Last night the United States Senate voted to defund Planned Parenthood. Known primarily for being the largest abortion-providing business in the U.S., Planned Parenthood has been in the news a lot as of late—from the abhorrent attack on a clinic by a gunman to the equally disturbing release of videos of Planned Parenthood executives pricing out fetal body parts. With the presidential election on the horizon, you could say that the national debate surrounding Planned Parenthood’s government funding has reached a fever pitch—even to the point of making it into the Christmas episode of the much-followed TV show Scandal.
In Scandal’s winter finale that aired November 19, viewers watch a story that comes out of nowhere and disappears almost just as quickly. After an episode with the backdrop of Planned Parenthood funding in the balance (and contrary to what happened yesterday in real life—in the episode the defunding bill doesn’t pass), the show ends with a scene of the leading lady Olivia Pope having an abortion. As if to try to tie in the Christmas elements of the winter finale, the scene was set to the tune of “Silent Night.”
Some have responded that this episode is a brave coverage of an important issue. But as someone who has had an abortion, I hated it. I found that it came across as a lighthearted portrayal of a serious thing many women experience and like a cheap political tactic.
Abortion is currently part of our culture whether we like it or not, and so it naturally will be portrayed in pop culture and on TV. I’ve watched episodes of other TV series that deal with abortion, such as Parenthood or Grey’s Anatomy. I don’t have a problem with the fact that abortion was portrayed in a mainstream show; it’s how it was portrayed. I find that abortion is often portrayed as an easy, quick, nearly painless decision that allows the woman to press pause on her life, even for a moment, and then resume living as if the abortion never happened. Olivia’s quick procedure seems to imply that getting an abortion is not a big deal. As someone who’s been in that waiting room, I found it to be deeply insensitive to women who have gone through it. Of course, everyone has different experiences, but what was shown on Scandal was vastly different from how abortion is often experienced by women and certainly contrary to my experience.
Since my abortion, I’ve walked a healing journey, but it’s been a long hard road. Sometimes I think I’m doing well, and then something happens; an image, a word, a smell, a trigger. My heart beats faster; I have to breathe deeply just to get through it; I try to hold back the tears. Moments such as this episode.
Like any Christmas-themed TV episode, the visuals included twinkling lights, fir trees, poinsettias, you name it; you could almost smell Christmas through your TV screen. But then we see a plush waiting room, and a woman asks Olivia if she’s “ready to begin.” Scenes jump to other characters, but when the camera lands back on Olivia, she is lying on a table, feet in stirrups. A doctor seated between her knees reaches for a hook-like instrument, motions toward her pelvic area, and turns on a machine with a soft humming sound. The doctor is then seen inserting a clear tube, while Olivia holds on to the rail of the hospital bed, looking pensive. Olivia’s next scene shows her at home, frantically searching for alcohol.
I’ve been in a waiting room like Olivia’s. I waited in a room for almost nine hours with at least forty other women, all waiting for the same procedure. We didn’t get to watch the daily political news on TV while we waited. My waiting room was cold and so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. I’ve been in that procedure room, only the room I was in was not nearly as clean or modern.
I’ve met that doctor. My abortion provider spent the small amount of time he had with me asking demeaning questions such as, “Aren’t you old enough to know how to prevent these?” and, “How many times will I see you in here this year?” I’d never been made to feel so small and so worthless in my entire life.
I’ve laid on that table. I’ve felt that instrument. Watching Olivia just lie there as if she were getting a pap smear, seemingly unaffected by the doctor’s instruments opening her cervix and scraping her uterus. She didn’t appear drugged; she didn’t appear numb. She almost appeared . . . comfortable.
Nothing could be further from how I experienced it. I wasn’t comfortable. I experienced tremendous pain. I closed my eyes tightly and gripped the hand of the nurse standing next to me. As I watched the scene on Scandal, a wave of sadness overcame me when I realized that Olivia didn’t even have a nurse there to hold her hand . . . she was stuck holding the rail of the bed.
I’ve heard that machine. I know how it sounds and what it does. It wasn’t a soft, calming hum though. It was a loud vacuum sound accompanied by the noise of flesh being sucked out . . . my flesh . . . my own child . . . out of my womb.
And as for her dash for alcohol, I’ve drank that drink. . . . I’ve tried to numb the pain and the memory; I’ve tried to forget the past even if just for a moment or two.
With this episode of Scandal, my heart broke not only because of the abortion experienced by a character I’ve come to like but also because of the soundtrack. To play a beautiful Christmas hymn about easily the most famously celebrated birth in history during a scene that terminates a pregnancy is distasteful. “Silent Night, holy night / All is calm, all is bright / Round yon virgin Mother and Child / Holy infant so tender and mild / Sleep in heavenly peace.” I’m sure the playing of this song during this scene was intentional, politically driven, and meant to stir things up. But I wonder if the writers and producers of this show realize how incredibly damaging images such as these can be to post-abortive women, causing reactions such as flashbacks, nightmares, or increased anxiety.
Showing a main actress having an abortion like it’s no big deal sends a big message. It sends a message that that’s how people should view it—that it should be viewed as peaceful, even, and that the feelings of post-abortive women such as me, who view it as traumatic, are somehow invalid. I think it’s fair to say that no matter where one stands on the political spectrum about abortion, it’s inaccurate to say that it’s no big deal.
After watching episodes such as this, are we viewers able to turn off the TV afterward without being stirred, without being upset, without being affected? I doubt it. I think the storywriters were going for exactly this. But I doubt they realize how much, for viewers such as me, it hurts.