How Shonda Rhimes Helped Flip The Script On Abortion In Television
By Caroline Frentz | April 13, 2022, 8:06 p.m.
If you’re anything like me, you sobbed hysterically when Christina Yang danced it out for the last time on Grey's Anatomy. Seriously, anytime I hear Tegan and Sara’s “Where Does the Good Go,” I still choke back tears.
I viewed Christina’s exit as a defining moment in the series of events that made me drift away from the show, missing her unabashed honesty and persistence. After years of being entirely avoidant of watching Greys every Thursday, an event catalyzed by the death of Derrick and the split of Calzona, I rewatched the episode where Christina decides to have her abortion.
Rhimes initially floated the idea of Christina’s abortion as early as season 1 (2005) but after severe pushback from the network, Rhimes settled on ectopic pregnancy. The episode, “She’s Gone,” surveys options available for parents from the beginning, by opening with Meredith preparing to adopt Zola and Christina deciding she wants an abortion. Christina’s abortion narrative is positioned pretty plainly. Christina realizes she’s late when talking to a patient who couldn’t remember their last period. After Christina suggests thinking of their last craving in relation to a holiday, Green Frosted St. Patrick’s day cookies, to be specific, Christina realizes she doesn’t remember her last period either. She finds out she’s pregnant and, with the magic of TV editing, she’s shown 5 minutes later telling Owen (arguably one of the show's biggest antagonistic forces, he sucks) she’s getting an abortion.
Owen then proceeds to gaslight her, and this part is hard to watch. She persists in asserting that she doesn’t want a baby and “I’m not carrying your hopes and dreams, no.” After asking if the fetus has hands, Christina — who thinks this question sounds just as absurd as I did — responds “Are you going all life-y on me?” Owen compiles (not that this is needed FYI) and Christina has her abortion and goes on with her normal life.
This flips the script on the tired narrative of people feeling so firmly drawn to parenthood or acting as if abortion is not an option at all. This concept shouldn’t be so revolutionary, but the reality is, that TV and mainstream media more generally, avoided showing people upset with unplanned pregnancies, which is more than realistic for many people in many circumstances.
Keep in mind that it was 2011, ABC was one of the most popular networks, and Greys was among its most popular shows. It was still very rare for TV characters to get abortions, or even be presented with them as an option. Those characters that did seek abortion were overwhelmingly white and young. According to the Abortion Onscreen Database, Christina Yang was only the second lead Asian TV character to ever get an abortion on TV.
Four years later, Rhimes returned to the concept of abortion representation, but this time intertwined the personal with the political with Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) getting an abortion as Mellie (Bellamy Young) filibusters in the Senate, trying to stop a bill that would largely defund Planned Parenthood. At the time the episode aired, Rhimes tweeted that the budget items were based on real proposals. Confirming the intentionality behind her fictional arch, which created powerful discourse at the time with the episode reaching over approximately 8 million viewers.
The episode was one of the first to show a Black lead character getting an abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 39% of people getting abortions in the U.S. are white, while 28% are Black, 25% are Hispanic, and 6% are Asian or Pacific Islander. As mentioned, the overwhelming majority represented were white people, and this was in large part because there were few women of color characters on TV to begin with. Kerry Washington was the FIRST Black woman to lead a network drama, keep in mind Scandal did not begin airing until 2012.
Abortion had been a part of American television dating back to some of the earliest days of the medium, however, the depiction in Rhimes’ program is a step forward as it presents abortion as an option while showing that it’s safe and simple medical procedure. Upending traditional narratives, Rhimes shows it as an experience that can connect people to each other, help people achieve their goals, or simply as something the character does and then goes on with their life not thinking about it or mentioning it again. Rhimes' presentations of abortion contain nuance that reflects the multitude of abortion experiences. The fact that these primetime shows even present abortion as an option is in and of itself, revolutionary.
Traditionally, if American TV shows even mention abortion as an option (which is often avoided — see Rachel season 8 of Friends, Rory in Gilmore Girls, Miranda Sex in the City, etc.), they almost always follow what seems to be a set of rules: abortion is most often alluded to and presented as an option, but in the end, female characters almost never resort to it. Today, one in four women in the United States will have an abortion at some point in their lives, but abortion is still highly stigmatized, increasingly politically challenged, and hardly represented accurately in mainstream media.
What started out as a guilty pleasure for my starved teenage soul, came to represent something much bigger. Shonda Rhimes is a part of a few producers striving to make accurate and meaningful portrayals of abortion on television. We’re constantly talking about when and how media does a subpar job of representation, but this was revolutionary and an exception to poor patterns, especially from the longest-running primetime medical drama. #TGIT am I right?