What the researchers found is refreshing: Abortion providers on TV aren’t overwhelmingly portrayed as evil or irresponsible. Except in rare cases of shows that are built around horror and gore—like Hannibal—abortion providers overwhelmingly offered “effective, safe, and compassionate” care. Significantly, characters providing abortions were often given chances to explain the values and motivations for conducting the procedure. These reasons “portrayed them as courageous, even heroic, and as performing a social good, thereby countering provider stigma,” write the researchers. Take sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica’s Dr. Sherman Cottle, for example. When an alien woman comes to him seeking an illegal abortion, he performs the procedure in a matter-of-fact way, saying, “I get a note that a girl’s on the way. She arrives. I do my work. And then she leaves. I don’t ask a lot of questions.” Later in the episode, he advises the alien woman to seek asylum so she won’t be returned to her home community, where abortion is illegal, and possibly face prosecution. Another example is Sister Harriet on The Knick, a Cinemax series set in New York in the early 1900s. Though she’s a nun, she performs abortions because she undertakes them in a safer and more sanitary way than other providers and she wants to protect the lives of her practitioners.
One interesting dynamic the study reveals is that there’s a split in how abortions are portrayed depending on whether they are provided by legal medical providers (like the doctor on Grey’s Anatomy) or illegal or nonmedical providers (ranging from the neighbor on Call the Midwife, to Orange Is the New Black’s resident prison curandera Gloria, to a helpful Wiccan waitress on True Blood). The vast majority of abortions undertaken on TV shows since 2005 have been the first kind—75 percent were performed by doctor or nurse characters. And those providers were overwhelmingly represented as safe, compassionate, and effective. However, when shows involved illegal abortions (which was about a quarter of episodes), the procedure was typically portrayed as unsafe. Characters like Downton Abbey’s Edith and Sister Harriet on The Knick sweated about the health and safety of getting and providing abortions. When abortions were provided by people who relied on supernatural methods, like a Wiccan prayer or a call to God, the providers were portrayed as “not merely ineffective, but also deceptive.”