Abortions have increasingly become a part of television plot lines. In recent years, teenagers on shows like Parenthood and Friday Night Lights have decided to terminate unexpected pregnancies.
But what happened in Scandal's midseason finale (which aired Thursday, November 19) was entirely different: The long-running ABC drama showed main character Olivia Pope on the operating table, going through the abortion procedure herself.
The scene was surprising in two ways. First, it was an on-air depiction of the actual abortion procedure — something that's never been shown onscreen on a network (read: non-cable) primetime series. More commonly, television shows with abortion storylines will often use shots of women in abortion clinic waiting rooms or in bed after the procedure as a way to indicate what happened.
Spoiler warning: Spoilers follow for Scandal season five, episode nine, "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
Second, and a bit more subtly, Scandal provides a different reason for having an abortion. Most abortion storylines on television involve people who would struggle to take care of a newborn baby — often teenagers who plan to complete high school or go to college and have a whole career ahead of them.
That isn't the case with Olivia: She is a woman in a position of power, a woman who could easily care for a newborn baby (or at least hire help). Her situation is not a question of resources. Olivia has the ability to take care of a child — but she affirmatively decides that even while she could handle a baby, she does not want one.
What do we actually see of the abortion procedure on Scandal?
"Baby, It's Cold Outside" focuses heavily on reproductive health issues, bringing current political issues into the plot. Much of the episode centers on former first lady and current Sen. Mellie Grant launching an hours-long filibuster to save Planned Parenthood's funding.
Olivia is watching the coverage of Mellie's successful filibuster from the waiting room of an abortion clinic, which security guards appear to have closed off for her private use. A nurse calls her name and escorts her into the operating room.
From there, the abortion procedure begins. Olivia puts her feet into stirrups. A bright, sterile white medical lamp clicks on. The doctor turns on a suction machine, which is the instrument an obstetrician would use to terminate a first-trimester abortion. Olivia grips the table, her hair covered in a medical hairnet.
That's the procedure. On television, it took just about a minute. In reality, it lasts a bit longer (about five to 15 minutes). Medically, it shows abortion for what it is: one of the most common, least complicated surgeries that exists in the United States right now.
Shonda Rhimes makes a bold pro-choice argument in this episode
There are more than a dozen instances of abortion plot lines in pop culture, mostly on television. Many of them involve women making a last-minute decision not to have an abortion, as was the case with Miranda on Sex in the City or Andrea on Beverly Hills: 90210.
In the cases where the character clearly does have an abortion, the character is usually one who would struggle to care for a baby. In Friday Night Lights' fourth season, high school student Becky decides to have an abortion after becoming pregnant with her boyfriend, Luke. As she tearfully tells Tami Taylor, "I can't take care of a baby. I can't."
And this is believable: Becky is a high school student and the daughter of a single mother who bartends. She lives in a trailer in rural Texas. Finding the resources to raise a child would, no doubt, be an incredible hardship.
But Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes decided to tell a different story on Scandal, one that's arguably bolder and more complex. Olivia Pope would not face any financial strain raising a child; it's not material resources that stop her from having a baby, as is often the perceived obstacle on other TV shows. This is a woman, after all, who has the resources and privilege to block off an entire abortion clinic for her own use. This may be one way that Rhimes suggests the type of resources Olivia could command if she want to have a child, too.
Rhimes makes clear in the show: Resources are not the obstacle here. Olivia never says, like Becky did, "I can't take care of a baby." Olivia could take care of a baby. Instead, she decides not to — and Rhimes breaks ground not just in depicting an abortion on television, but in explaining the reasons why women terminate pregnancies in America.