The long, searing monologues on "Scandal" have become the show's trademark. We've watched characters like Rowan, Cyrus, Mellie and Olivia deliver speech after pointed speech with intensity and vigor. But what was perhaps the most powerful message of the first half of season 5 was delivered without words.
During the season's winter finale, we see Olivia lying on an operating table with "Silent Night" playing in the background. It's implied that she's having an abortion, but neither the name of the procedure -- nor her pregnancy -- is ever mentioned. Olivia walks into a doctor's office, is assisted by a female medical professional, undergoes a minimally invasive medical procedure then continues on with her life. And that is what makes the moment so radical for television.
The entire finale episode is centered around reproductive rights: The brief abortion scene comes right after Mellie filibusters for Planned Parenthood and women's health, a ripped-from-the-headlines move that had Twitter cheering. "Scandal" creator and showrunner Shonda Rhimes has used "Scandal" as a vehicle to talk about real-life social justice issues in the past, so while addressing the GOP efforts to defund Planned Parenthood was monumental, it wasn't too surprising.
Planned Parenthood's president Cecile Richards tweeted:
The fact that Olivia's procedure was only a sub-plot, the fact that we didn't even know Olivia was pregnant, and that we actually saw her on the operating table, that is what made this episode groundbreaking.
The prevailing narrative about abortion tells us that a women's decision to terminate a pregnant is always a painful, difficult one that will leave her devastated. For some women, that is the case. For other women, not even close. (Watch the clip of Olivia's abortion starting at the 2-minute mark below.)
We don't know how long -- or even if -- Olivia Pope struggled with this decision. Perhaps she didn't immediately know what she'd do. Perhaps she did. But Olivia's psyche wasn't necessary to the story. Because what mattered was that millions of viewers watched a beloved character exercise her right to choose as just one of the things she did that day. (She also helped Mellie complete her filibuster, broke up with her boyfriend, and moved out of the White House.)
Though nearly 3 in 10 women will get an abortion by the time they're 45, the topic is rarely discussed in pop culture. This absence perpetuates the myth that the procedure is rare and contributes to the stigma surrounding it.
Shonda Rhimes tried to address that discrepancy during season one of "Grey's Anatomy," she told TIME in 2014. At the time, the "network freaked out a little bit" over the idea of showing Dr. Christina Yang getting an abortion, so the plot was nixed. Several seasons later, in 2011, Rhimes felt the climate had changed and it was time to try again. Christina Yang -- a character who, like Olivia Pope, unapologetically and consistently put her career first -- had an abortion because she didn't want to be a mom (and not for some other tragic reason). As Rhimes told TIME, keeping abortion storylines off of television is "weird and not realistic."
Though reproductive rights remain at the forefront of political discussion, the stories of women who actually are affected by those rights, or lack thereof, are largely ignored onscreen.
"Scandal" showed abortion for what it is: A completely legal medical procedure that does not determine what kind of person a woman is, and that only makes up a small part of said woman's life story.
That's why Olivia Pope's no-big-deal abortion was such a big deal.
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