2023 Was a Big Year for Medication Abortion on TV

“There are lots of different abortions ... but often only the most dramatic version goes on TV," a Netflix writer told Jezebel.

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2023 Was a Big Year for Medication Abortion on TV

In June 2022, Roanne Bardsley, a U.K.-based screenwriter, was writing the first season of what soon became Netflix’s YA hit, Everything Now, when she saw the news: The U.S. Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade. As she returned to writing shaken by this development, she pivoted, changing a subplot about a pregnancy scare into a thoughtful—and refreshingly simple—storyline about abortion.

In the fifth episode of Everything Now, a show about British teens navigating high school messiness, one of the main characters, Becca, learns she’s pregnant and orders abortion pills online. Bardsley said that the U.K.-based website depicted onscreen—MSI Reproductive Choices—helped the writing team make Becca’s abortion as accurate as possible, including her experience with bleeding and side effects. Before taking the abortion pills, Becca decides to talk to her mom, who’s supportive of her decision, though she tells Becca to fully think it through. Becca is clear-eyed about what she wants and needs—and why: “I want to finish my A-levels. I want to go to university. I want to travel.” So, she takes the pills, ends her pregnancy six weeks in, and that’s that.

“There are lots of different abortion experiences, lots of different reasons for having abortions, but often only the most dramatic version of that is the only one that goes on TV,” Bardsley told Jezebel of why she wrote a “straightforward,” drama-free medication abortion experience. “I thought, there’s a benefit in showing another version of that. For Becca, [abortion] wasn’t a trauma, it was just something that happened.” With Becca’s experience, Bardsley wanted to show that having an abortion “isn’t always a heart-wrenching decision.” After she watched Roe fall, Bardsley figured the best way to approach Becca’s abortion was “not through a huge storyline over several episodes” that would go heavy on the drama; rather, she wanted to reflect how normal abortion is and tell the “story of a young girl who really knows her mind and what she wants from life.”

Everything Now is one of six shows that “included discussions of medication abortion or characters who had abortions by pill” this year, according to Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health’s (ANSIRH) 2023 report on onscreen abortion. There were four similar plotlines on television in 2022 and four in 2021; this increase aligns with the fact that, in recent years, the majority of abortions in the U.S. have been performed with medication abortion.

“We have a climate where people are still very confused about the difference between medication abortion and the morning after pill,” Steph Herold, the author of the ANSIRH report, told Jezebel. In her research, she’s found abortion storylines don’t generally change hearts and minds about abortion, but they’re effective in educating people about the technicalities of abortion and how to access it. “I think that’s very important, considering all the misinformation people get about abortion from everywhere else in their lives.” If done right, onscreen depictions of medication abortion can instruct people on how to properly take the medication, what side effects to expect, or how to support loved ones who use it, Herold said.

Medication abortion pills. Photo: Getty Images

The increase in onscreen instances of medication abortion comes at a time of rising threats to it in real life. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court announced it will hear a case on whether a conservative group has standing to sue the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw approval of mifepristone (AKA the abortion pill). This comes after a nauseating legal saga over the abortion pill’s longstanding FDA approval: A right-wing federal judge’s attempt to overturn it in April has now worked its way up to SCOTUS. Amid these attacks on a safe medication that was approved by the FDA in 2000, access to medication abortion—which allows people to safely self-manage an abortion from home—has become more essential than ever as abortion clinics continue to shutter across the country.

In her report, Herold writes that onscreen depictions of abortion like Becca’s story in Everything Now “provide much-needed blueprints for treating abortion seekers with compassion and care.” The report also points to a storyline in Season 3 of The Morning Show this year, in which reporters Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) and Alex (Jennifer Aniston) travel to Texas to report on a woman who was arrested for helping someone have a self-managed abortion with pills. (Something that really happens!!) In the report, Herold writes: “We found this plot significant for several reasons: it mentions the safety record of medication abortion, [and] it showcases the legal risks involved in self-managed abortion.”

Overall, Herold tracked a total of 49 abortion plotlines portrayed on TV in 2023, down from 60 in 2022, though her report notes that “upheaval in the entertainment industry” (primarily, the writers’ and actors’ strikes) contributed to this.

While the increase in depictions of medication abortion is encouraging, Herold’s report also notes “the return of a troubling theme: the averted abortion.” This is a “common television trope” in which characters face an unintended pregnancy, decide to have an abortion, then change their mind—or have a miscarriage, negating the need for a choice. Obviously, these outcomes happen in real life, but in a political climate where abortion is deeply stigmatized, storylines like this are a missed opportunity to shine light on the extremely common experience of abortion. For example, the unintended pregnancy subplot in Season 2 of And Just Like That was, to me, a regression from the original Sex and the City and the 2001 episode in which two main characters shared their abortion stories. “It feels stigmatizing, it feels retro—when you have characters who are clearly alluding to or vaguely considering abortion, but don’t even say the word, don’t even really talk about it,” Herold said of AJLT.

After Becca has her abortion in Everything Now’s fifth episode, a couple episodes later, she tells her ex about it, saying: “I’m OK. But I was then too, more or less,” referencing her uncomplicated abortion experience. For Bardsley, returning to the abortion plotline later was important: “Again, [Becca’s] wasn’t a heart-wrenching decision, but I didn’t want to pretend that when it’s done, it’s gone. Inevitably, it’s something that happened and can be acknowledged and talked about.”

Bardsley hopes her abortion storyline “plays even a small part” in destigmatizing abortion and educating Everything Now’s young adult audience. “I want [them to see] representation where it’s not like you got pregnant, your life is ruined,” she said. “I want them to see there are options there, I want to show it’s not always secretive and shameful.”

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