Like other dedicated Shondaland viewers at the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), I was excited to see last week’s episode of Scandal tackle the very important topic of rape and abortion in the military. The episode, titled, “A Few Good Women” continues the show's trend of exploring the complex relationships and power dynamics at play with regard to race, sexuality and systemic lack of power.
Television can be frustrating because there is a tendency for people and problems to be oversimplified. Scandal is not always an exception to this, but we’ve seen time and time again compelling ways that current problems in American life are lifted up, carefully critiqued and addressed by the end of the episode. The abortion in last week’s episode is a great example of this. I cheered to see abortion portrayed on television the way it so often is in real life: as a decision that Ensign Amy Martin is sure about and knows she wants. As a result of her sexual assault, Martin becomes pregnant and knows she wants her abortion as soon as possible. She’s able to get her abortion, supported by Olivia, who’s holding her hand in the groundbreaking scene. I can’t overstate the importance of a network TV scene featuring people supporting each other through an abortion, and the difficult life experiences before and after. Collectively, we’ve been starved of that vision of a very common procedure, and that allows the stigma around abortion to flourish. Media representations can both reflect and shape the culture around it, and our cultural products have long been silent, or disparaging of our reproductive options.
What Scandal left out is how Ensign Martin might pay for that abortion. NNAF knows all too well the insidious effects of the Hyde Amendment, the ban on federal funds to pay for abortions. This is the real scandal. Often, those most in need and least able to pay face a second violation when they find out they cannot use their federal benefits to pay for one medical procedure they need immediately: an abortion. The military is seeing increased numbers of women signing up to serve their country, with Black women enlisting at higher numbers and making up 1/3 of all women in the military. As Scandal showed, some soldiers do face sexual assault and unwanted pregnancy in the line of duty. The Hyde Amendment bars soldiers and their families from using their medical benefits, the very ones they put their lives on the line for, to pay for an abortion. Soldiers are then saddled with the very time-sensitive task of trying to come up with hundreds of dollars to pay for an abortion they need. It’s not unusual for soldiers to have to work through these issues while deployed abroad, or dealing with the aftermath of an assault. This delay can make healthcare even more costly and harder to access. Whatever reasons a soldier or their family has for needing an abortion, an unjust policy shouldn’t stand in their way.
The Hyde Amendment doesn’t just target those qualified for military benefits; Peace Corps members, those qualified for Indian Health Services, federal prisoners, and those qualified for Medicaid benefits also have to pay out of pocket for their abortions. It’s no coincidence that these groups are made up disproportionately of people of color, and are also thought to have higher rates of sexual assault and less access to contraception, healthcare services, and disposable income as a whole. Our federal budget makes explicit our priorities. The Hyde Amendment is not settled law, and every year when it is passed again as a budget rider, our government says these groups of people, and their very real and very common need for reproductive healthcare, don’t matter. They’re expendable bargaining chips in the process, and we condemn that. It’s past time that we make explicit our support for the rights of these very same groups of people by ending Hyde for good.
So while we applaud Oliva Pope’s compassionate and empathetic care and tenacity in getting Ensign Martin the care she needed and deserved, we wait anxiously for this support to not be relegated to the realm of fiction, and to be available to all people needing abortions, regardless of their income or employer. We don’t all have Pope & Associates to help us pay and access healthcare.
(Yamani Hernandez, is the Executive Director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a Ford Foundation Public Voices Fellow and a writer for Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together. Learn more more about repealing Hyde by visiting All* Above All, a coalition of reproductive justice groups, calling for the end of the Hyde Amendment.)