Last week, one of Grey's Anatomy's main characters, workaholic surgeon Cristina Yang, had an abortion. This is a fairly rare occurrence on prime-time television (not that it never happens: Friday Night Light went there fairly recently), and so we asked Grey's creator and showrunner Shonda Rhimes to talk with us about it. Rhimes, who is currently in production on three TV shows (Grey's, Private Practice, and the mid-season drama Scandal), and, in the spirit of full disclosure told us she's on the board of Planned Parenthood, Los Angeles, spoke with us about the episode, the taboo, and the lack of difficulty in getting this story line cleared.
So having a main character actually have an abortion is a pretty rare thing on TV.
You know, it’s interesting because it’s true, I feel like it doesn’t happen often and they don’t talk about it and it feels ridiculous to me because it is a legal choice in our country. But what I was trying to do is, I wanted to portray that character honestly. I really wanted Cristina Yang to stay true to who Cristina Yang is. And I feel like that is a character who has never really wanted to be a mother.
It's clear to anyone who watches the show that this was very in character. It almost would have been particularly odd to go another way.
Exactly. For her to suddenly — or, you know, there was a way to do it. We argued about it all summer long, actually. There was a way to do it, but the portrayal of motherhood that would have followed would have been so painful to watch that I don’t think any of us wanted to sustain. We couldn’t sustain it. The idea that this woman would have a child that she did not want and resented for ruining her career and resented Owen for making her have [it] would have been hideous.
Did you have to run this story line up the flagpole? Talk to network executives?
I didn’t ask anybody.
Yeah. Part of the luxury of my job is that I don’t necessarily have to ask anybody anymore. I didn’t ask anybody, we just did it.
And then do you get notes on it, or are you past that point, too?
I’m sure people have thoughts about these things. I’m fortunate to be in a position in which those thoughts about these things don’t have to play out in my hands. I already knew what we were going to do and we did it. Nobody asked me about this.
That seems surprising, right? I’m surprised by that.
You know what, though? It’s interesting, I feel like I work with a lot of women. There’s a lot of strong, smart women, and everybody reads the scripts. I think everybody understands the realities. We all know that these things aren’t necessarily done, but I didn’t want to do an episode [puts on ponderous voice] “The Grey’s Anatomy: Abortion Episode.” Like, that wasn’t the point. I think for me the point is it’s a painful choice that a lot of women have made in their lives and we just wanted to portray it honestly and with a really good conversation that I think started in the season finale and carries over in this episode. And see what happens after. I try to discuss this a lot. Addison on Private Practice is an abortion provider. There are only a certain number of abortion providers in the country and she is one of them. And she is a character who in the past had had an abortion and we talk about this issue a lot. And I felt like it made sense; I wouldn’t be doing it randomly, it made sense for the character of Cristina Yang. And the network, I think, stays behind that, stays behind my choice to do that, anyway, for the character.
Have you had any reaction to it since the episode aired? I know you don’t pay much attention to reactions
I was gonna say, if I went online or read articles or actively, you know, read my tweets as opposed to just checking for a couple of questions and answering them, I probably would have seen a lot of reactions. But it seems fairly quiet around my house.
Cristina has had an ectopic pregnancy way back in the beginning of Grey's. Meredith has had a miscarriage. Have you ever not had an abortion on the show for reasons that weren't organic to the characters?
You know, in the first season of Grey’s when Cristina Yang got pregnant, my intention — having never worked in television before — was that she was gonna have an abortion. Like, that was my intention: Cristina finds out she’s pregnant, she’s gonna have an abortion. We had it all laid out. I knew what was gonna happen and I had some very strong conversations with Broadcast Standard and Practices back then about the topic. And nobody told me I couldn’t do it, everyone just had very strong opinions about it. And then I went into the writers’ room and somebody pitched what would then be the medical reality of Cristina having the ectopic pregnancy and collapsing in the O.R. and that’s how Burke finds out that she’s pregnant. That was so much more interesting to me, story-wise, that I let go of what we were going to do and did that. But I do remember it was going to be a battle. I was perfectly willing to face the battle, maybe naively so, but it was gonna be a conversation. A big one.
So the thing that’s different between now and then is that now people don’t fight you because you’re more powerful?
Yeah. I mean, yeah, in a lot of ways, I think that that’s one of the differences. I think that I’ve earned my place in my job versus the very first season of my very first television show. Now we’re in the eighth season of my third television show, it’s not as big of a deal for me to just stand up and say, “This is what we’re going to do and I’m not discussing it.”
Do you feel like this is advocacy?
I don’t think it’s about the agenda. I think it’s important [that] I try to do what’s right for the characters. In Private Practice, we had a character, Naomi, [who] was staunchly anti-choice, staunchly pro-life. Viciously so, in a lot of ways, in a way that I thought was really kind of beautiful and religious and different from the way I think at all. What I also thought was that her point of view is valid, has merits, and should be portrayed and portrayed strongly. I feel you have to portray all different sides of who people can be if you’re going to create a world. And I feel like Cristina’s choice to give up a child, to have an abortion, is her choice. Meredith would never have had an abortion, I don’t think — I’m not saying she’s not pro-choice — but she would never have had one for herself because she wants a child so badly. I like that we’re portraying all of the different sides. It’s not a political agenda as much as me trying to make the world as full and round and as complete with peoples’ opinions as possible.