CANADA ENTERTAINMENT Why true abortion stories on TV and movies are...

Why true abortion stories on TV and movies are a sign of the times in the post-Roe era


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In 2004, a Canadian TV show made headlines for a controversial episode in which a pregnant teenage girl decides, much to her boyfriend’s chagrin, to have an abortion. Her mother takes her to the clinic.

Yes it was Degrassi: The Next Generation — and the infamous episode called Accidents willwas delayed for viewing by American viewers after a US cable channel decided to remove it before it aired.

Experts note that the mid-August episode was filmed at a time when on-screen depictions of abortion and discussion of the procedure in film and television were becoming more frequent and complex to reflect public attitudes towards the procedure.

“There were actually a lot of interesting stories told, a lot of interesting themes that you can follow, especially when they are related to the politics of the time,” said Stephanie Herold, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. Francisco (UCSF), who studies how abortion is portrayed in film and television.

With an abortion ban expected around half of the US states after the overturning of the fateful Roe v. Wade ruling in June – and some Canadian advocates concerned about the fate of the procedure here – scientists and filmmakers say abortions must evolve to accurately reflect real-life experiences.

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Keith Kelly of the advocacy group Shout Your Abortion says several groups in the US are working to educate people about the availability of abortion drugs after Roe v. Wade was dropped.

“Anxious withdrawal” from reality

According to Herold, although the storylines improved from the first on-screen abortions in the 1960s and 1970s, it was not a perfect evolution.

The Abortion Onscreen project, in which Herold is involved, began when UC San Francisco sociologist Gretchen Sisson began researching the history of abortion in Hollywood.

Since then, they have amassed an extensive database of on-screen abortions by studying the race, age, socioeconomic background, and health status of characters who undergo the procedure in film and television.

Stephanie Herold is a New York-based researcher who helped compile an extensive database of on-screen abortions by examining the race, age, socioeconomic background, and health of characters who undergo the procedure in film and television. (Stephanie Herold)

Herold and Sisson found a significant gap between fictional and real stories. For example, less than one percent of abortions result in serious complicationaccording to a 2014 study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, but on screen that figure rises to 18 percent, more than 70 times the actual complication rate, Herold says.

“Most of the characters who have abortions on TV and in movies are white, rich, have no children at the time of the abortion, which is really worrying about getting away from the reality of someone who has abortions,” she added.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research firm that supports abortion rights, 59% of US abortion patients already have children; 49 percent live below the poverty line (75 percent are poor or low-income); and most are racial, with black and Hispanic patients accounting for 28 percent and 25 percent of patients, respectively.

“Characters face almost no logistical, financial, or legal hurdles that actual abortion patients face,” Herold said, which – especially in the US – can include out-of-state travel, seeking childcare, and cash. expenses.

She pointed to an episode of the CBC show. Working moms as one that accurately depicts abortion access issues in Canada’s health care system: Ann (Dani Kind) is frustrated when she learns that there is a significant waiting period before she can have an abortion.

TV show like Scandal, Alias ​​Grace, Piercing, Winona Earp as well as Shine have aired various storylines about abortion in recent years. AT PiercingAnnie (Adie Bryant) visits an abortion clinic when she learns that the next morning’s pills aren’t as effective for overweight women.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in the season finale of ABC’s Scandal. In a 2015 episode, a character has an abortion. (Nicole Wilder/ABC/Associated Press)

Films like Obvious baby as well as Never Rarely Sometimes Always explored the emotional and logistical challenges of abortion. In the latest, a 17-year-old girl travels from Pennsylvania to New York with his cousin to get the procedure, desperately trying to scrape together the funds to afford it.

“Our job is not to make choices for the youth”

“What I would like to say is that our job is not to make these topics too sensational,” degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler told CBC News in a 2020 interview in which she discussed the filmed episode.

“It doesn’t matter if we are talking about abortion, gay rights or anything else. Our job is not to make choices for young people. We have to give them information so they can make their own choices,” she said.

Samantha Loney, a mestizo screenwriter from Barrie, Ontario, is currently working on two original films with a storyline about abortion. One short film is called waiting in which a woman and her boyfriend discuss terminating a pregnancy. The ending is deliberately left ambiguous.

“I always like to keep things open to my audience when I’m doing projects because I don’t want to ever speak my mind – like, it’s not my job as a director,” Loni said. “My job as a filmmaker is to bring my own life experiences to my work.”

“My job as a director is to bring my own life experiences into my work,” says Samantha Loni, a mestizo screenwriter who is currently working on two original films with a storyline about abortion. (Samantha Loney)

“Viewers should have these discussions and change people’s minds together, right? I think the beauty of art is that it can change people’s lives when they see the film.”

Toronto actress and director Emily Schooley’s first feature film, a bizarre horror novel called Pedigrees, in which a character named Laura contemplates having an abortion. According to her, Skuli herself had an abortion when she was much younger.

“I approach the discussion of abortion not so much in terms of what happens in the room, but in terms of the consequences and what leads to difficult decisions that many women have to make,” she said.

Toronto-based actress and director Emily Schooley, who had an abortion at a young age, says her first feature film follows a character named Laura as she reflects on the procedure. (Emily Schooley)

The future of abortion stories

Television and film abortions are often what Herold calls “self-made”: they are driven by a desire to make a career, be independent, or continue their education. While these are good reasons for an abortion, she said, they are not the only ones.

Women may consider if they have enough money to support a child, if they want to focus on the children they already have, or if the person they are partnering with is not the one they want to raise the child with.

“We rarely see such structural considerations when characters get abortions on TV,” she said.

What might TV and film narratives about abortion look like in the near future? Herold hopes that these images will go deeper, to remove existing barriers to entry and show the diversity of backgrounds and experiences.

Dani Kind is depicted as Ann Carlson in Working Moms. Anna’s season one character arc ends with her having an abortion, indicating that many of the women who seek the procedure are already parents. (Working Moms/CBC)

“We really need images that bring abortion to life as an issue of race, class, gender, or family love stories that really bridge the gap between those who have abortions in real life and those who have abortions on screen,” she said.

“That would mean that priority should be given to stories of people of color, people raising families during an abortion, characters trying to make ends meet, queer characters, characters with disabilities, indigenous characters, and characters who live at the intersection of all of these identities. . .”

Just as the topic of abortion has been raised in different ways since the first television depiction of abortion in 1962. court drama episode Defendersabortion stories after the Roe era may take a different approach.

Loni said she’s not sure if the art that emerged during this period will play a role in changing the laws or the political landscape, but time will tell how the political climate has affected media portrayals and conversations about abortion.

“Art reflects the times,” she said.

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