MTV’s Influence on Pro-Choice Attitudes

A recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute revealed some striking attitudes about abortion. The survey of 3,000 adults found that while 56 percent of respondents believed that abortion should be legal in all or most instances, an almost equal number—52 percent—say that abortion is morally wrong. In addition, 70 percent of respondents identified as pro-choice, while almost two-thirds said they were anti-abortion.

What I found most interesting, however, was the influence that pop culture had on some respondents. According to the study:

Americans who have seen MTV’s shows “Teen Mom” or “16 and Pregnant” are significantly more likely than the general public to say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases (65% vs. 56% of the public) and to say that having an abortion is morally acceptable (48% vs. 40% of the public). They are also nearly twice as likely as those who have not seen these shows to say that at least some health care professionals in their communities should provide legal abortions (65% vs. 34% respectively).

“16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” have both drawn a significant amount of flack for ignoring the issue of abortion, and also for glamorizing teen pregnancy. While I’m in the camp that criticized the former, I always found the latter argument a bit ridiculous. The teens profiled on both shows are perpetually stressed out, undereducated, struggling financially, and more often than not raising their children as single parents (with varying degrees of family support). But aside from a stand-alone special aired by the network last December, neither series seemed too eager to address abortion head-on; any discussion of that option was usually dealt with in a brief conversation, if that. 

The attitudes of viewers, then, are not influenced by MTV explicitly addressing the issue. And while it’s impossible to know what factors resonated more in each respondent, there is something to be said for personalizing an issue. Abortion is so often discussed in abstract, overly political terms; it’s too easy to forget that this is an issue that affects real people, in eminently relatable circumstances. By dramatizing the struggles faced by parents in a direct and unaffected manner, MTV may have helped Americans recognize just how difficult a choice parenthood can be—and how vital it is that other choices be accessible as well.

Of course, I’m biased towards this theory (after all, I wrote a book based around it). But it does make intuitive sense, and it’s also apparent in the respondents’ attitudes towards gay marriage. Fifty-seven percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29, support same-sex marriage, as compared to 32 percent of baby boomers (ages 50-64). In explaining these results, Robert Jones, the study’s lead author, says that one reason may be because a majority of young people have a friend or close family member that is gay or lesbian.

There are many other interesting findings in the survey, about both abortion and same-sex marriage. But perhaps the most important lesson may be what a pro-choice activist once told me: “Women’s stories will always win the debate.”


About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out


  1. Sarah, I think these poll numbers are really fascinating – especially the one where folks say they oppose abortion but they are pro-choice. I would venture to guess that a lot of people fall into that category.

    As for the MTV show’s portrayal of teen pregnancy – I agree with you. The shows reveal that pregnancy and parenthood are no picnic.

    • I was struck by the “oppose abortion yet pro-choice” stat, too. I think that speaks to the fact that people recognize that even though they might not personally choose to have an abortion, they don’t want to prevent others from having one. Or maybe I’m being too optimistic?

  2. Although I’m not MTV’s biggest fan and have long criticized shows such as the ones mentioned about not specifically covering abortion, I also feel that real or realistic portrayals of teenage pregnancy and parenthood could really help the general public understand what facing those decisions really entails. I would like to see more attention paid to abortion in other TV shows. I feel that it’s way too often ignored or glossed over by the media.

  3. Nobody has a right to evade parenthood–that’s why infanticide is illegal. Abortion is NOT about giving women a “get-out-of-parenthood-free” card. No, the ONLY reason abortion ought to be legal is because women have a right to bodily autonomy. That’s it. All this talk about the teen moms is a red herring.

    • Terry – I think you have some valid points, but the way you have phrased things is a little contradictory. Can you please expand your argument? I’d love to hear more from you.

  4. Simply put, I don’t like it when abortion is framed as a “get-out-of-parenthood” issue. When pro-choicers talk about the challenges of parenthood, the subtext becomes “women have a right to abortion because women have a right to opt out of parenthood”. This is not true and it degrades to pro-choice cause by framing abortion as a last-resort birth control.

    A woman has a right to choose for one reason and one reason only: because the fetus is developing inside HER UTERUS. If humans were like birds and laid eggs, women would have no right to have an abortion because the fetus would no longer be in her uterus. Incidentally, this is why men have no right to abortion, even if they not wish to be parents. You have the right to opt out of pregnancy, but not the right to opt out of parenthood.

    If watching an show about a single mother makes you pro-choice, you are pro-choice for the wrong reason. A lot of pro-choicers do not understand this which is why we feminists need to correct them.

    • Terry, thanks for developing your argument. I think you have a really good point. This movement is about empowerment and controlling your own body. Absolutely.

    • So because the fetus relies on her, she has power over it? The same could be said for a 1 month old child.

  5. Toongrrl says:

    I think the avoidance of a pro-choice conversation or the aknowledgement is about not scaring parents.

  6. Since we have established that Millennials are more supportive of abortion rights, perhaps a large amount of the reason people who watch shows like “16 and Pregnant” are more pro-choice is simply because they are younger. Also, “hipper” teens are probably more likely to watch MTV, but I am not sure about that.

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