How The Abortion Storyline On ‘Scandal’ Was Quietly, Shockingly Correct

Earlier this season on Scandal, Olivia Pope had an abortion. In the decades since the title character on Maude had an abortion, in 1972, multiple television shows have navigated the murky waters of a woman’s right to choose. But the way Olivia received her abortion felt revolutionary. The trope-busting way Shonda Rhimes chose to have her gladiator face her abortion, not a crying, soul-searching decision made in the dark of night, but a practical, straightforward choice, where the woman at the center was nearly smiling with relief at the end; relieved at being able to keep her life as it was pre-unplanned pregnancy. Actually…no. Relieved perhaps, but more than that: With her abortion, Olivia was repositioned squarely back into her own formidable power, which she’d slid somewhat out of in the months leading up to the abortion, when she lived in the White House. With her abortion, we saw Olivia confidently claim the continuation of her uninterrupted, childfree life — but we also saw that empowered choice — the act of making it — improve and change her life for the better.

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CREDIT: ABC

Since that episode, there have been few references on Scandal to Olivia’s abortion storyline, which, again, felt like uncharted territory in the entertainment world. Countless shows from The Good Wife to Parenthood to Rhimes’ own Grey’s Anatomy have seen characters make the decision to have an abortion only for the procedure to be confessed later to parents and partners with tear-filled sob sessions that come dangerously close to showing audiences the myth of abortion-regret, if they didn’t end up crossing that line altogether.

With her abortion, we saw Olivia confidently claim the continuation of her uninterrupted, childfree life — but we also saw that empowered choice — the act of making it — improve and change her life for the better.

This secondary trope — the “abortion confession” — seems to exists in two places: on scripted television and in anti-choicers’ scripted realities; their reliance on the false notion that abortion inherently causes regret and pain. In reality, 95 percent of women who receive an abortion say they feel no regret.  

Which is why I was so thrilled with Rhimes’ handling of Olivia’s abortion storyline for the past several episodes. It seemed as if we were finally experiencing what is reality for so many women who have had abortions, the idea that one could have the procedure and then continue on with their lives, without the constant feelings of self-doubt, remorse, or even guilt that have been splayed across our television screens since that first abortion plotline in the ‘70s. With the portrayal of Olivia’s abortion — and more importantly, the aftermath of her abortion, or rather the lack thereof, wherein we see Olivia simply living her life and shutting down every moment where we think we’re going to see her break and have some huge emotional response — we’re finally seeing a realistic depiction of abortion for the vast majority of adult, American women: It’s simply a thing women do to take care of their health, and then they walk out, and life goes on. Period.

But, intentionally anti-climactic handling of Olivia’s abortion aside, you don’t watch a show on Shondaland without buckling in for some twists and shocks. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when, in last week’s episode, a character suddenly found out about Olivia’s abortion and we realized it might be used against the woman herself. And (as a credit to Rhimes’ always-formidable storytelling) the final half-hour of that episode, particularly an Oval Office confrontation, had me on the edge of my seat with anxiety, waiting to see if the “abortion dirt” would be used to ruin the campaign Olivia’s running, and tarnish her image.

Instead that episode ended with Olivia strongly proclaiming that she was “not ashamed at all.” The presentation of her abortion as a “dark, dirty, campaign-ruining secret” was — and this is important — how Olivia’s opponents framed it. It was not how the show itself sought to frame it. In fact, it became clear by the end that they’d had it framed that way just so we could watch them, via Olivia’s “don’t give a fuck” attitude, crush that frame with her casual refusal to let other people turn her abortion into something shameful. She defiantly lifted her chin in the face of a stigma that works so hard to make women feel badly about their choices, daring to be proud of the fact that she made the best choice for her. It was an ending that had me using all the praise-hands emojis I could.

The presentation of her abortion as a “dark, dirty, campaign-ruining secret” was — and this is important — how Olivia’s opponents framed it. It was not how the show itself sought to frame it.

But something also bothered me about the scene. As triumphantly stigma-busting as Olivia’s declaration was, the fact remained that her claiming of the abortion, her ownership over the procedure without shame or apology, was still done in secret, in a private backroom and only to her most trusted best friend. Olivia, for all the pride, for all the bluster, still chose to keep her abortion a secret. In the same scene she says not only, “I’m not ashamed at all,” but also, “No one knows.”

I’m not claiming that these two ideas are mutually exclusive, that a person cannot be abortion-positive while not shouting-their-abortion. There are myriad reasons for why a woman might choose to keep her abortion to herself, from the obvious societal stigma to a personal fear of repercussions, or even just not wanting to share one’s own medical history, the latter of which I’m pretty sure was Olivia’s main motivation behind “keeping her abortion a secret”: She wasn’t worried about people’s reactions or perception of her so much as…it just was a procedure she had done, and it didn’t merit mentioning with all the other work to be done. Like, “I had an abortion…and? Why are we talking about this? I’m busy, leave me alone.”

I thought I knew where Olivia’s abortion storyline was headed: straight for the “abortion-confession” trope I’d come to fear, a confrontation between Olivia and Fitz, the man who’d impregnated her. I assumed this kind of scene was all but inevitable. I watched the finale with the same fear as I’d watched the scene in the Oval Office the week before, wondering when Olivia would be outed, a pulsing anxiety when Fitz found Olivia’s medical records and stormed out.

I won’t lie. When Olivia and Fitz finally came face to face, I was hoping for an Olivia Pope, no holds barred, take-down speech. This is why we watch! A minutes-long soliloquy filled with pro-choice power in the face of shame. And I mean, with Fitz’s long and inglorious history of acting like a self-centered bitch-baby who is perennially only concerned with his own feelings, it didn’t seem like too much to expect that he would burden Olivia with the weight of his broken heart.

This is what I expected from them both. This is not, of course, what we got at all. What we got instead changed everything about the abortion storyline.

Rhimes was smarter than that. She subverted our expectations, bucked cultural norms just like in the winter finale when the abortion storyline was first introduced. There was no screaming match. There was no fight. There was only an apology, from Fitz to Olivia. And whether or not Olivia knows, we know that he is speaking about the abortion. Rhimes knows the last thing society needs is two more people, set, secure, and unchanging in their own moral righteousness, screaming at each other over a woman’s right to choose. Instead, she shows us a different way, a nuanced, even-handed depiction of how to support someone through an abortion, even if you did not agree with their decision.

[Rhimes] shows us a different way, a nuanced, even-handed depiction of how to support someone through an abortion, even if you did not agree with their decision.

Fitz just told her that he supports her. He didn’t ask questions; he seemed uncharacteristically aware that it wasn’t his place to ask questions, and uncharacteristically respected that. He didn’t tell her how it made him feel. He simply…wanted her to know that he know it was her choice, and that he isn’t mad that she didn’t include him in something that he (very correctly) knows he wasn’t entitled to be included in at all. It was frankly the single most likable thing Fitz has done all season.

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Rhimes stayed true to the story she began months ago, when she “shocked” us with a woman choosing to receive a common medical procedure she required. Rhimes kept Olivia’s abortion story, from start to finish, unfolding in a way that so many women have experienced, yet so few characters have portrayed on television. Olivia’s abortion story, thankfully, ended how it started, not with a bang, but an effortless nod amid the real action: a woman’s life still very much in motion.