"Law & Order's" anti-choice propaganda

The latest "ripped from the headlines" episode smears the memory of slain late-term abortion provider Dr. Tiller

By Kate Harding

Published October 24, 2009 6:25PM (EDT)

On Friday night's "Law & Order," the abortion debate was represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups: The anti-choicers, who believe fetuses' rights trump women's, and the pseudo-pro-choicers, who are conveniently persuaded to agree with them by the end of the episode.

That sound? It's my head exploding.

Despite the usual "This story is fiction, any resemblance, blah blah blah" disclaimer, the episode was blatantly "ripped from the headlines" about Dr. George Tiller's assassination by an anti-choice activist in May. Our fictional victim, Dr. Benning, is a late-term abortion provider who's already survived one attempt on his life and is shot to death at his church, just as Dr. Tiller was. But in an episode titled "Dignity," Tiller's memory, remaining late-term abortion providers, and women who choose to terminate pregnancies are afforded none. The writers made a weak pretense of "balance" by having two of the series regulars -- Detective Lupo and Assistant D.A. Rubirosa -- espouse pro-choice views, but both are ultimately shamed into thinking they just might be wrong. See how even-handed?

After Lupo's partner, Detective Bernard, goes around asking questions that underscore anti-choice propaganda (e.g., late-term abortion providers are indiscriminate baby killers who aren't too fussy about staying within the law; women choose abortion because the irresponsible men they stupidly spread their legs for won't step up and offer to help), Lupo calls him out, mentioning that perhaps a murder investigation might not be the most appropriate context for arguing with strangers about abortion. And here we learn the moral of this episode: The question of whether it's morally correct to kill a living human being just for doing his job actually cannot be separated from the question of whether it's morally correct to terminate a pregnancy! This message will be delivered repeatedly throughout the episode, via a series of painful blows to the head the "edgy" "dialogue" representing "both sides" of the issue. 

Sample exchange: 

Lupo: If you think forcing an 11-year-old rape victim to give birth is OK, then you and I got nothing to talk about. 

Bernard: You got it backwards, man. The horrible thing is the rape, not the bringing of a life into the world!

Point (according to the writers): Bernard. Seriously. Rape is bad and all, but an 11-year-old child enduring pregnancy and life-threatening labor to give birth to her own sibling is totally cause for celebration.

Lupo, to his credit, is unconvinced -- until Bernard hauls out the big guns. His mother didn't want to have him! He was born two months premature, because she threw herself down a flight of stairs in hopes of ending the pregnancy. There is no mention of what drove his (poor, single) mother to such a desperate act -- no money for an abortion? Was Bernard born before Roe v. Wade? -- or who paid for the medical care such a premature baby requires, or how lucky he was to grow up with no apparent complications, or how the hell his mother got by in the years between her risking her own life because she felt so ill-equipped to raise a child and his becoming a productive, upstanding citizen. He lived, ergo, happy ending!

Lupo hangs his head in shame, imagining a world without Bernard. And the episode's just getting started.

Over the course of the investigation and trial, we will learn the following:

-- As long as a man offers to "get three jobs" to pay for round-the-clock healthcare, there is no reason on earth why a woman in her right mind would consider terminating a pregnancy just because the fetus has been diagnosed with a rare, devastating, potentially fatal illness.

-- The tide has turned! The majority of Americans are pro-life now! This news comes from Executive A.D.A. Cutter (who, incidentally, believes "an unborn child is a life and a soul.") Here are a few points Rubirosa, representing the pro-choice viewpoint in this scene, might have made in response: 1) And yet abortion remains legal in New York, whereas murdering doctors in church is not; 2) That's based on a Gallup poll in which 51 percent of those surveyed self-identified as "pro-life," yet only 22 percent believed abortion should be illegal in all circumstances; 3) What do you expect after 30 years of rhetoric and laws designed, as Frances Kissling put it, "by anti-abortion advocates eager to play up the public distrust of women, teens and poor people"? Here's what Rubirosa actually says in response: "Most Americans don't live in New York. I doubt we'll draw an anti-choice jury here." Because everyone knows that all 8 million people in New York City are godless liberals, LOL! And that is so totally what a committed pro-choice woman would point out!

-- Big boss (and "L&O" moral center) Jack McCoy's "daughter was pro-choice until she taped a sonogram of [his] grandchild-to-be on her refrigerator." Here is one salient point Rubirosa, still representing the pro-choice viewpoint in this scene, might have made in response: That's nice, but about 60 percent of women who have abortions are already mothers, so it turns out even having hard evidence that fetuses sometimes turn into real, live babies doesn't make every pregnancy a wanted one! Here's what Rubirosa actually does in response: Look chagrined.

-- Dr. Benning once (or was it only once?) botched a late-term abortion, causing the woman to go into labor and deliver a live baby. So, as any good abortion provider would, he asked the accidental mother if he should "finish the job" and then stabbed the live baby in the head with a pair of scissors. We learn this from the nurse who attended the homicide, then subsequently left the clinic and went to work in a neo-natal unit at a hospital, symbolically converted to the pro-life cause. No one representing the New York criminal justice system ever thinks to ask this nurse why she didn't, you know, report the murder she witnessed. The important thing, obviously, is that the experience changed her heart. (Also, may we remind you that this story is fiction, any resemblance, blah blah blah? Because this is totally not meant to viciously assault the memory of Dr. Tiller or confirm anti-choicers' deranged fantasies about him or anything. The disclaimer was right there, people!)

-- Speaking of which, when Dr. Hern Carhart Something or Other, one of the only remaining late-term abortion providers in totally fictional America, takes the stand, we get about 30 seconds on the reality of late-term abortion -- only to set up the big question from the killer's lawyer: Be honest, doc, would you perform an illegal abortion? The doctor loses it: "Even if the politicians bow to the hypocrites and fools, it won't stop us!" Then he twirls his mustache, leaps over the witness stand, and runs out of the courtroom screaming, "You'll never stop us! Not until all of your precious babies are dead!" OK, maybe not all of that happened -- my eyes were so sprained from rolling by that point, I couldn't see clearly -- but enough of it did.

-- It's wrong to kill doctors and stuff, but the good news is, if an abortion provider is murdered the day before a woman is scheduled to have an abortion because the fetus was diagnosed with a rare and potentially devastating illness, and you live in a country where there are almost no late-term abortion providers to begin with? That baby will get itself born and be so damned cute everyone will be thrilled and see no point in even thinking about how ill he is, how young he might die, how much care he'll need, how that care will be paid for, how his single mother will cope with being his constant caregiver, how she'll earn an income, or how her choice about her own body and life was made irrelevant by a homicidal zealot. JUST LOOK AT THE FACE! Oh, and if you're a woman whose fetus is diagnosed with a fatal disease and you don't choose to terminate the pregancy? Your baby will live for 21 hours and die painlessly in your arms, after which you can mourn her death and "feel clean." Because that's exactly how it works when you don't choose a dirty abortion: The child never suffers, her life ends peacefully in less than a day, and everyone goes home grieving but changed for the better. It is just that simple.

Except for how none of it is anywhere near as simple as this episode makes it out to be. Late-term abortion providers are not murderers by every possible definition, removing any doubt about the morality of their work. They do not operate outside the law or announce in court that they believe they're above it. Women forced to give birth do not just magically find the will and resources to care for a child -- in many cases, another child -- no matter how sweet a baby's face is. Lifelong pro-choicers are not often hit with the epiphany that golly, fetuses can turn into babies, after which they can no longer be sure where "[their] privacy ends and another being's dignity begins" -- but you can bet that's what happened to Rubirosa, just like McCoy's daughter. Babies born two months prematurely to poor women of color who tried desperately to end their pregnancies do not automatically grow up to be New York's finest, and never you mind the in-between stuff. An 11-year-0ld rape victim's pregnancy is not some unexpected yet joyful miracle. And a woman who gets a terrible fetal diagnosis late in a wanted pregnancy will not clearly be better off, emotionally, physically or otherwise, if she gives birth.

But hey, this story is fiction, after all. The writers had no obligation to balance out the most egregious anti-choice propaganda with anything resembling the reality of people who choose late-term abortion, doctors who endure constant threats on their life to keep offering it, or doctors who are murdered in cold blood because they dared to trust women's personal medical decisions. If you're interested, though: These are their stories.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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