Abortion and the Wisdom of Repugnance


Kate Cohen writes in the Washington Post that popular culture ought to depict more abortions. “Over and over again in TV shows and movies, female characters discover they are unintentionally pregnant and then make the choice that most women in that situation don’t make.” If she followed her own link, she would see that in Europe and North America, slightly fewer than half of unintended pregnancies end in abortion, and the percentage has been falling. But her larger descriptive point is accurate: Abortion is much less common in popular culture than in real life.

I wrote about this disjunction in a book fifteen years ago:

The last high-profile prime-time abortion took place in 1972, on All in the Family—and even that was the result of a population-control group’s offering a $10,000 prize for scripts dealing with its concerns. On soap operas, characters are much more likely to return from the dead than to have an abortion. “[W]e might as well be living in an era before Roe v. Wade as far as TV is concerned,” writes one frustrated feminist. “Characters these days rarely even say the word abortion when confronted with an unplanned pregnancy—let alone have one.”

My impression is that the fragmentation of audiences has led to a rise in the depiction of abortions (even as their actual incidence has declined). But it’s worth asking why abortion is so infrequently featured in plotlines.

Cohen doesn’t ask it. Maybe the answer is that our centers of cultural production are dominated by evangelical and Catholic Christians. Or maybe there’s another reason.

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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