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?