On Thursday night’s winter finale of ABC’s “Scandal,” viewers saw an accurate and respectful portrayal of abortion and a Republican woman defending Planned Parenthood. And for the first time, I saw myself in its heroine, Olivia Pope. Aside from being a black woman living in Washington, D.C., with questionable taste in Republican men, there isn’t much I have in common with the fictional political problem solver. But in this episode, she portrayed much of how I felt about my abortion at 19.
The episode opens with Pope (played by Kerry Washington) distraught over her new “first lady” duties after being moved into the White House to live with President Fitzgerald Grant. She puts on a happy face in front of White House holiday guests but is visibly numb and unhappy as she contemplates her new life choices. I could relate to her situation; some years ago, I, too, was fed up of being controlled and wanted to free myself from the bonds of an unhealthy relationship. Pope was portrayed seeking an abortion in a calm and decisive way, free from racist and sexist stereotypes about black women seeking abortions. For me, this TV moment was huge.
In the episode, Pope watches former first lady and junior Sen. Mellie Grant (whom, in true soap opera style, the president divorced to be with Pope) challenging her Republican colleagues on a bill that would subject Planned Parenthood’s funding to political whims. Dismayed, Grant takes to the Senate floor in a Wendy Davis–inspired effort to filibuster the bill. Grant frames the debate over Planned Parenthood and women’s reproductive health care funding in a way only “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes could: front and center, with a down-to-the-wire Christmas deadline infused with real yet ridiculous budget line items.
Pope then enlists the help of Vice President Susan Ross to give Grant a bathroom break after Democratic senators won’t come to her aid. After Grant successfully filibusters the bill, the show cuts to Pope in an abortion clinic waiting room, then heading into the procedure room. Moments later, we see her with her feet in stirrups, determined and unapologetic, as her abortion provider performs the manual vacuum aspiration. The abortion, juxtaposed with Grant fighting the very real legislative attacks on access to reproductive health, illustrates how these laws affect our everyday lives.
Abortion is being portrayed on television more often — as it should be, given that it’s a reproductive health decision that 1 in 3 women will choose. But it often isn’t portrayed accurately. This matters to people who have had abortions. It helps our communities to better understand why we decide to have an abortion, see respectful representations of ourselves in media and feel more comfortable talking about abortion openly.
University of California at San Francisco researchers examined television and film depictions of abortion from 1918 to 2013 and found that they inaccurately represent who has abortions and why. Onscreen, 87 percent of women having an abortion are white, whereas in reality they account for only 36 percent of the total. Onscreen, 9 percent of women having abortions die as a result of their procedure, when abortion has a complication rate of less than 1 percent, with a risk of death near zero. We’re often portrayed as regretting our abortions, but ultimately, more than 95 percent of women don’t regret them. These false illustrations make it easier for viewers to misunderstand abortion and the people who choose to have one.
Changing the way we view abortion is something Rhimes is passionate about. As a Planned Parenthood Los Angeles board member, she believes that because abortion “is such a hot button issue, because people are debating it, it should be discussed.” She has included abortion in many of her shows, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and an earlier episode of “Scandal.”
In May, Pope and Ross navigated the military system supporting an ensign in getting justice and an abortion after being raped by a fellow officer. In “Grey’s Anatomy,” Asian-American surgeon Cristina Yang twice becomes pregnant and seeks abortions. On “Private Practice,” Addison Montgomery is an abortion provider and discloses her own abortion. It is clear that Rhimes wants to show a diversity of our experiences with abortions and how it is one moment that fits in to the larger complexity of our lives and storylines.
In “Scandal” she challenges the notion that all Republicans don’t support reproductive health care. Historically, Republicans haven’t always been anti–Planned Parenthood; in fact, in 1967, George H.W. Bush secured the first federal funding for Planned Parenthood during his days as a member of Congress. In her fictional defense of her filibuster, Grant explains, “I’m sorry I had to resort to theatrics to protect what should be basic human rights.”
The episode isn’t without stigma. On network television, it opened with a content disclaimer simply because it planned to have an abortion plotline. When Ross takes over the filibuster for Grant, she says that she wants to ask a long-winded question about “the multitude of services Planned Parenthood provides” and states that she’s “not up [there] to ask you about abortions” while reiterating that it’s only 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s work. I had my abortion at an independent clinic where abortion accounted for 100 percent of procedures, and it didn’t make the clinic’s work any less valuable.
During her abortion, Pope is seen in a large surgical room, modeled after ambulatory surgical centers, which are basically mini-hospitals. State governments can mandate these centers in an attempt to shut down freestanding abortion clinics, even though first-trimester abortions are a 15-minute-procedure and can be done in a smaller clinic or doctor’s office. Texas abortion clinic Whole Woman’s Health is taking its case to the Supreme Court to fight requirements like this one. Perhaps Pope was in a surgical center because she was the president’s girlfriend, but depicting the need for a full surgical center gives legitimacy the idea that abortion is a complicated surgery when it isn’t.
Moments like this one can perpetuate abortion stigma and signify to viewers that there’s something inherently bad about abortion, when it’s just a basic medical procedure that a third of women go through. But Rhimes should be lauded for showing the decision to have an abortion as empowered, positive and life altering. As an avid television watcher, I am eager for complex and realistic portrayals of black women and the decisions we face every single day. Showing Pope’s support for the young ensign having an abortion and then seeking one herself tells viewers that people who have abortions deserve dignity, respect and compassion. “Scandal” models what the future of abortion could and should look like for everyone, fictional or not.