The XX Factor

Scandal’s Take on Abortion and the Planned Parenthood Fight Was Perfect

Mellie needs to pee.


Mellie Grant took a few cues from Wendy Davis in Thursday night’s episode of Scandal. With bare feet, a full bladder, and a hefty binder full of words, the former first lady and current senator from Virginia staged a 16-hour filibuster over reproductive rights. But the best part of the episode came near the end, when (spoiler alert!) one of TV’s most beloved characters gave us an honest look at a positive experience with abortion.

In a delightful switcheroo on reality, Grant (played by Bellamy Young) threatened to shut down the government over her stand to keep Planned Parenthood funding out of the discretionary column, where it could be easily cut. The Senate leaders who made up Grant’s opposition are old white men cackling in Southern accents over glasses of bourbon, telling Grant they’ll pass the damn funding bill whether she likes it or not. 

The episode is filled with not-so-subtle one-liners in support of Planned Parenthood. When she first takes the Senate floor, Grant tells her peers that she can’t vote for the funding bill and go home for the holidays “at the expense of women’s health.” Later, she calls Planned Parenthood’s services “basic human rights.”

Television news pundits don’t get off so easy. On Scandal’s news networks, they speculate on how long Grant can go without peeing, a length of time they say depends on her fluid intake, bladder capacity, and urethral elasticity that may have degraded after the birth of her children. (It all echoes the icky intimacy that accompanies so many debates on women’s health issues, where men ponder the basic functioning of women’s bodies without using the word vagina, if possible.)

Grant dodged the kind of urinary catastrophe that’s fascinated political reporters for generations. (During Davis’$2 13-hour filibuster, she didn’t take one bathroom break or even lean on anything.) On Scandal, Olivia Pope Olivia Pope’d the situation, sending the vice president in to ask a protracted question so Grant could run out to pee. VP Ross tells the Senate she wants to talk about gonorrhea, playing on the same gross-out tactics one brave Portland woman used when she broke up a Planned Parenthood by yelling “yeast infections!”

The Planned Parenthood fight offered an apt metaphor for Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn), one of the most insufferable, whiny, controlling men on television, who has upped his domination over Pope in recent episodes. He’s kept her from making her own life decisions since she got to the White House, just like anti-choice politicians purport to know what’s best for pregnant women. Mellie Grant fought the paternalistic nutjobs in the Senate; Pope finally released herself from Fitz’s overbearing drama and unrealistic demands.

But first, she got an abortion.

Kerry Washington played out Pope’s self-determination with sensitivity and grace; the closing shot of Pope comfortable and smiling for the first time in a long time says everything about why abortion access is such a crucial part of women’s health. Kudos to showrunner Shonda Rhimes for giving viewers an affirming depiction of a woman who gets an abortion because it’s the right decision for her in that moment, without any fanfare or hackneyed drama.