The image of the fundamentalist Christian man bringing a gun to an abortion clinic is entrenched in our culture. As a result, the pro-life community is quick to lament the media’s focus on violence committed by those who claim to stand with our cause. What some may not realize is that the stereotype has traveled far beyond the news. I stopped watching Law and Order – one of my favourite TV shows – because I had seen too many episodes featuring that storyline. (Most bizarre were the frozen embryos “saved” from a fertility clinic. Didn’t their rescuer realize they would die outside of a highly fine-tuned lab environment?) 

Cosmopolitan has recently given us a new way to think about these skewed perspectives. A story on the magazine’s website linked to a press release from the American Sociological Association’s upcoming annual meeting. Danielle Bessett, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, will present a working paper about the effects of television on women’s perceptions of pregnancy and childbirth. 

Bessett surveyed “64 pregnant women in the greater New York and Connecticut metropolitan area over a two-year period.” She found that women who reported experiencing fear and disillusionment in childbirth “cited overly dramatized medical scenes” as an influence. Examples of relevant programs include Birth Days on the Discovery Channel and TLC’s Baby Story. The so-called “reality shows” document births requiring more medical intervention than is typical. Bessett’s study did not examine explicitly fictional media, though she believes they are “even more dramatically scripted to keep people’s attention.” 

Participants with more education preferred to see the shows as entertainment, rather than a valid source of information. Even so, a majority of the interviewees remembered their emotional impact years after viewing. Bessett notes “If we believe that television works most insidiously or effectively on people when they don’t realize that it has power, then we can actually argue that the more highly-educated women who were the most likely to say that television really didn’t have any effect on them, may in the end, actually be more subject to the power of television than were women who saw television as an opportunity to learn about birth and who recognized TV’s influence.” 

Few would argue that television depictions of certain scenarios – including nonviolent pro-life activists at work – have no effect on public perception of their offscreen behaviour. Is this phenomenon influencing women’s feelings towards childbirth and pregnancy? Is the delivery-room drama making them more weary of having children? I think it is worth investigating.

Taylor Hyatt is a linguistics student at Carleton University.