Anyone who’s watched the long-running NBC series Law and Order—the original, not the spinoffs—knows that its stories are often “ripped from the headlines.” So it wasn’t all that surprising that the October 23 episode, entitled “Dignity,” was obviously inspired by the murder this past spring of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in his church.
What was shocking, though, was how the screenwriters used Tiller’s assassination as a jumping-off point to debate whether it could be considered a “justifiable” homicide and whether Roe v. Wade has somehow become outmoded. Although the murderer of the fictional doctor is ultimately judged guilty, the final verdict of the teleplay is probably expressed best when one of the district attorneys says, “Roe v. Wade could stand another look.” Thus the whole legal doctrine, which serves as the basis in the U.S. for women’s rights to birth control as well as abortion, is thrown into question.
We expect that Law and Order will tackle controversy, and use its characters as mouthpieces for competing viewpoints. One cop takes a pro-choice line, the other an anti-abortion stance. A similar pro-con occurs in the district attorney’s office as they plan their prosecution. One nurse defends the doctor’s work, while another quits her job over a fictionalized late abortion case in which that fetus is born alive, then euthanized.
But we’re never allowed to develop any real understanding of the need for late abortion or the circumstances that confront women. While the screenwriters include exposition that explains the most common reasons for late abortion—catastrophic fetal anomalies, pregnancies as the result of rape of children, life-threatening conditions for the pregnant woman—they choose to focus on a case about a fetus with a serious but survivable skin condition. That serves to trivialize the preponderance of late abortion cases, where it’s far more likely that the brain or other vital organs are missing.
Indeed, the murdered doctor is branded a fanatic and a murderer himself, rather than a brave and compassionate human being. When a fellow doctor stands up for him vigorously in court testimony and says that abortion providers won’t be stopped from their work, the district attorney concludes, “So now we know there are fanatics in both camps.”
Anyone who knew George Tiller, as a friend or coworker or patient, must have been appalled by this second assassination, even if it was only of the character variety.
Perhaps most alarmingly, the judge in the case allows a “justifiable homicide” defense—which has never been allowed in a U.S. court—and so the extremist rhetoric that links abortion to murder is allowed to get quite an airing on the show. These arguments themselves are given “dignity” since they’re expressed by someone identified as not being an extremist fanatic. The screenwriters thus fail to recognize that such a rationale can be just the “license to kill” that extremists need to justify their murderous actions against abortion providers and their staff: Nine have been killed since 1993.
Yes, it was just television, constructed for maximum dramatic conflict. But this episode of Law and Order was not only insensitive to the recent grief over Dr. Tiller’s death and the reality of his compassionate treatment of his patients, but it was dangerous in offering such a large public platform to anti-abortion rhetoric and distortions of medical facts. By equating the arguments on both sides, the show has failed to understand how false but vehement arguments are a precursor to unrelenting harassment and even brutal violence.
If you want to express your displeasure over this episode, write to the executive producer of Law and Order, Rene Balcer, at 100 University City Plaza, University City, CA 91608.
And if you want to read the truth about the life, work and dignity of George Tiller, read an excerpt from “A Man who Trusted Women” in the Summer 2009 issue of Ms.