An Oscar voter recently refused to watch Eliza Hittman’s film nominated for Best Picture, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, because it’s about abortion.
That voter decided the story of a young person traveling from Pennsylvania to New York for an abortion, because her home state’s laws prevented her from getting care, pushes a “radical social agenda.” But it’s not radical to believe that no one should be forced to travel hundreds of miles for care. It’s not radical to believe every person should be able to get abortions when and where they need them.
It’s certainly not radical to show people getting abortions onscreen: the first U.S. abortion story appeared onscreen in 1916. Since then, hundreds of abortion stories have been told in movies and shows from Maude in 1972 to I May Destroy You and Bridgerton in 2020. Some of these stories relied on stigmatizing narratives and misinformation about abortion. But more and more, TV shows include abortion stories that demonstrate that abortion is normal, that it’s an important part of many people’s lives, and that access to care is non-negotiable.
Here are some of our favorites from the last few years.
(This post may contain spoilers for Scandal, Jane the Virgin, Dear White People, Sex Education, and Shrill.)
Scandal (2015) on Hulu
Season 5, Episode 9 — “Baby It’s Cold Outside”
When Olivia Pope gets an abortion, the viewer sees her in a hospital gown during her procedure. The word “abortion” isn’t mentioned, and viewers didn’t even know Liv was pregnant until she was ending her pregnancy. Afterward, after ending her relationship with the President, Liv replaces her old couch with a new one; her abortion helped catalyze two important decisions, and the couch is symbolic of her resolution to keep moving forward.
Jane the Virgin (2016) on Netflix
Season 3, Episode 2 — “Chapter 46”
Xiomara has a medication abortion off screen. There’s no conflict related to her abortion until after it’s over, when she and her mother Alba find themselves at odds over her decision. But Alba, who’s staunchly Catholic, makes peace with Xio’s abortion and respects her decision. It’s an accurate representation of the majority of Catholics who believe people should be able to make decisions about abortion for themselves.
Dear White People (2018) on Netflix
Volume 2, Chapter IV
When Coco finds out she’s unexpectedly pregnant, she jokes about condom use, anal sex, and abortion restrictions. It’s an unusual TV depiction of someone considering an abortion because sex and pleasure are often depicted as detached from abortion. But Coco’s experience realistically reflects all aspects of her sexual and reproductive life — sex, pleasure, pregnancy, and her abortion.
The episode doesn’t show the barriers to abortion that a Black student might face, but it thoughtfully depicts Coco’s relationship with sex and her own future as a Black woman and the first in her family to go to college.Dear White People shows abortion as thoroughly normal and integral to Black women’s self-determination. Coco’s story demonstrates the importance of abortion as a part of a self-determined life.
Sex Education (2019) on Netflix
Season 1, Episode 3
Maeve has an abortion without telling her casual partner. Maeve is completely sedated, which is not typical during an in-clinic abortion at her stage of pregnancy. Otherwise, it’s an accurate representation of a young person getting an abortion: Maeve struggles to pay and brings her friend Otis with her because she doesn’t have a parent in her life and can’t leave alone after receiving sedation.
In a show that regularly depicts young people having dramatic sex or throwing huge, eccentric parties, Maeve’s abortion in the pastel-colored clinic is calm. Her abortion helps demonstrate her complicated feelings about motherhood, caring, and being cared for, since all of her family is absent or unreliable. In Maeve’s case, when she has an abortion she receives care she’s not used to — medical care from her provider, moral support from a woman she meets at the clinic, and friendship from Otis.
Shrill (2019) on Hulu
Season 1, Episode 1 — “Annie”
Annie hopes to get a medication abortion, but her abortion provider advises her that a procedural abortion in a clinic is her only option, forcing her to delay care until she can schedule an in-clinic abortion.
The abortion she does have represents Annie making a decision for herself alone and finding power in her own romantic and professional life. For Annie, her abortion, as Lindy West says in her memoir Shrill, is “liberty itself.”
TV and film are a powerful medium for abortion stories. These stories can be funny, thoughtful, emotional, nuanced, complicated or uncomplicated — like abortion in real life. These stories should depict the lived reality of people’s experiences, and if that’s radical, it’s also the right thing to do.
If you’re interested in learning more about abortion represented onscreen, check out ANSIRH’s Abortion Onscreen database, led by Gretchen Sisson and Steph Herold. Or follow Dr. Sisson and Dr. Herold on Twitter.