV characters who seek abortion care tend to be younger and more affluent than in reality. Most TV characters seeking abortion care (63%) did not have children, while most people seeking abortion care (59%) have children, according to a 2014 Guttmacher Institute report.

The UCSF report found that, regarding the difficulties many patients face when trying to obtain an abortion, “Television plotlines continue to depict barriers to abortion access, but not as broadly as they did in 2022. Last year, in a historic first, about one-third of plotlines depicted characters encountering logistical, financial, and legal barriers to abortion access, compared to years prior, where very few contemporary barriers appeared onscreen. In 2023, we continued to see these barriers portrayed in about a quarter (23%) of plotlines; fewer than in 2022 but significant, nonetheless.”  

The report says that most abortion plotlines on television are found in dramas, followed by comedies and medical procedural shows: “Shows like ‘American Auto’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ discussed the broader climate of a post-Dobbs world, including how companies can address abortion in employee benefits in the former, and how hospitals in progressive states can support abortion providers and patients in the latter.” 

“We hope that studios will continue to expand the genres in which we see abortion storylines to include primetime sitcoms, science fiction, historical romance, and more,” the report’s authors write.