In the pilot for “Shrill,” Abby, the single millennial played by Aidy Bryant, professes to feel “powerful” after having terminated her unplanned pregnancy. On one of the final episodes of “Veep” Anna Chlumsky’s pregnant political aide lays into abortion opponents protesting outside a clinic, hollering, “I even prayed a little, and here I am.” On “She’s Gotta Have It,” the ambitious Clorinda, played by Margot Bingham, defends her decision to the baby’s father, saying anything she does with her body is her choice. Nine of the 11 people credited with writing those episodes were women.
These portrayals, like others on the series “Glow” and “Dear White People,” are a marked departure from how abortion was depicted, or not, in story lines from the ’80s through the early aughts. Characters facing unplanned pregnancies then usually agonized about what to do or, if the show was set in the past, weighed back-alley procedures. Babies were often carried to term or lost to miscarriage. Terminations led to psychological or physical problems or death. It’s not that today’s characters come to their decisions without deliberation, but that they are decisive and forthright, like Becky, the music executive played by Gabourey Sidibe in “Empire.” “My situation is not getting any easier,” she says at one point, “but I have decided to terminate.”
Sisson focuses on television and streaming series that air and run in America, along with movies, though some small indie films, she said, might not hit her radar. For 1987, a time of far fewer shows, she counted three depictions of abortion in TV and film: One on “St. Elsewhere,” another on “Dynasty” that led to infertility, and the botched procedure in “Dirty Dancing” that left the dance instructor played by Cynthia Rhodes gravely hurt.
But for 2018, Sisson found 18 instances of characters having, disclosing, considering or mentioning abortions. A little more than halfway through 2019, that figure was already at 21, and Sisson expects this year to match or outpace her tally from 2017, when the figure hit a high of 34.
That more characters are having abortions with fewer regrets jibes with research in the United States. Women who have had abortions overwhelmingly say they made the right decision, according to a study released in 2015. In another example of art beginning to imitate life, more onscreen characters of color are opting for the procedure. Sisson pointed to the effect of Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington, having an abortion a few years ago on “Scandal.” (Shonda Rhimes told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017 that she was pressured by ABC to cut the scene but held firm; ABC would not comment.) “Shonda Rhimes opened it up so it can be on network prime,” Sisson said.