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More TV shows depict abortion but few resemble real life

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: As the country prepares for a Supreme Court ruling that could overturn Roe v. Wade, people are envisioning what the future might look like. TV writers have been bringing those stories into American homes for decades, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

BLAIR: Steph Herold studies depictions of abortion in popular culture. She's a researcher with the nonprofit Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health. She says TV mostly gets it wrong.

STEPH HEROLD: Most of those characters are white, are not parenting at the time of their abortions, are wealthy, are young - kind of the exact opposite of the reality of who's getting abortion in the U.S.

BLAIR: Think HBO's "Sex And The City."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Did you really want to have a child with a guy who serves burgers on roller skates?

BLAIR: More recently, scripted TV shows have portrayed medical abortions in which a woman takes pills. In "Law & Order" last year, a teenager is taken to the hospital when she's found bleeding on the street.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) But what happened to her?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) She was hemorrhaging. Her tox screen shows misoprostol and mifepristone.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The abortion pill.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We had to do a DNC.

BLAIR: The FDA approved the use of those drugs to terminate pregnancies up to 10 weeks. For Herold, this is an example of depicting extremes, not reality.

HEROLD: Showing these kind of devastating medical consequences to taking abortion pills, to me, is extremely irresponsible because we know that abortion pills are very safe.

BLAIR: Herold says a more realistic portrayal aired last year in an episode of ABC's "A Million Little Things."

HEROLD: You know, we actually see her take the pill, put it in her mouth. She sits on the couch. She's surrounded by pillows and blankets. The guy she had sex with actually flies over to Boston from the U.K. to be with her during her abortion.

BLAIR: Abortion has come up in comedies like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "BoJack Horseman." In "Jane The Virgin," Jane is a 23-year-old who was accidentally artificially inseminated.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Are you ready for your insemination?

DIANA MARTINEZ: Jane is actually dealing with this wild telenovela premise.

BLAIR: Film scholar Diana Martinez says it was groundbreaking for "Jane The Virgin" to include conversations about abortion.

MARTINEZ: Particularly because this is a taboo subject within Latino households. You know, there's a political divide. There's a generational divide.

BLAIR: Jane's mother had Jane when she was 16. Jane's grandmother is a strict, devout Catholic. Jane assumes the only reason she's alive is because her grandmother would have forbidden her daughter to get an abortion. Turns out her grandmother did suggest her daughter have an abortion.


IVONNE COLL: (As Alba Villanueva, speaking Spanish).

BLAIR: Her grandmother tells Jane, but I carry that shame in my heart every day.

MARTINEZ: It's powerful because it allows for this duality to exist, that people of faith can also believe in a women's choice.

BLAIR: Balancing different viewpoints is something producer Norman Lear and actress Bea Arthur tried to do when the sitcom "Maude" became the first primetime TV show to address abortion. In 1972, not long before Roe v. Wade was decided, Maude becomes pregnant at age 47.


BEA ARTHUR: (As Maude Findlay) Oh, yes, Carol. You see, on top of everything else, I'm preggy (ph).


BLAIR: Jokes aside, Maude agonizes over what to do. Ultimately, she and her husband decide they are too old to have a child. The story also featured a character who is the same age as Maude and also pregnant. She decides to have the child. She already has four children.


ELISABETH FRASER: (As Lorraine) Actually, we had planned at stopping at four.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Four is a nice family, Lorraine. Why didn't you?

FRASER: (As Lorraine) I couldn't do that. I mean, each to his own, but I couldn't. I don't think it's right for me to make that kind of a decision.

BLAIR: Whose decision is it? The court is considering that question. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN SHELLEY SONG, "OVER AND EVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.