Devaluing Life on “Scandal”

For an episode discussing a subject as sensitive as abortion, "Scandal" was distressingly nuance-free (

For an episode discussing a subject as sensitive as abortion, “Scandal” was distressingly nuance-free (

Patients expect to be treated for their ailments without question on Grey’s Anatomy. They don’t even realize how lucky they are, because on Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, which airs immediately afterward, those same patients would have to justify their lives before anyone saved them. If anyone decided to help at all.

This raises questions for viewers: How much is a life worth? Is a life worth anything on its own? And do viewers relate more closely with Meredith Grey’s Hippocratic Oath or Olivia Pope’s calculating fixer credo, which salvages only her paying clients?

These are especially pertinent questions after the most recent episode of Scandal. We watched as Olivia’s colleagues and former secret intelligence agency B-613 operatives Huck and Quinn, tortured Russell, Olivia’s most recent flame and another B-613 operative. I had to turn away as Quinn began removing fingernails and applying a drill to Russell’s flesh.

Amidst this sea of horrors, there was one scene I found even more troubling. Ensign Amy Martin, a raped sailor, confessed that she was pregnant and asked Olivia to help her arrange an abortion. Abortions, of course, aren’t particularly plentiful on TV. For while Hollywood may be overwhelmingly pro-choice, abortions don’t make for upbeat storylines. That said, it was Olivia’s response that was notable and unexpected.

Olivia didn’t miss a beat before agreeing to help the sailor, who would need a cover story to leave her ship and undergo the abortion. However, Olivia urged the raped sailor to delay the abortion. Why? Because, Olivia explained, if the pregnancy were at least eight weeks along, they could do DNA testing and prove the identity of Ensign Martin’s assailant.

It may be true that such testing is scientifically feasible, but Olivia’s strategic and unfeeling reply felt bruisingly callous. She didn’t pause to consider whether there might be another way to substantiate the identity of the sailor’s rapist (as they later do). Nor did Olivia reflect, even momentarily, on the tragedy underway. Even if we empathize with a woman’s desire not to carry her rapist’s child—as a majority of Americans do—there can, and should, still be a sober recognition that abortion is typically a choice of last resort and one that most women make in sadness.

Scandal’s writers may not have noticed, because presumably they all believe the underlying pro-choice philosophy Olivia voices. However, this mother noticed: Olivia clearly believes she is managing the fall-out from one life, not two.

This is problematic for two related reasons. First, a woman is more likely to bond with the new life she carries each additional week it grows, making any parting (whether a miscarriage or abortion) that much harder on the would-be mother. What sense does it make to compound a rape victim’s trauma in this way?

Second, Olivia behaves as if the pregnancy is simply a matter of expanding goo. There is no acknowledgement that even if the embryo is not yet a fully formed human, it will be in the near term. Whether we look to religion or science, guidance exists for those who seek it.

It’s a shame Olivia isn’t more curious, because if there’s anyone who should empathize with the vulnerable spark-of-life in this situation, it is she. Olivia is the daughter of B-613’s ruthless commander, who has spent much of his adult life viewing her as a problem to manage, rather than a fully formed person worthy of respect in her own right. Doesn’t that get old?

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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