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11.20.15 8:28 PM ET

‘Scandal’ Shows an Abortion: Inside the Shocking, Controversial Episode

Thursday’s Scandal included the most realistic depiction of an abortion in TV history. (Praise Shonda!) Forty-three years after Maude, why is this still so controversial?

It’s been called “brave.” “Daring.” “Groundbreaking.” “Revolutionary.” And, in one case, “sick.”

On Thursday night’s episode of Scandal, after an hour that advocated passionately on behalf of Planned Parenthood, Olivia Pope had an abortion.

“Controversial,” sadly, is still the most apropos word to describe an abortion scene in an episode of a television series that draws exponentially more eyeballs than the news each week, and which stars Kerry Washington as one of the strongest, most gloriously complex characters of color in TV history. 

The scene was part of Scandal’s aggressively promoted winter finale—it’s not just show creator Shonda Rhimes who wanted you to see this story played out, it was, in a refreshing surprise, ABC, too. The episode’s greater focus was on reproductive rights and the GOP’s efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.

It’s right before Christmas and Congress is attempting to pass a new spending bill before Santa comes, everyone leaves for holiday break, and, you know, the government doesn’t shut down.

But when Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), the former first lady and now junior senator, notices that Planned Parenthood is classified under discretionary funding according to the new bill, she raises a red flag.

She sees through the bureaucratic bull: If Planned Parenthood’s funding is discretionary and not guaranteed by law, the Republican Congress is going to chip away at it until it can no longer exist.

Rhimes glosses over the fact that Grant is a Republican herself, and has her speak on behalf of women. “As much as I would like to get home for the holidays, I refuse to do it at the expense of women’s health,” she says.

Mellie filibusters the bill until the deadline runs out and it can’t pass, using the hours it takes to run down the clock to list off the asinine things that are guaranteed funding under the new bill—fancy urinal cakes, a travel budget for state pageant queens, research on the “hangry” (hungry and angry) condition—while Planned Parenthood remains vulnerable.

Mellie is a Yuletide Wendy Davis, basically, with Rhimes referencing Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s famous filibuster in 2013.

“I’m sorry I had to resort to theatrics to protect what should be basic human rights,” she says.

And how does this all involve Olivia Pope? For much of the episode she’s working behind-the-scenes to help Mellie’s cause, rallying people to assist her in pulling off the exhausting filibuster.

Then comes the “brave,” “daring,” “groundbreaking,” “revolutionary,” “sick” scene.

We see Olivia in the waiting room of a clinic. As “Silent Night” plays in the background, we see her put her feet in stirrups as a doctor starts the procedure.

As the camera pans out to show the doctor and his equipment, we see him turn on the vacuum aspiration that is used to withdraw fetal tissue. As the abortion is taking place, we see her face, at once anxious and certain.

We see it.

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For the first time, we see abortion for what it is: a medical procedure that is legal, common, and often uncomplicated.

Though the scene is remarkable for its matter-of-fact depiction of an act that is the subject of intense emotions and national debate, you better believe the way it’s portrayed was expertly calculated by Rhimes.

The audience, by and large, gets no warning that Olivia is going to have an abortion. In fact, the word “abortion” is not used once in relation to the scene.

Unlike the typical abortion storyline on a TV show, there’s no grand, emotional handwringing about the decision by the character leading up to it. There’s no discussion of option. There’s no regret expressed for the child Olivia would not be raising.

It’s not clear whether Olivia struggled with the decision at all—because that wasn’t the point.

The point was that Olivia had a right to choose, and she chose. The look on her face as it happens: calm, resolute. Portraying it without any larger discussion is Rhimes’s political act. The morality of being pro-choice? Not even addressed.

It has been 43 years, believe it or not, since Bea Arthur’s character made the decision to have an abortion on Maude, the first time ever a TV character made that choice. Again, 43 years. And still, here we are talking about Olivia Pope as a bold liberal renegade.

Maude’s decision was made only after two episodes of tearful soul-searching. In the decades—decades!—that followed, that would be the prevailing narrative.

There have been other TV characters that had abortions, sure, though overwhelmingly abortion-related storylines in TV drama finds the character backing out of the procedure at the last minute, almost exclusively happier because of that decision.  

And when a character does have an abortion, it’s because she fears she is not equipped to raise the child. (Friday Night Lights did this with great nuance with the character of Becky.)

A 2012 episode of Girls probably contained the most plainspoken discussion of a procedure that, according to statistics, nearly 3 in 10 women have by the time they’re 45, but that pop culture almost blanket-ignores.

Using the word “abortion” 11 times, compared to, for example, the three times it’s used when Miranda considers it in an infamous episode of Sex and the City, it was as if the show was attempting to desensitize the word.

Not only is there marveling in the aftermath of Scandal’s episode because it’s the first to actually show the procedure, it’s also one of the first times a person with all the resources to raise a child still decides to have the abortion because, quite simply, she doesn’t want to have the baby.

Shonda Rhimes discussed both topics—pop culture’s confusing erasure of abortion from its TV shows and the reason Olivia is at peace with her decision—in a 2014 interview with TIME.

She said that she had planned for Sandra Oh’s character, Dr. Cristina Yang, to have an abortion during the first season of Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, but the “network freaked out a little bit” and she scrapped the idea.

She did, however, revisit the storyline in a 2011 episode, in which Dr. Yang has the abortion for the same reason, though not articulated, Olivia Pope does: She didn’t want to be a mom.

The episode, airing four years ago, was also obviously controversial, but, in her interview, Rhimes seemed nonplussed, calling the omission of such a storyline on television “weird and unrealistic.”

And it’s realism that is the source of the so-called controversy this time. For every progressive writer championing Rhimes for Thursday night’s episode, there are conservatives who are appalled by it.

The scene in which Olivia has the abortion is interspersed with a scene in which her father, quite poetically, delivers a monologue on family: “Family doesn’t complete you. It destroys you.”

More, to heighten the realism, Rhimes doesn’t do the typical TV thing and end the episode there, with the gut-punch and shock of the Olivia’s pregnancy and abortion hitting the audience in one huge wallop.

Nope, she shows Olivia and Fitz arguing for 10 tense, emotional minutes about their relationship, which is broken. Presumably, they break up (the episode was filled with shockers). Then, on a night where hours before she had an abortion, Olivia is seen at her apartment with a tall glass of red wine, gazing at her Christmas tree as “Ave Maria” plays. She’s content, smiling even.

How controversial.