Prior to the airing of last Friday night’s Law & Order episode entitled “Dignity”, newsday.com presented it as providing an “intelligent hearing” on the late-term abortion debate. What can be determined after watching it however, is that the episode is rife with medical inaccuracies and anti-abortion propaganda. And the true experiences of women who face complex decisions of whether or not to continue pregnancies with serious abnormalities are severely undermined.
The episode began with the point blank shooting of Dr. Benning, a doctor that performed third trimester abortions, while he was praying with his wife in church. Regardless of Law & Order’s disclaimers to the contrary, this is a direct reference to the murder of Dr. George Tiller, who was shot and killed while ushering in his church on May 31 of this year.
The dialogue of the officers who investigate the murder initially appears to reflect stereotypical pro-choice vs. anti-choice rhetoric, which seems to be the writers’ attempt at presenting a “balanced” viewpoint. But the recurring messages throughout the program are clearly anti-abortion biased.
More often these days when (it’s usually more like if) a female character in primetime contemplates abortion, she is portrayed as contemplating her own moral failure. And ultimately, she usually either continues her pregnancy or has a miscarriage – she will almost never have an abortion. More importantly, if she does cross that forbidden media barrier, she will never feel good about doing so. This is what we see here – in the character of a young woman who is denied her abortion because her father confided in a protester who ultimately murdered her doctor. In this young woman’s case, her fetus was diagnosed with a rare skin condition that is potentially fatal and requiring constant medical care. She is presented as a helpless and selfish woman for not wanting to care for a sick baby on her own, while her father is portrayed as a hero – willing to work 3 jobs and find the money to provide the round-the-clock medical care his daughter’s child would need.
The writers created an even less balanced plot by throwing in an unrealistic and medically inaccurate story of a doomed baby born alive in the process of an attempted abortion, who was then (according to the assistant D.A. on the show) murdered by the doctor. Thus the plot shifts away from blaming the anti-abortionist who murdered the doctor to placing blame on the doctor who was murdered, and suggesting that he deserved it. This throws the female assistant D.A. into confusion about her belief in the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. The fact that the jury ended up convicting the man accused of murdering the doctor was completely lost in this extremely dark “Law and Order twist”.
So we are left with a message that the woman who decides to continue her pregnancy, go through labor, give birth and watch her baby die is noble and good, but the woman who ends her pregnancy when she realizes it will not have a viable life outside the womb is immoral and selfish.
There were so many opportunities for the writers to present the humane side of women faced with complicated pregnancies. But instead we see respected characters on a beloved TV series cast aspersions on women. This is deeply stigmatizing, even worse than how anti-abortion protesters shame women in front of clinics every day in this country. This show did nothing to enhance the complexity of depth of women’s true experiences and only added to the sensationalism and stigma that already exists for women facing these decisions.
NBC should be ashamed for dishonoring the memory of Dr. George Tiller, a man who embodied principles of goodness, kindness, respect, and faith; and for dishonoring the women he helped, whose values told them that the best way to honor themselves and to spare suffering to the doomed life they carried in pregnancy was to end that life. There was no dignity for either of them in this program.
Jennifer Boulanger, M.Ed., the Executive Director of the Allentown Women’s Center, an independent abortion and reproductive health care center in Pennsylvania and member of the Abortion Care Network.
If you want to make a complaint here is a place where you can lodge one.