Abortion on ‘House of Cards,’ and Sexual Assault at Patrick Henry College





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On this episode of Reality Cast, I’ll be reviewing the abortion storyline in House of Cards and examining if anti-choice rhetoric is getting even more outrageous these days. Also, Kiera Feldman will be on to talk about the problem of sexual assault at Patrick Henry College.

Rewire has a new podcast, a monthly legal podcast called RJ Court Watch. Our regular legal correspondents Jessica Mason Pieklo and Imani Gandy will discuss the legal ins and outs of various reproductive justice issues. So check it out, under our audio tab at Rewire, which also houses this podcast!


Abortion is nearly always a fraught topic for television. Not only is it inherently a complex topic that often resists the tendency of TV shows to oversimplify things, but there’s also a lot of pressure from conservatives in the audience on TV writers and networks to make the process seem more fraught and shameful than it is for most women. In some, more egregious cases, the choice to abort is portrayed as dangerous or shameful. Even when it’s not and is portrayed more positively, it’s still often shown as more fraught than it is or women who have abortions are shown as more conflicted than they often are in real life. But there have been some good signs in recent years. Both Friday Night Lights and Grey’s Anatomy had refreshingly realistic abortion storylines featuring characters who reacted as research shows us most women do, with relief and certainty that they made the right call. And now we have an even more intriguing abortion storyline, on the Netflix original series House of Cards. More intriguing because the woman in question is Claire Underwood, and because she’s the vice president’s wife, she’s basically asked to pretend to be ashamed of her choice. And she refuses to do it. The topic of shame is taken head on, and the show strongly suggests that shame is not something women should feel if they have abortions.

But let’s backtrack a little to how it comes up. On the show, Claire is being interviewed as the VP’s wife and the journalist, Ashleigh Banfield, doggedly insists on asking her over and over why she doesn’t have kids. Finally, Claire cracks in frustration and admits outright that she has had an abortion. Obviously, this constitutes a three-alarm political emergency and so she’s rushed off to discuss what this means with her communications advisor.

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While Claire Underwood is often depicted as a scheming, often immoral person, she comes across as incredibly sympathetic here. She is not in the wrong, but people who would judge her definitely are. Wanting to live her life as she sees fit and not feeling like having a baby now or ever is a perfectly legitimate reason to have an abortion, but she and her advisor know that won’t fly with the public. It really drives home how much the abortion debate is about micromanaging women’s lives and imposing restrictive gender expectations on them, especially the expectation that they be chaste or the expectation that all women should be eager to have kids, especially with a husband. That Claire doesn’t want to, believe me, makes perfect sense in the context of the show. But that people would pass unfair judgment on her is a reality. So she makes a decision.

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Obviously, she’s lying. And yet she is also kind of not lying. She was, in fact, raped in college. It just didn’t result in a pregnancy. What I loved about this, however, is that it her choice to fudge the truth comes across as entirely sympathetic. It allows her to kickstart an anti-rape campaign and get her assailant put in jail. More importantly, it shows how much attitudes about abortion are wrapped up in attitudes about female sexuality. By claiming her abortion was the result of rape and not her own choice to have sex, Claire evades a lot of negative judgment. Which makes it clear that the issue here is controlling her choices and her sexuality. And she largely avoids getting much negative judgment until a rumor gets out accusing her of adultery. Again, the rumor is kind of true and kind of not; it is true that she slept with a man who isn’t her husband, but she did it with his full understanding and permission. But those kinds of complexities aren’t translatable to the larger public, and suddenly the public judgment starts coming down hard on her head. So much so that she becomes a target for terrorism. A shadowy figure shows up at their home, and the Secret Service explains to Claire and her husband what happened.

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Again, anti-choice attitudes, especially anti-choice terrorism, is firmly characterized as a matter of trying to control and punish women, and has nothing to do with “life.” In real life, of course, it’s rarely as simple as an anti-choice terrorist being angry about his wife terminating a pregnancy. But it’s also true that people who are drawn to anti-choice extremism, particularly terrorism, are frequently people who have serious control issues and a sense that attacking women’s rights will give them the sense of control they crave. The threats lead to the Secret Service severely restricting Claire’s movements, making it much harder for her to campaign for her anti-rape legislation. The symbolism of that is evocative and unmistakable, a neat way of showing how the anti-choice movement, with its negative attitudes towards female autonomy and female sexuality, ends up, even without meaning to, aiding and abetting those who would make it harder to prevent sexual assault and prosecute those who commit it. Clearly the writers were paying close attention to Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment and were looking for a way to show how various anti-feminist forces work in collision to suppress women’s rights and make it easier to commit violence against women. That level of interrogation of the discourse about abortion puts this show’s take on the issue head and shoulders above every other show I’ve ever seen tackle the issue. Let’s hope there are more TV shows in the future that are willing to treat abortion, and the debate about abortion, with as much insight and honesty as House of Cards did.


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Lately, I can’t help but think that conservatives, who were already completely out of their minds on the issue of reproductive rights, are just getting weirder and more outrageous by the minute. I have my weekly “wisdom of wingnuts” item on this podcast, but it really fails to convey the way that things are just getting meaner, weirder, and more hectic in right-wing land when it comes to attacking abortion rights. For one thing, conservatives have always been willing to lie when it came to the issue of reproductive rights, but the dishonesty is getting more egregious and obvious lately, or that’s how it seems to me. For instance, Dr. Byron Calhoun of West Virginia, as was reported here at Rewire, was recently caught in a whopper. Public News Service has the audio report.

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What struck me as interesting about this was how flagrant Calhoun was being about this. He could have been a little bit more subtle and therefore believable, saying something like “monthly” or “periodically.” Pro-choicers probably still would have investigated his claims, since we know for a fact that abortion is generally pretty safe, but there is always an outside possibility that there’s a rogue abortion provider in the area who is flouting general safety regulations that apply to all clinics, regardless of the services they provide. Since we oppose that—Rewire has frequently outed shady providers, in fact—then that would be of interest to us. But the claim that he’s seeing weekly E.R. visits is so beyond the realm of possibility that it pretty much made it inevitable that he’d be outed and quickly for his dishonesty. But he’s not the only anti-choicer making claims lately that are so ridiculous they are pretty obviously lies. You also have Pat Robertson.

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Most of the lies he tells during this segment, including the lie that Planned Parenthood was trying to be genocidal and the lie that they primarily do abortion when, in reality, it’s a small part of what they do, are things that we expect right wingers to believe. The first because the right has always been at the forefront of claiming, incorrectly, that poor people are wrong or irresponsible when they have children, and so it’s easy for conservatives to project that point of view onto liberals. Second, because they just have crazy fantasies about how some people are having sex all the time and therefore must be having like weekly abortions, something I’ll return to. But the lie that individual chapters are sitting on a billion dollars each? That’s so ridiculous as to be transparent. How would a Planned Parenthood get a billion dollars? From charging $10,000 a piece for each condom and $100,000 for each abortion? Conservatives hate Planned Parenthood because it makes reproductive health care affordable, and they want to convince their followers than this nonprofit is rolling in cash. Those two beliefs contradict each other, and this is just a blatantly obvious example of how.

Then there’s just the escalation of extremism, usually based on lies. Right wingers have been trying to stoke hatred of the Girl Scouts for years now, based on a bunch of straight-up lies. Frankly, I think they oppose the organization because it teaches girls skills and self-esteem, and, with increasing misogyny in the Christian right, those things are offensive. So they make up a bunch of lies accusing the organization of being pro-abortion when it has no stance on the issue. And the result of all these lies was predictable.

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He also called her a “hooker,” because, let’s be blunt, all this right wing propaganda against the Girl Scouts is sex panic misogyny. This is literally the most unsurprising thing ever. You have a relentless stream of right-wing propaganda against Girl Scouts and eventually some true believer is going to crack.

And of course, you have the fact that many on the right have utterly abandoned the pretense that their objections to reproductive rights stem from a love of embryonic life. Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood released a video where she dared suggest that women need access to safe abortion, which is a fact and not an opinion, and Rush Limbaugh went on an anti-sex meltdown in response.

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The claim on the right used to be that they weren’t anti-sex, just anti-abortion. Now, however, that’s been thrown out the window in favor of a new narrative that holds that if women have sex at all, then they are to be dismissed as nothing but, uh, “walking vaginas.” That the mere acknowledgement that a woman needs access to contraception is somehow demeaning to her, which can only be true if you think having sex in and of itself is demeaning to women. I know the claim is that this line is not anti-sex, but that doesn’t make sense. How is it demeaning to women to acknowledge they have sex, unless you believe sex is dirty?


And now for the Wisdom of Wingnuts, Disney demons edition. The Christian right is yet again calling for a boycott of Disney, this time because a show on the Disney channel shows a same-sex couple as normal. On his radio show, Gordon Klingenschmitt got a little excited about it, suggesting that watching a same-sex couple be normal on a sitcom could open your children up to demonic possession.

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Boy, the Christian right spends a lot of time convincing their followers to end their relationships to the outside world. You can’t even join the Girl Scouts or watch Disney anymore. You’d start to think that they’re kind of like a cult that is worried about outside influence drawing their people back to reality, wouldn’t you?