By: Imani Brooks

Published on: May 02,2023

On June 11, 2009, the first episode of 16 & Pregnant, later renamed Teen Mom, aired on MTV.[1]  Since first following the stories of pregnant teenagers in America, the show has produced multiple spin-off series.[2] Despite a long run of documentary style episodes showing teenage pregnancy, Teen Mom rarely shows the mothers considering terminating pregnancies.  Rather, the franchise prides itself on being hyper fixated on pregnancy. This hyper fixation on pregnancy in Teen Mom represents how the entertainment industry presents childbirth as the only option for pregnant people. Using Teen Mom as an example, this Blog argues that the entertainment industry should be responsive to the changing legal landscape of abortion laws and produce abortion storytelling content that combats abortion stigma.

Abortion Stigma Defined

Stigma is a powerful tool of social control that labels,[3] stereotypes,[4] separates,[5] and causes status loss and discrimination.[6]  Abortion stigma refers to bullying, harassment, and physical and mental harm to individuals who obtain abortions, those individuals’ support systems, and abortion providers.[7]  Abortion stigma is the impact of “breaking” social expectations of femininity, such as female sexuality only for procreation and women being nurturing and self-sacrificing as mothers.[8]

The causes of abortion stigma are reinforced through law, rhetoric, and media.  Abortion stigma is first traced to attributing personhood to the fetus,[9] which erases the interests of pregnant people, decontextualizes the fetus, and overstates the fetus’s independence.[10]  Abortion is further stigmatized when legal restrictions are placed on clinics because lawmakers incorrectly correlate abortion to an unsafe procedure.[11]  Lastly, abortion is stigmatized when it is viewed as dirty or unhealthy.[12]  This becomes dangerous when this stigma spreads to clinics and patients become less empowered to ask questions.  While abortion stigma is not the sole reason abortion access is difficult to obtain, it still obstructs safe and legal abortions.

Supreme Court Jurisprudence Incorporates Abortion Stigma

Beginning in Roe v. Wade,[13] the Supreme Court unequivocally articulated the right to choose to have an abortion as fundamental before producing a patchwork of ambivalent decisions about the right to choose[14] and renouncing the once fundamental right.[15]  In Roe, the “woman” is a passive object who surrenders part of her privacy to the interests of the state and the physician.[16] The Court characterized the physician as the actor and the “woman” as an object the physician needs to assist in decision-making and decision implementation.[17]  Other abortion debates in the Supreme Court bounce between the 014“woman” as mother narrative and principles of liberty and equality that support reproductive autonomy.[18] Carhart II presented “woman” and “mother” as parallel identities while dissociating mothers from actual decision-making power because mothers can only have a bond of love with their child and come to regret their choice of terminating their pregnancy.[19] Casey redefined the informed consent and other restrictive requirements as legitimate even though the Court’s reasoning is predicated on “outmoded and unacceptable assumptions about the decision-making capacity of women.[20]”  Now, several TRAP laws stand across the country.[21]

Teen Mom and Abortion Stigma

With the legal support for abortion stigma, it is not surprising that abortion stigma still prevails in the entertainment industry.  The first time a main character decided to have an abortion on American television was in 1972.[22] In the 1970s and 80s when abortion came up on network television, the episode was a “very special” episode.[23]Forty years later, abortion is still a sensitive subject for entertainment.[24]

In the few times the Teen Mom franchise depicted alternatives to pregnancy, it did not include reliable information about access to reproductive care.  Teen Mom 2 shows parts of Jenelle Evans’ abortion process on camera, such as driving to the motel the day before she meets with a doctor, and her conversation with her mother about the abortion process.[25] Jenelle tells her mom about the abortion process, stating: “…I have to put two pills on one side of my cheek, two pills on the other side of my cheek…let them dissolve for an hour. And if they don’t dissolve by an hour, I have to swallow them. And they said my uterus would start contracting and releasing it [the fetus] like…a miscarriage.”[26]  However, Jenelle’s doctor visit and actual abortion experience is off camera.  This depiction does not adequately portray abortion to the viewer because it does not clarify that medication abortion is different for each pregnancy, explain the safe places to get the pills, or what to do when if a miscarriage occurs.

Jenelle is a rare instance on Teen Mom of abortion counseling or care on camera; however, the franchise has been more likely to show the aftermath of an abortion and an abortion misidentified as a miscarriage. In Teen Mom 2, Leah Messer keeps her abortion a secret and initially says she had a miscarriage,[27] scared of what others would say and the impact of others on her decision making.[28] Later, Leah admits to the abortion in her book, noting that telling the truth was empowering and healing.[29] In Teen Mom: Young and Pregnant reunion episode, Kayla Sessler opened up about how she was prepared for the physical pain of receiving an abortion but not the mental and emotional side effects.[30]Kayla talked about her grief in deciding to have the abortion to do what was best for the kids she already had.  A perfectly legitimate (and actually common) reason someone might exercise their right to be or not to be pregnant.[31]  Kayla’s actual abortion counseling or care was not shown in the show.  By rarely including abortion stories in the shows and prioritizing birthing stories, Teen Mom stigmatizes abortion.

The Role of Abortion Storytelling to Combat Abortion Stigma

Given the media interest in pregnancy and creating families, as shown through the popularity of the Teen Momfranchise, and the Supreme Court’s inability to center the pregnant person as a decision maker, entertainment and television have an important role in destigmatizing abortion access through abortion storytelling.  Abortion storytelling creates real, empathetic connections and bridges gaps between those who receive abortions and those who are watching the experience on television.  This specific type of storytelling challenges prejudices and influences the way we think about reproductive health issues.[32]  The entertainment industry is uniquely positioned in people’s everyday lives to influence what messages the public receives about abortion access, how the public internalizes it, and how the public spreads a certain message about abortion access.  The more we see abortions portrayed, the more normalized the procedure will become socially, culturally, and legally.

Since abortion is still a (unnecessarily) sensitive subject to air, it is important for the entertainment industry to prioritize what the abortion storytelling looks like.[33]  For example, entertainment can combat the enormous amount of misinformation about abortion[34] by reminding viewers that abortion is a sought-after, safe health care option.[35] While abortion storytelling has gotten airtime in the last three decades, there is still a need to talk about abortion beyond the impact on the fetus.  With the Dobbs decision, the modern portrayal of the abortion process must include traveling to a different state for care,[36] exposing crisis pregnancy centers,[37] and expanding the conversation around abortion to having control over your own body.

The Hollywood Reporter interviewed producers, directors, and those who have been involved with depictions of abortion pre-Dobbs.[38]  Even with the federal protection of Roe in place at the time of the interviews, the entertainment representatives believed that the industry needed to push the envelope more because Roe was a bare minimum measure.[39]  The Creator of You’re the Worst recognizes that there is a “smugness to the comfortability that our rights are protected” and that the ongoing fight must be recognized so that “rights can’t be taken away quite as easily.[40]”  To combat the “smugness,” scripts can feature complications of an abortion choice in a more serious way to respect and legitimize a pregnant person’s choice and health.[41]  When the entertainment industry starts commenting on the larger reproductive justice fight rather than the specific act of abortion, abortion itself becomes less of a big deal and is redefined as a personal and private choice.

Clearly, abortion stigma is multifaceted.  Reviewing Supreme Court jurisprudence, even briefly, shows how restrictive abortion laws, or restrictive legal language within a law that ultimately supports abortion access, reiterates abortion stigma and the need to use other avenues, such as the entertainment industry, to reduce abortion stigma.  Therefore, post-Dobbs, the entertainment industry has a responsibility to uplift abortion storytelling and recenter reproductive health on the fundamental right to bodily autonomy.

[1] 16 and Pregnant, IMDB, (last visited Mar. 28, 2023).

[2] See Emily Longeretta, MTV Announces ‘Teen Mom; The Next Chapter’ Cast and Premiere Date: Watch First Trailer (EXCLUSIVE), Variety (Aug. 12, 2022, at 10:00 AM), (explaining how 16 & Pregnant led to Teen Mom 2, Teen Mom 3, Teen Mom: Young and Pregnant, Teen Mom: Young Moms Club, Teen Mom: Family Reunion, and Teen Mom: Girls’ Night In).

[3] See Paul Abrams, The Scarlet Letter: The Supreme Court and the Language of Abortion Stigma, 19 Mich. J. of Gender & L. 293, 300 (2013) (labeling is when the dominant culture identifies and labels human differences).

[4] See id. (stereotyping is when the dominant culture links the labeled persons to undesirable characteristics).

[5] See id. (separating is when the labeled persons are distinguished from the dominant culture).

[6] See id. (experiencing labeling as “them” or “other” that leads to loss of status and/or discrimination).

[7] Amnesty International’s Policy on Abortion Explanatory Note, Amnesty Int’l, at 5 (2020).

[8] Abrams supra note 3, at 299-300.

[9] See Isaacson v. Brnovich, 563 F.Supp.3d 1024, 1047 (D. Ariz. 2021) (challenging two Arizona measures that would ban abortion care if there is indication of fetal diagnosis in the patient’s reason and grant new “personhood” rights for fetuses, embryos, and fertilized eggs).

[10] Norris et. al., Abortion Stigma: A Reconceptualization of Constituents, Causes, and Consequences, 21 Women’s Health Issues 3, S49-S54 (2011),

[11]See Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, GUTTMACHER INST. (February 1, 2023), (highlighting states, like Michigan, that have passed Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws regulating facility where abortions are provided and states, like Mississippi, that have passed TRAP laws restricting clinicians’ ability to provide reproductive healthcare).

[12] See Anuraha Kumar, Disgust, Stigma, and the Politics of Abortion, 28 Feminism & Psych. 4, 531, 533 (2018), (linking the idea of abortion as dirty work to having to confront blood and fetal parts, as conducting a moral sin and noting that the “dirty” framework is prevalent in anti-choice groups who use images of dismembered fetuses).

[13] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 155 (1973).

[14] Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 844-46(1992).

[15] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., 142 S. Ct. 2228, 2242-43 (2022).

[16] See 410 U.S. at 150-52, 163-65 (1973) (discussing the interests of the woman and the state);

see also Abrams, supra note 8, at 302 (explaining that the state interest materializes during the second trimester and remains until birth while the physician’s interest is there the entire pregnancy).

[17] Abrams, supra note 9, at 304.

[18] See id. at 315-16 (citing how in Casey the strongest supporters of choice, Justices Blackmun and Stevens, discussed abortion using “woman” rather than “mother”).

[19] See Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124, 172 (2007) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (“There was a time, not so long ago, when women were “regarded as the center of home and family life”…those views, this Court made clear in Casey “are not longer consistent with our understanding of the family, the individual, or the Constitution”…Thus, legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures…center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”).

[20]See Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 918 (1992) (Stevens, J., dissenting) (emphasizing how Casey can be highly supportive of reproductive self-determination values and weaken the constitutional standard for protecting reproductive rights).

[21] Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, supra note 11.

[22] See Tanya Melendez, How TV Lied About Abortion, Vox (Oct. 14, 2021, 11:20AM EDT), (Describing the history of TV on abortion); see also Mia Galuppo et. al., 13 Hollywood Storytellers on Bringing Abortion to the Screen, Then and Now, The Hollywood Reporter (July 11, 2022), (explaining the two part episode of Maude where the forty-seven year old main character is unexpectedly pregnant).

[23] See Melendez, supra note 22 (discussing how fictional abortions in television are overly dramatized).

[24] See Galuppo, supra note 22 (showing how abortion is perhaps more sensitive to portray on television than it was in the 1970s).

[25] Sunjay Kumar, Why Watching ‘Teen Mom 2’s Disturbing Abortion is so Challenging, DAILY BEAST (Jan. 12, 2014, at 5:45 A.M.), (updated July 12, 2017, at 12:18 PM).

[26] Id.

[27] Sam Gillette, Leah Messer Reveals Miscarriage on ‘Teen Mom 2’ was Actually an Abortion: I Want to ‘Own My Truth,PEOPLE (Apr. 27, 2020, at 9:00 AM),

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Caitlyn Hitt, ‘NEED TO GRIEVE’ Teen Mom Kayla Sessler Breaks Down in Tears Over ‘Guilt’ of Having an Abortion in Sad Scene Days Before Her Due Date, THE SUN (Aug. 2, 2022, at 9:56 P.M.),

[31]See Margot Sanger-Katz et. al., Who Gets Abortions in America, NY TIMES (Dec. 14, 2021), (depicting that 60% of people who have abortions already have one or more children); see also Gilda Sedgh et al., Induced abortion: estimated rates and trends worldwide, THE LANCET (2007), (noting that every year over 40 million women in the world have an abortion).

[32] See Abortion Storytelling, Reclaim Project, (collecting abortion stories from the perspective of the person who had the abortion, the person who supported them through their journey, or the clinic staff who helped them through their process to combat the stigmatization from false anti-abortion rhetoric).

[33] See Galuppo, supra note 22 (interviewing various TV show directors who prioritized telling abortion stories for their characters).

[34] See Jenna Sherman, How Abortion Misinformation and Disinformation Spread Online, Scientific Am. (June 24, 2022), that over half of the web pages on abortion from a Google search contained misinformation about abortion, including claims that abortion is unsafe, and that from January 2020 to September 2021, Facebook accepted at least $115,000 for ninety-two ads promoting the unproven and unethical abortion pill reversal procedure).

[35] See Stephanie Herold and Gretchen Sisson, Abortion on American Television: An Update on Recent Portrayals, 2015-2019, 102 Contraception 6, 421-23 (2020) (“About 18% of abortions on television include a depiction of a major medical complication, whereas less than 0.25% of real-life abortions result in a major complication.”).

[36] Mathieu Benhamou et. al., Americans in 26 States will have to Travel 552 Miles for Abortions, BLOOMBERG (June 24, 2022, at 8:15 PM), (noting that people who live in places with closing abortion clinics or abortion bans will have to travel six times farther than before the overturn of Roe v. Wade).

[37]See Amy Bryant & Jonas J. Swartz, Why Crisis Pregnancy Centers are Legal but Unethical, 20 AMA J. Ethics 3, 269-77, (explaining that crisis pregnancy centers (“CPCs”) are religiously affiliated organizations that seek to intercept women with unintended pregnancies to persuade them against considering abortion, and explaining that CPCs are exempt from regulatory, licensure, and credentialing oversight that apply to health care facilities).

[38] Galuppo et. al., supra note 22.

[39] Galuppo et. al., supra note 22.

[40] Galuppo et. al., supra note 22.

[41] See Galuppo et. al., supra note 22 (quoting the creator of Jane the Virgin: “The more that we de-sensationalize abortion and contextualize it in terms of a woman’s choice and health, that’s the powerful thing we can do on TV to counteract all of this.”).

Posted in

Share this post