Shonda Rhimes’ Shows Treated Abortion Matter-Of-Factly When Few Shows Did

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By the early 2010s, Shonda Rhimes had created and was running three hit shows on ABC: “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal.” In a time when there were just a handful of TV shows that had featured abortion storylines (and often on “very special episodes”), all three of her shows depicted abortion matter-of-factly, demonstrating how it’s a part of many people’s everyday lives and shouldn’t be so highly stigmatized.

On “Private Practice,” OB-GYN and neonatal surgeon Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) was both an abortion provider and someone who herself had previously gotten an abortion. And twice on Rhimes’ shows, audiences saw lead characters (and in even more of a rarity, both of them women of color) getting an abortion on prime-time television.

In the years since, there has been a marked increase in TV shows that have featured abortion storylines. Yet, even now, these episodes are striking in their clarity and frankness. On “Grey’s” in 2011, surgeon Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) has an abortion, an obvious choice for her as a character. A few years later, in a 2015 episode of “Scandal,” political fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) gets an abortion that goes virtually unmentioned before or after, like a footnote in the show. Moreover, when being a woman who doesn’t want children still feels like a third-rail issue, both storylines are also significant in their depictions of women who unquestionably do not want children — and therefore, are forthright and unwavering in their decision to have an abortion.

As Rhimes recalled in an email to HuffPost, there was never a question her shows would portray abortion.

“I feel strongly that abortion should be portrayed on TV — especially on medical shows like ‘Grey’s’ and ‘Private Practice’ — even though it is in direct conflict with my own personal experience,” said Rhimes, who, in 2017, was named a member of Planned Parenthood’s national board. “Personally, I would never make the choice to have an abortion, but I would fight for any other woman’s ability to make that choice for herself. That is what choice means. My shows portray the entire spectrum of health. Health includes showing women having agency over their own bodies. And I feel strongly about women’s health and I truly believe in choice. More people should.”

Rhimes’ complex road to getting these stories onscreen reflects how thorny and stigmatized abortion was — and still is — to talk about on TV. It also reflects how the political and cultural pendulum has swung back and forth, with the mounting abortion restrictions in numerous U.S. states over the past few years, which have led up to the impending Supreme Court decision that will likely overturn Roe v. Wade.

From left: Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh) in Season 2 of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Craig Sjodin via Getty Images

Abortion first came up on “Grey’s” as early as 2005, in the show’s first season, when Cristina discovers she is pregnant. “At that point, abortion seemed like a reasonable choice for a woman of her age, needs and life experience,” Rhimes said.

At the start of Season 2, Cristina schedules an abortion — and coins the now-iconic phrase “you’re my person” when she lists Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) as her emergency contact. A few episodes later, Cristina collapses during a surgery and finds out she is having a miscarriage due to an ectopic pregnancy. ABC executives had anticipated backlash to Cristina getting an abortion, so as a new showrunner on her very first show, Rhimes thought it was best to change the storyline.

“To be clear, the network did not object,” she said. “They did not tell me that Cristina could not have an abortion. They shared data and told me what they feared the audience reaction would be. And I was a new showrunner. Hell, I was new to TV itself. That episode was, like, the 11th episode of any TV I had ever done in my entire life. I felt insecure about making that controversial choice for my character when I was so new to the game. The network did not change that storyline. I did. I wasn’t ready.”

But six years later, Rhimes had cemented her reputation and track record as a showrunner and was more than ready to put an abortion storyline on “Grey’s.” When Cristina finds out she’s pregnant toward the end of Season 7, there’s no question she plans to have an abortion. In the final minutes of the Season 8 premiere, Cristina, accompanied by her then-husband Owen (Kevin McKidd), is seen at the start of the procedure.

“I want to ask you one more time: Are you absolutely sure this is what you want to do?” the doctor performing the abortion asks. She nods and turns to Owen, who holds her hand as the procedure begins.

“By Season 8, I was sure of myself as a showrunner. I was sure of my place in the TV landscape. I’d told complex stories about women’s health through Addison on both ‘Grey’s’ and ‘Private Practice.’ And I also had spent eight seasons learning more about my character and becoming more sure of who she was and what she wanted,” Rhimes said. “Both Cristina and I had grown. I was sure that abortion was the right choice for Cristina and for the show at that point. After all, we were a medical show and this is a medical procedure.”

Cristina’s storyline is also uncommonly frank in the way it normalizes women who are sure they don’t want children. In the Season 7 finale “Unaccompanied Minor,” Owen, who knows Cristina does not want children, nevertheless tries to talk her out of the abortion. He thinks she could change her mind on having children, an argument women who don’t want children are often told. He then portrays it as a compromise for the sake of their marriage.

Cristina rightly points out having a kid when you don’t want one isn’t a compromise like choosing between pizza and Thai for dinner. (The show further explores these themes later in Season 8, when Owen ignites an explosive fight about the abortion and their marriage.)

In the Season 8 premiere, Meredith, whose domineering and verbally abusive mother resented Meredith for impeding her career, sets Owen straight.

“Do you know what will happen to Cristina? If she has a kid that she doesn’t want? It will almost kill her. Trying to pretend that she loves a kid as much as she loves surgery will almost kill her, and it’ll almost kill your kid,” she tells Owen. “Do you know what it’s like to be raised by someone who didn’t want you? I do. To know you stood in the way of your mother’s career? I do. I was raised by a Cristina. My mother was a Cristina. And as the child she didn’t want, I am telling you: Don’t do this to her. Because she’s kind and she cares, and she won’t make it. The guilt of resenting her own kid will eat her alive.”

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) getting an abortion during Season 5 of ABC's "Scandal."
Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) getting an abortion during Season 5 of ABC’s “Scandal.”

In 2015, “Scandal” was once again frank about a woman having an abortion. In some ways, the show went even further than “Grey’s” did: Olivia Pope’s abortion was remarkable for being utterly unremarkable.

In the holiday episode of Season 5, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” senator and former first lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) leads a filibuster against a government spending package that would strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood. About two-thirds of the way through the episode, Olivia is watching news coverage of the filibuster, when the camera pans around to reveal she’s in a medical waiting room. “Ms. Pope, are you ready to begin?” a health care worker asks. During a montage of “Silent Night,” an overhead light turns on, and Olivia grips the operating table and looks up at the ceiling, as the procedure begins.

The abortion isn’t mentioned again until an offhand reference in the Season 5 finale, when Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) tells Olivia: “I support your choice … not that you needed it.” The abortion is like a blip in the course of Olivia’s day. It does not require an explanation or need to be a matter of discussion, reinforcing the message that this is her choice and hers alone.

As Young and Rhimes recounted to The Hollywood Reporter in 2017, ABC’s Standards and Practices had strong objections to the extremely brief scene of the procedure and wanted to cut it. “I said: ‘Go ahead, alter the scene. We’ll just have a lot of articles about how you altered the scene,’” Rhimes said at the time.

Rhimes recalls now that she had girded herself for a protracted battle with network executives, taking steps to preempt their objections. She anticipated there would be pushback to showing the abortion itself, as well as the fact that “Olivia choosing not to have Fitz’s child was a powerful statement about womanhood and the rejection of a dangerous fairytale of happily ever after that a lot of people did not know how to handle.”

“There were lots of phone calls from the network asking me not to do it,” she said. “I really wanted to show the procedure because I wanted to remove the stigma and fear associated with it. I knew that would be a battle. So we carefully prepared ahead of time. Earlier on the series, we told the story of a woman in the military who had been raped and we showed Olivia holding the military person’s hand as she had an abortion. We got very few notes on that scene and it aired. When it came time to shoot Olivia’s abortion, we shot it and edited it so that it was basically almost shot for shot the exact same scene. That meant that even though the network objected to the scene, they were unable to change it. Because they had basically already aired that very same scene.”

Rhimes remembers that “every aspect of that episode was a battle with the network — from Mellie’s Planned Parenthood funding filibuster to the use of Aretha Franklin’s “Silent Night” as the source music for Olivia’s abortion,” she said. “I have never fought so hard for a ‘Scandal’ episode.”

Shonda Rhimes at ABC's "Scandal" 100th episode celebration in 2017. Rhimes recalls now that when she planned to include an abortion procedure for main character Olivia Pope in the show, she had girded herself for a protracted battle with network executives, taking steps to preempt their objections.
Shonda Rhimes at ABC’s “Scandal” 100th episode celebration in 2017. Rhimes recalls now that when she planned to include an abortion procedure for main character Olivia Pope in the show, she had girded herself for a protracted battle with network executives, taking steps to preempt their objections.

Jason LaVeris via Getty Images

At the time Cristina’s and Olivia’s storylines aired, each was lauded as a huge deal, a groundbreaking moment on TV.

Since then, the landscape of abortion depictions in pop culture has changed considerably. In 2016, there were just 13 abortion-related plotlines on major scripted shows in the U.S., according to the Abortion Onscreen database, compiled by researchers at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. By 2021, there were at least 47 abortion-related plotlines on 42 shows. These can include a character getting an abortion, contemplating one, disclosing a past abortion, or providing support to someone deciding to get an abortion.

However, the group’s research has found that TV still falls short in capturing the full range of abortion stories, whether it’s in the kinds of protagonists (usually white and wealthy), barriers to abortion access, or safe alternatives to the surgical procedure, such as medication abortion, which will become increasingly vital in a post-Roe world.

No matter the circumstance, showing a major TV character getting an abortion still feels like a significant cultural moment. Rhimes believes these episodes on her shows would certainly still be a big deal had they been made now, particularly as abortion remains so highly stigmatized and politicized, and the country heads toward a post-Roe landscape.

“If you had asked me six years ago, I would have had a different answer. But we are moving backwards so fast on women’s rights that I obviously think any episodes on abortion would be a big deal now,” she said. “And let’s be clear: Nothing will normalize abortion on TV as long as a woman’s right to choose is not normalized in real life. We all need to stop waiting for TV characters to do the powerful change-making work that we should be requiring of our real-life elected officials.”