Last Thursday, Scandal’s Planned Parenthood episode showed Olivia Pope receiving a vacuum aspiration abortion. But last Friday, Marvel’s new Netflix series Jessica Jones depicted something even rarer: a medical abortion, after a rape, behind bars.
A week later, any conversation around abortion is inevitably refracted through the lens of Friday’s tragic shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, which left three dead. Details of that shooting, including the suspect’s motive, are still emerging. But in the wake of a string of arsons at Planned Parenthood clinics and a renewed wave of extreme rhetoric following this summer’s doctored undercover videos, it is safe to say that honest media representation of abortion has rarely been more timely, or more poignant.
One abortion on ABC’s Scandal was already enough to send extreme pro-lifers into a tizzy last weekend, especially because Olivia’s procedure was set to the soundtrack of “Silent Night.” But two abortions on television in the same week is practically unheard of. That’s not just a coincidence; it’s an unprecedented sign that female showrunners like Shonda Rhimes and Jessica Jones boss Melissa Rosenberg aren’t going to shy away from showing a common medical procedure for women—controversy, critics, and extremists be damned.
For those who didn’t binge on Jessica Jones over the holiday, here’s a primer for context: Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is a superhero who gave up her cape to be a private investigator after a period of being mind-controlled and repeatedly raped by a villainous Brit named Kilgrave (David Tennant). At the start of the series, Jessica rescues another of Kilgrave’s victims, Hope (Erin Moriarty), who then goes to jail for the murder of her parents, which she committed while still under Kilgrave’s control. It’s there that Hope realizes that she is pregnant, and decides she wants an abortion—a first in Marvel history.
“I can feel it growing like a tumor,” she tells Jessica, who suggests notifying the on-call doctor. But Hope is already one step ahead of her: “Two months. That’s the soonest the doctor can get to me.”
For her, that’s not soon enough. In the previous episode, she was so determined to terminate the pregnancy that she hired another inmate to beat her up with the intention of causing a miscarriage. When Jessica checks in on her after the beating, Hope explains her need to have an abortion in the context of rape-related PTSD. She clarifies that she does want to have a child in the future, just not like this.
“Every second it’s there, I get raped again and again,” she says.
Her choice to have an abortion in this situation is not uncommon. A 1996 study found that 50 percent of women who became pregnant as the result of rape chose abortion. When miscarriage and adoption were factored in, less than one in three women opted to keep the child.
What is uncommon is for a predicament like hers to be shown on television. An honest look at the challenges incarcerated women face in accessing the procedure? That’s subject matter so criminally underexplored that it apparently took a superhero to get it on the small screen.
Eventually, Jessica agrees to help Hope end her pregnancy by smuggling in an abortion pill. Dangerous? Potentially. Illegal? Yes. Unrealistic? Not necessarily.
Incarcerated women can legally receive abortions, but barriers to access sometimes lead them to consider desperate measures. A 2009 survey of health professionals who provided care in correctional facilities painted a spotty picture of abortion access behind bars. Only 68 percent of respondents said that inmates in their facilities could receive elective abortions, and only 54 percent of those respondents reported that they help inmates arrange appointments.
Providers in red states also indicated more limited access than those in blue states—a reflection of the fact that standards for reproductive healthcare in prison are largely decided at the local level.
In New York, where Jessica Jones is set, a 2008 NCLU investigation found that less than half of the state’s counties had policies on abortion access for women in prison, and less than a quarter provided “unimpeded access” to the procedure. In this context, Hope’s conclusion that she has no choice but to seek outside help is, sadly, all too believable.
With the help of a corrupt lawyer, Jessica gets ahold of a drug for Hope and returns to the prison.
“Once you take this, there’s no do-overs,” she warns her, placing the bright yellow pill in the palm of her hand. “You’ll be sick as shit for about eight hours so I need you to be 1,000 percent sure.” Without hesitation, Hope gulps it down and starts repeating, “Please work fast. Please work fast.”
“That’s… sure,” Jessica observes.
Most abortion storylines on television, as Kevin Fallon noted last week, present the procedure as a decision that requires “grand, emotional handwringing.” Not Scandal, and certainly not Jessica Jones. For some women, abortion is indeed a difficult decision. For others, like Olivia Pope and Hope, it is more straightforward. Television has focused so predominantly on examples of the former that any instances of the latter still seem shocking. But they shouldn’t be. A longitudinal study of 667 women who had received an abortion published in July found that 95 percent did not regret their procedure “at all time points over three years.” In fact, it’s common for women to feel relieved and happy after an abortion.
Hope chanting “please work fast” after taking the pill instead of, say, crying is not some sign that she’s so hardened by her circumstances that she doesn’t feel the emotional pain that abortion opponents insist must stem from the procedure. Many women, especially women with a rape-related pregnancy, actively want an abortion without second-guessing or regrets.
Television has just rarely acknowledged that truth. Nor has it gone anywhere near recognizing the overall frequency of abortion.
Nearly three out of ten 10 women in the United States will have an abortion by age 45. The ratio of female television characters under 45 who have had abortions probably has a denominator in the hundreds of thousands. The fact that television shows so rarely depict abortion—and that, when they do, it’s usually presented as an agonizing decision—isn’t just an error of omission; it’s a complete break from reality. As Shonda Rhimes told Vulture in 2011, the rarity of abortion storylines is “ridiculous.”But with women like Rhimes and Rosenberg in charge of high-profile shows, perhaps that’s about to change. In a 2011 interview, Rosenberg called herself “extremely pro-choice [and] very outspoken about it, very much a feminist.”
It shouldn’t take a pro-choice showrunner to acknowledge the existence of abortion and depict it fairly. But as the reaction to last week’s Scandal episode proved, portraying abortion on television is still a heroic effort. Jessica Jones’s days as a uniform-wearing superhero might be behind her but, fortunately, she’ll take that job.