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Abortion Plots On Television 'Becoming More Diverse And Accurate'


Today is the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. That's the Supreme Court decision that effectively legalized abortion in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in cities across the country yesterday to demonstrate. And part of what brought many of them there judging from their signs and social media posts and interviews clearly was their concern that access to abortion will be restricted. Meanwhile, this Friday, people who favor those restrictions on abortion will rally at the National Mall in D.C. and march to the Supreme Court in what has become an annual event, the March for Life where President Trump senior counselor Kellyanne Conway is expected to speak.

Now, the truth is most people don't go to rallies or marches on either side, but there's evidence that the long controversy about abortion rights is playing out in a different public square, a place most Americans visit. And that is primetime television. Gretchen Sisson is a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who researches how abortion is portrayed on screen. And she's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

GRETCHEN SISSON: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, a lot of people will remember the TV show "Maude." I understand that that was actually not the first TV show that portrayed a character as having an abortion. But it was the first that portrayed the decision in depth and in primetime. How big of an impact did that make? How big was the controversy around that?

SISSON: So the controversy was pretty big at the time, and it's important to remember that the show is set in New York. Abortion was legal in New York before Roe, and that episode aired in that window where it wasn't even legal and accessible yet nationally. "Maude" was, of course, a little bit older for a pregnant woman. And it's actually Maude's daughter that is very encouraging of her mother's abortion and says this used to be a very shameful thing, but it's legal now. It's just like going to the dentist. For the time when it aired, it was pretty radical.

MARTIN: Now, in 2015 and 2016, HBO's "Girls," "Scandal" on ABC and "Jane The Virgin" on CW all portrayed characters having abortions, so clearly it's become more commonplace as a storyline. Do these storylines still evoke that kind of controversy that "Maude" did back in the '70s?

SISSON: So I think we're starting to see a shift. If you had asked me this question two years ago, I would've said that the stories were actually pretty reminiscent of "Maude's" episode where a lot of the story is really focused on the decision-making process and how emotional and difficult that was for women.

It's become much more a matter of fact, and the stories are less about the hardship of making a decision around an abortion and more about what this potential pregnancy and what the abortion means for the woman's relationships, what it means for her career.

MARTIN: One point that you made in your research you - says that typically on television an abortion is had by a young, wealthy, white woman who has no other children. Is that the way it is in real life?

SISSON: No. It's certainly not the way it is in real life. That experience isn't inaccurate. For many women, that's their reality. But we know a couple of things. Most women in the U.S. who get abortions are women of color. Most women who get abortions in the U.S. are already parenting and raising children. And until very recently, I would say their stories were largely undepicted (ph) on television.

MARTIN: Would people who believe that abortion is a profound moral dilemma - would they find depictions of that on screen today?

SISSON: I think we are seeing that balance, but in different ways than we used to. So, for example, on "Jane The Virgin," Xio's abortion is handled very straight-forwardly. We find out about it after the fact. And then the story is less about her decision to get the abortion and more about her disclosing that abortion to her mother who she believes will be opposed. So they sort of have that conversation in a different space.

MARTIN: If people watch television, whichever side they're on, are they likely to see their reality, their point of view reflected in what they see on television?

SISSON: I think the stories we're starting to see on television are becoming more diverse and thus more accurate. I also think that if you are in favor of abortion rights and you're looking ahead to the next four years and feeling like little policy progress is going to be made in support of abortion access, then the cultural sphere including television offers something more to move forward with, to change the way people are thinking and talking about abortion in those spaces.

MARTIN: Gretchen Sisson is a research sociologist at the think tank Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health or ANSRH at the University of California, San Francisco. We reached her in San Francisco. Professor Sisson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SISSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.