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October 29, 2009

Law & Order Takes On TV's "Most Persistent Taboo"

Surprisingly sensitive portrayals of pro-life views . . . on network TV?

You may be surprised at what many prominent women’s groups are protesting as “anti-choice propaganda.” It’s not a new book, or a graphic display; it’s a recent episode of NBC’s Friday night staple, Law & Order.


The show, which often rips its story straight from the headlines, recently aired an episode clearly based on the murder of late-term abortion provider George Tiller. The episode, titled “Dignity,” offered sensitive portrayals of pro-life views that result in two characters who originally take the pro-choice side to reconsider their views.

For one character, a police detective, it is the revelation that his partner was born two months prematurely after his mother tried to end the pregnancy that forces him to think differently about the subject. For another, ADA Connie Rubarosa, it is the testimony of a nurse who witnessed and assisted in late-term abortions and ultimately left the practice. After hearing the nurse’s graphic description of a botched abortion that resulted in a post-delivery murder of the newborn child, she says, “I grew up thinking Roe v. Wade was gospel and that a woman’s privacy was inviolate. But after hearing that woman on the stand, talking about her baby dying in her arms, I don’t know. I don’t know where my privacy ends and another being’s dignity begins. On one side they’re talking about abortion never, and on the other side it’s abortion whenever, meanwhile the rest of us are just stuck in the middle trying to figure it out.”

After her partner asks her to “do her job” and “put the bad guys in jail,” Rubarosa's response is quite stunning, considering her point-of-view just hours before:

“I’m glad that it’s so clear cut for you, Hank," she says. "Unfortunately, I can’t leave my soul in the umbrella stand when I come into work every morning.”

Watch the clip for yourself:

Popular pro-life blogger Jill Stanek gathered the overwhelmingly positive responses from those who were thrilled to see a positive portrayal of their cause on network television. "'Dignity' was the most powerful episode you have done,” says one commenter on the NBC site. “I am used to seeing pro-lifers marginalized and dismissed as narrow minded religious zealots. This was one of the most fair-minded and even-handed presentations of this critical and persistent legal and moral issue."

Of course, not everyone’s happy with the treatment. Kate Harding, at Salon’s Broadsheet blog, writes, “None of it is anywhere near as simple as this episode makes it out to be.” Because not every situation turns out as well as those portrayed here, she calls the portrayals of these viewpoints “the most egregious anti-choice propaganda,” while calling out the show for ignoring the “reality” of those on the other side. And the National Organization of Women (NOW) complained that “several of the supposedly pro-choice characters on the show were guilted into questioning their values.”

In 2004, The New York Times called abortion “television’s most persistent taboo.” Usually when shows tackle the issue, it’s through a character who is deciding whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. The Tiller-like story provides a new angle that allows characters to approach the issue head-on, on both a personal and moral level.

What did you think? Did you see the episode? How accurately did it portray the pro-life view? How will this affect future TV portrayals of abortion?

Related Tags: abortion, television


Wow, that's interesting they showed pro-life in a positive light. I watch Law & Order: SVU and they always portray pro-lifers as silly religious fanatics.

And about the article on Salon, I'm getting a little tired of how some pro-choicers manipulate words to make pro-life sound a certain way. Example:

"The anti-choicers, who believe fetuses' rights trump women's."

Just the new term anti-choice highlights how they are trying to make pro-lifers look a certain [negative] way.

I saw the episode, and I was pleasantly shocked. The early writers of Law & Order seemed to make a legitimate attempt to fairly portray both sides of controversial issues. But, the last few years, a fairly consistent liberal bias has crept in. When there is a religious character, particularly one who is supposed to be an evangelical Christian, I always wonder whether the writers even personally know any evangelical Christians. Because I sure don't find anything familiar about the characterization. Conservatives are routinely caricatured in a similar way.

But when I watched this episode, my jaw hit the floor. I kept telling my wife, "I can't believe this is Law & Order!" They included some pro-choice viewpoints, and the new-found concern for the unborn didn't necessarily equate a support of anti-abortion legislation. But, IMO, the show did emphasize a pro-life view more than a pro-choice one. However, I thought that focus fit the story line very well, and they've certainly had the other side very well represented in the past.

The character's name is Mike, not Hank.

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I too was amazed at the attempt of even handedness and presentations of the moral dilemmas faced by the mothers. For once, even though it still leaned to the pro-abortion proponents, the Pro-life advocates were sensitively and thoughtfully portrayed.
I seldom watch Law and Order any longer due to their obvious anti-Christian bias.


That is a surprise. When I watched the original L&O back in the day, and a little L&O: Criminal Intent out out curiosity, they tended towards, uh, not quite falling into the category of critical thinking, with lots of heavy-handed straw-man (and surprisingly frequently bigoted) arguments. I remember one episode of Cold Case (a horrendous Canadian combination of L&O and Bones) whose premise (embodied by the series main character's dialogue) was that everyone who doesn't think abortion is the cat's pyjamas is a violent, uneducated, unhinged psychotic with the approximate I.Q. of a hammer.

And I still can't get over the ridiculousness of the juvenile, inflammatory phrase "anti-choice." As Curt Paton pointed out above, being pro-life and believing in criminalization are not, though they often go hand-in-hand, the same thing.

Funny how the N.O.W. isn't troubled when characters on other shows are guilted into questioning values the N.O.W. promotes, and how Salon hasn't been terribly concerned about the high number of over-simplified episodes that focus on one side of an argument that happens to be in line with Salon's values. It looks like Salon and the N.O.W. support freedom of expression, in this case on TV...as long as you're freely expressing what Salon.com and the N.O.W. supports! ;)

this episode was awesome-very fair! i enjoyed every minute.

My wife and I are big fans of 'Law & Order' and 'L&O: SVU' (more the latter for me). This episode was done very well. I did not care for the officer's response to the nurse (he acted insensitive and ignorant instead of compassionate as his later disclosure would suggest). But the intellectual and heart issues that the lawyers wrestled with appeared much more realistic and interesting (regardless of where they ended up on the issue).

Why do people think that television characters (pretend individuals that are NOT based upon you) should think and act as you do? This goes to Christians and non-Christians. Using phrases like 'liberal bias' and 'anti-choice propaganda' suggest we are so uncertain of our position that we need our entertainment to reinforce our ideals. Sure, I don't like when shows make Christians seem like loonies. But, honestly, some of us are! Of course, balance is best. Salon and NOW demonstrate they are just as closed-minded as many of the 'anti-choice' people they oppose. In fact, one might say that 'pro-choice' groups are trying to prevent the viewing public's choice on television.