“P-Valley” showrunner Katori Hall knew she wanted to write an episode centered on restrictive abortion laws in Mississippi since the series’ first season. The writers’ room began crafting the story in late 2020, after Mississippi officials urged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear arguments on a state law to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“Our show centers the Black, Southern female experience, and it’s a socially and religiously conservative space,” Hall said. “We knew that having stories that really explored Black women having agency over their bodies and access to reproductive rights was eventually going to be something that, as a series, is very true to life and uses fiction in order to tell the truth. It felt like our responsibility to do so.”
Fortunately, the Starz network was very supportive of the abortion narrative she wrote in Season 2, Episode 7 of “P-Valley,” Hall said. In the episode, the writers examine what it means for a teenage Black girl in Mississippi to seek reproductive care.
Terricka, 15, confides in Mercedes, informing her that she’s pregnant. Mercedes (Brandee Evans) takes Terricka (A’zaria Carter) to a clinic to evaluate all of her options, learning that she’s 14 weeks along — right at the point where she must decide if she will terminate the pregnancy. When she was a teen, Mercedes was forced to give birth to baby Terricka and eventually was forced to relinquish custody. In this episode, audiences see Mercedes step back into the motherhood role in her own way while ensuring that generational mistakes are not repeated.
“Her desire to be a mother has fueled her through both seasons. And so this was a really great opportunity for us to dive into her backstory. It was just a really important part of her arc toward self-actualization,” said writer and producer Ian Olympio. ”As a writers room, we all came together and talked about how to make the episode take shape. They spend a lot of time in the car, so what are the conversations going to be like? What is Mercedes’ stance on this? What decision is Terricka going to make?”
Ultimately, Terricka terminates the pregnancy. However, that was not without extensive conversations between her and Mercedes, from everything about the lack of open sex education to debunking lies about the side effects of abortion. Hall, who has seen the effect of teen pregnancy in her family, wanted to communicate how all of these things — sex education, teen pregnancy, high school retention and attrition rates — are interconneted, especially in a state such as Mississippi.
“We went back and forth a lot in the room about how Mercedes would react to this,” said story editor and writer Nina Stiefel. “We did not have a cut-and-dried conversation about it. We wanted to show that complexity through our characters.”
In the episode, as Terricka walks into the abortion clinic, she’s met with abortion protesters. People yelling and holding signs that say things such as “Black life matters in and outside of the womb” and “Black babies matter” were blocking the entryway. There, Mercedes tells her that these people don’t care about the baby once it’s born. Hall said that was one of the most powerful lines of the episode.
“Policymakers and people who make the laws pick the things that they want to focus on, pick the thing that is advantageous to them instead of really looking holistically at this issue,” Hall said. “If a young Black woman has access to an abortion, it’s pro-life for her in that it allows her to be able to grasp her dreams. It allows her to increase her economic and educational opportunities. People don’t think about the lives of Black people once they seem like a threat.”
The stigma associated with abortion seeps directly into all facets of American popular culture. Consequently, abortion procedures are rarely seen onscreen.
A collaborative research group at the University of California, San Francisco, called Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) created an Abortion Onscreen Database “listing of all film and television depictions available to viewers in the United States in which a character obtains an abortion, or discloses having one in the past.” Launched almost a decade ago by sociologist Gretchen Sisson, the database is updated as researchers find new data. Upon filtering for abortion-related storylines in U.S. film and television shows, there are 422 results to date.
Of those 422, only 45 — a mere 10.66% — stories have featured Black characters, with even fewer portraying them actively receiving an abortion, according to a report from ANSIRH. The earliest depiction of abortion on screen was in “Where Are My Children?” a racist 1916 anti-abortion film. However, the first narrative featuring a Black character appeared over 70 years later, in 1988, when a Black cop on “21 Jump Street” discloses a past abortion.
Though art is said to imitate life, Black characters are grossly underrepresented in these on-screen narratives in comparison to real-life data; in 2019, 38% of patients seeking abortions in the U.S. were Black women. The depictions of us prior to the downfall of Roe v. Wade were few and far between, but as audiences begin to navigate a post-Roe world, entertainment has a responsibility to catch up, TV experts and reproductive rights activists say.
Reproductive justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman is the founder and executive director of We Testify, a “home and a creative space to explore all of the power and possibilities that abortion storytellers can imagine.” Bracey Sherman, who also co-authored ANSIRH’s 2019 report on the nuances of race-specific abortion portrayals, said that the tropes imposed upon Black characters further complicate and stigmatize the realities of abortion. In the instances that Black characters are seeking abortions, they’re often upwardly mobile, career-oriented Black women, citing examples such as Mary Jane Paul from “Being Mary Jane” and Olivia Pope from “Scandal.”
“That’s sort of an archetype of women on television in general. Then it’s even tighter when it comes to depicting Black folks. The truth is television doesn’t really depict a whole lot of stories about low-income people at the centerfold,” Bracey Sherman said. “I think ‘P-Valley’ is one of those shows that is depicting their lives and the complexity of their lives as the whole show.”
“With a lot of characters who have abortions, a lot of them are teenagers having abortions. Then the others are Claire from ‘House of Cards’ or Dr. Cristina Yang from ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ where they’re so career-driven and they can’t be bothered to have a kid,” she added.
“It falls into this general trope of what women want in general, about who has abortions and who doesn’t. [Often setting up the trope that] the cold, callous bitch couldn’t possibly have kids or be motherly.”
Bracey Sherman said when she got her abortion at age 19, she didn’t feel represented in the abortion narratives on TV and film. She noted Lil’ Kim talking about abortion as one of the first instances she recalled in popular culture, along with Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” On television, she felt represented watching Kerry Washington depict Olivia Pope undergoing the procedure in Season 5 of “Scandal.”
“It was one of the few times that a character was just like, I am having an abortion,” said Bracey Sherman. “And it’s not because I can’t afford a child or I need to finish school. All those reasons are extremely valid reasons, but so is I just don’t want to have a child. Being unapologetic about [not wanting] to be pregnant and wanting to have an abortion. There wasn’t a lot of this reason, that reason — and that was huge!”
Bracey Sherman applauded how the HBO series “Insecure” depicted the various reasons to seek an abortion. On “Insecure,” Condola (Christina Elmore) became pregnant with Lawrence’s baby, effectively thwarting his ability to further his relationship with Issa.
In Season 4, Episode 10, Condola tells him that “it was not the right time” to have a baby when she was pregnant in her past marriage, alluding to an abortion, but she wanted to keep this baby because she was ready. On the other hand, Kelly (Natasha Rothwell) frivolously mentioned among the girls that she had an abortion, but at the end of the series, she donned a baby bump saying, “I don’t want just any nigga’s kids. I want this nigga’s kids.”
“People can change their various minds and decide on pregnancies based on specific situations at the time,” Bracey Sherman said. “Each pregnancy decision is an individual decision. That’s what I thought was really great about the way ‘Insecure’ did it in that they had multiple characters who had abortions, but slyly without doing like the ‘abortion episode.’”
In Season 5, Episode 5, of “Girlfriends,” bougie real-estate mogul Toni Childs (Jill Marie Jones) finds out she’s pregnant, although her flailing marriage with debt-burdened doctor Todd Garrett (Jason Pace) is on the rocks. Though she independently could support a child, Toni wants an abortion because she has no intention of being a single mother. Her friend group, which consists of a single mother, an adoptee and a hopeless romantic, immediately chastises her. Some claim it would have been in character for Toni to get an abortion because she was historically a narcissistic character.
But here’s the problem with that line of thinking: It assumes that since a woman of her socioeconomic status is capable of providing a decent life to a child, her personal desires, fears and concerns should be relegated to the background.
On shows featuring Black adolescents, there is rarely discussion regarding their options when a partner becomes pregnant. The expecting parents are presumed to keep the child and the child is assumed to be a “good thing” regardless of the circumstance. Though representations of teen parents are integral to broader conversations, such as dismal graduation rates, sex education, financial responsibility and assistance from extended family, television often leaves little to no room for such nuance.
In Season 2 of the CW’s high school football drama “All American,” quarterback Jordan Baker (Michael Evans Behling) thinks he’s the father of Ivy League hopeful tennis star Simone Hicks’ (Geffri Maya) unborn child. She reveals she’s pregnant in Episode 5; by Episode 6, Jordan accompanies Hicks to the ultrasound appointment — after his parents drop him off, of course. By Episode 8, the couple have committed to building a crib for the baby, with no discussion about Simone’s options. Adoption is discussed later in Season 3, as it becomes a vehicle for the spinoff “All American: Homecoming.”
Similarly, in Season 5, Episode 5, of Lena Waithe’s “The Chi,” high school student Jemma St. John reveals to her boyfriend, Jake, that she’s pregnant. Though he assures her that he’ll work as many jobs as necessary for their family to survive, Jemma says, “I don’t want to be taken care of. I want to live. I’m still trying to figure out who I am.”
At a college fair, Jemma has a change of heart, consulting her friend Maisha. She shares that she had a dream imagining a “really nice” life with Jake as a parent and felt bad about disappointing him if she were to terminate the pregnancy. Her father, Chicago politician Marcus St. John, sits both of them down, urging them to think long and hard about what raising a child entails.
When these real-life situations occur in a collegiate campus context, the stakes differ. “First Kill” showrunner Felicia D. Henderson is the co-creator of BET’s “The Quad,” a short-lived one-hour drama starring Anika Noni Rose as Dr. Eva Fletcher, the newly elected president of the fictional historically Black college Georgia A&M University (GAMU). The series aired for two seasons beginning in 2017.
“The Quad” also features aspiring musician and freshman Cedric Hobbs (Peyton Alex Smith), who left Chicago for a new beginning in Atlanta. In Season 2, Hobbs impregnated his ex-girlfriend Bronwyn (Katlynn Simone), and prior to the finale, she reveals it to him. In the final episode, audiences see Bronwyn in the abortion clinic with Cedric’s mother, who has talked her into getting the procedure. Cedric pleads with his on-again, off-again girlfriend not to, claiming, “God brought us to this point for some reason,” and an argument ensues. The show ends on a cliffhanger.
Although the writers had hoped for more seasons of “The Quad” to flesh out the story, Henderson said inserting an abortion plotline at the end of Season 2 felt most appropriate for Cedric and Bronwyn’s relationship arc. Henderson felt inspired by a pastor and his wife she met while working on “The Quad” who became parents while enrolled at Morehouse College and Spelman College.
“When the baby was born, they were still living in the dorms because they learned that there actually weren’t any rules against having babies in the dorms,” Henderson said. “Out of that became rules about such a thing. They fought back to keep the baby on campus with them, and their friends pitched in. That’s where it came to me: What happens when you come from two families that have high expectations of you and you’re on the road that they would have you on? Then find yourself pregnant?”
The premature cancellation of “The Quad” robbed audiences of that exploration.
Henderson said that because it was the end of Season 2 of “The Quad,” the writers room was able to “get away with a lot.” However, she recalled that BET had a vested interest in what direction she would take Bronwyn’s narrative. Henderson said she believes the network was hoping Bronwyn would end up keeping the baby.
Though Cedric’s mother was staunchly pro-abortion, which some might say is “unsupportive,” Henderson noted that she wanted his life to be “unencumbered by financial responsibility.” That, in and of itself, determines the quality of both the child’s and parents’ life.
Henderson hopes she created compelling, thought-provoking storytelling by featuring Bronwyn’s journey.
“It’s something that I have always believed that we must depict in film and television,” Henderson said. “I also believe in trying to depict multiple sides of the story. With ‘The Quad,’ that is why I wanted to tell Cedric’s story, his mom’s story and the woman who’s actually pregnant because they all have a story to tell. How do you tell all of those stories without sitting in judgment of any of them?”
The award-winning showrunner also noted that in her 2000s Showtime drama “Soul Food,” Bird (Malinda Williams) opted for an abortion in Season 4 after deciding it was too soon to have another child. Henderson said it was difficult to get that story on TV, considering sympathies are limited for married, stable people such as Bird who opt for abortions.
“It always says our societal norms are more important or take the lead over everything else,” said Henderson. “In front of an individual woman’s desires, in front of an individual woman’s thinking about her life and what she wants it to be.”
“With a lot of characters who have abortions, a lot of them are teenagers having abortions. Then the others are Claire from ‘House of Cards’ or Dr. Cristina Yang from ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ where they’re so career-driven and they can’t be bothered to have a kid. It falls into this general trope of what women want in general, about who has abortions and who doesn’t.”
Stephanie Herold, a researcher at ANSIRH, said that the majority of characters in such onscreen stories tend to be white, young, wealthy or upper middle-class, and not parenting at the time of their abortion; yet, in reality, most people seeking abortions are women of color who have a child or children and cannot afford to take on another baby. Though the latter encounters barriers in access to care, that is not depicted.
“We don’t see how the way you experience health care is really shaped by race, class, gender and sex. We really see on TV this kind of flattening of the reasons and the complex realities behind why people have abortions,” said Herold. “Even when we do have Black characters or Latina characters, their class or their race doesn’t really come up when it comes to their abortion. The way that their abortions are portrayed is often separated from their Blackness.”
Herald said ANSIRH’s 2019 study found that “Black characters often obtain abortions while wrestling with and reinforcing racial stereotypes,” such as the “Jezebel” and “welfare queen.”
Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) of “Dear White People” was fervently trying to distance herself from “Colandrea” — her real name, which evoked a cringey smile when her light-skinned, biracial roommate told her it was “such a pretty name” — and climb the social ladder. She once said that she came to the Ivy League school Winchester “to take everything the world denied my mother and dared to deny me.” In Season 2, Episode 4, of “Dear White People,” Coco imagines what her future life would be like with or without the baby. Ultimately, she opts for an abortion.
In “Being Mary Jane,” Mary Jane was trying to ascend the ranks in her career while also grappling with being the most financially stable among her siblings and in her family. While her younger brother B.J. was still living the aspirational, unstable bachelor life in Atlanta, her older brother Patrick was a recovering addict with two grandchildren mothered by Pauletta’s dropout niece, Niecey. To Mary Jane, she did not want to be another burden to her father and felt compelled to fill the respectable roles as she provided for everyone else.
Both Henderson and Hall agree that a lack of women leading writers rooms contributes to the disparities in how Black characters are portrayed in abortion narratives and that writers have a responsibility to address such topics with nuance. Bracey Sherman said discussing both the finer and broader details regarding reproductive care, such as how one is able to fund their abortion and access procedural explanations, in the actual storylines is paramount.
There are still more strides to be made with respect to how abortion is depicted onscreen, from showcasing more disabled Black characters seeking abortion, such as Chaunte in “New Amsterdam,” to transgender and nonbinary characters terminating pregnancies. Herold said she’d like to see more diverse depictions of abortion narratives, from the characters’ identities to having more than one character who has received an abortion to even normalizing the prospect of a possible workplace comedy in a clinic.
“What I would really love to see is to have screenwriters take on self-managed abortion and medication abortion as things that are very safe medically but really risky legally,” Herold said. “Have characters who order their pills online and have a friend support them, but actually show what the legal repercussions of that can be, like if you end up in a hospital because you’re worried about bleeding. Then the doctor reports it to the cops — what happens then? That’s something that’s happening every day here already.
This story was updated to clarify how often the Abortion Onscreen Database is updated.