41 Years After Roe V. Wade: Shonda Rhimes Says More Conversations About Abortions Need To Happen On TV
January 22nd marked the 41st anniversary of the Supreme Court deciding the landmark case that was Roe vs. Wade, which allowed abortions to become legal in the United States. To mark the occasion, one of our favorite producers, Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice), who serves on the board for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, believes this is the year where the conversation about abortions needs to happen more on television. The television show Maude was the first show to feature a character who decided to have an abortion prior to the Supreme Court legalizing the procedure back in 1972. Laura Stampler of Time Magazine noted that since then, the number of times the discussion of abortion has been brought up on television could probably be counted on one hand.
Despite its legal standing, in recent times, abortions have become restricted in several states and have been virtually erased as a topic from television shows. Although it is not as present in media, the Guttmacher Institute released a report on the reality that television audience members face with pregnancies. Guttmacher reported that “more than half of pregnancies in the United States are unintended and some 22% of all pregnancies (not including miscarriages) end in termination.”
With this information, Rhimes claims it is time to shed light on the reality of what goes on without promoting it, but having a healthy discussion about it. Television creates an open dialogue for societal issues to be discussed, and this is one issue that is not being discussed enough. She said when she started Grey’s Anatomy in 2005, it wasn’t so easy to have a conversation about such a topic, as some at ABC weren’t sure they should allow talk about abortions. At the time, Rhimes wrote a storyline for Dr. Yang (played by Sandra Oh) that would include her experiencing an abortion after she unexpectedly got pregnant, but she changed her mind:
“Now, it’s a first season show, it was nine years earlier or whatever, and the network freaked out a little bit. No one told me I couldn’t do it, but they could not point to an instance in which anyone had. And I sort of panicked a little bit in that moment and thought maybe this isn’t the right time for the character, we barely know her… I didn’t want it to become like what the show was about.”
Years later, 2011 to be exact, she would allow Dr. Yang to go through this harrowing experience, married and pregnant, but not wanting to be a mom:
“I felt like we had earned all of the credentials with the audience. The audience knew these characters. The audience loved these characters. The audience stood by these characters. You know, we were in a very different place even politically, socially. Nobody blinked at the studio or the network when I wrote the storyline this time. Nobody even brought it up except to say, that was a really well written episode.”
As a producer, Rhimes says that she is more interested in creating shows that are generous when it comes to depicting the reality of life. That reality includes women using birth control, adopting or deciding on whether or not they want to abort a child. She doesn’t understand why other shows don’t:
“Most accidentally impregnated characters, even young women who have only lived in a post-Roe v. Wade world, don’t bring up or even briefly consider the option of an abortion. It is as if it doesn’t even exist. And [that's] weird and not realistic…let’s be serious about what’s really going on.”
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