How Shonda Rhimes Is Changing the Dialogue About Abortion on TV

Thursday's 'Scandal' featured star Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope having an abortion.
Courtesy of Photofest
'Scandal's' Kerry Washington

Shonda Rhimes is changing the narrative about abortion on primetime television.

Scandal used its 9 p.m. hour Thursday to take on legislation looking to defund Planned Parenthood. The ABC political thriller featured former first lady-turned-senator Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) successfully filibustering a bill that would all but defund the organization in yet another ripped-from-the-headlines-inspired story. (Rhimes and Young both took to Twitter to note that all of the budget items that Mellie read off during the filibuster scenes were, in fact, real.)

The storyline was capped off when star Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope had an abortion — and the baby more than likely belonged to Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), Scandal's Republican president of the United States.

What's more, Thursday's midseason finale was the second time Scandal and Olivia have broached the subject of abortion. In season four, the series featured a case-of-the-week story in which a female Navy officer was raped and begged the fixer for help getting an abortion.

Thursday's Scandal also marked the latest time that Rhimes has used her primetime platform to put a spotlight on a woman's right to choose. Grey's Anatomy explored the subject when Sandra Oh's Cristina Yang had an abortion in season eight because she and then-husband Owen (Kevin McKidd) did not agree on having children.

Rhimes has said she had wanted to take on the abortion arc in season one but instead opted to feature Cristina suffering from an ectopic pregnancy and losing the baby because the showrunner feared it was too early in the medical drama's run to take on such a weighty subject. The veteran series also featured Addision (Kate Walsh) revealing that she had an abortion after getting pregnant during her affair with Mark (Eric Dane).

In a January 2014 interview with Time, Rhimes said the topic of abortions shouldn't be ignored on the small screen. "Because it is such a hot-button issue, because people are debating it, it should be discussed," she said at the time. "And I’m not sure why it’s not being discussed." 

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund released a statement late Thursday praising Rhimes — who sits on the board of directors at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. "Tonight, the millions of people who tune into Scandal every Thursday night learned that our rights to reproductive health care are under attack," Planed Parenthood Federation of American's Cecile Richards said. "Never one to shy away from critical issues, Shonda Rhimes used her platform to tell the world that if Planned Parenthood lost funding for contraception counseling, STI testing, cancer screenings and safe, legal abortion — millions of people would suffer. And this episode wasn’t the first time one of Rhimes’ characters had an abortion, yet tonight we saw one of our favorite characters make the deeply personal decision that one in three women have made in their lifetime."

The statement continued: "We applaud Shonda Rhimes tonight — and every Thursday night — for proving that when women are telling our stories, the world will pause and watch. We just hope those in Congress — and throughout the nation — who are steadfast on rolling the clock back on reproductive health care access are taking note."

The Scandal midseason finale arrives as the subject of abortion appears to have become more commonplace on television. FXX's second-year comedy You're the Worst has made an effort to normalize the subject by creating a shorthand for it ("abobo") and NBC's since-concluded Parenthood featured an abortion in a 2013 episode in which Drew (Miles Heizer) calmly accompanied his high school girlfriend Amy (Skyler Day) to get an abortion. 

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