Especially Heinous: Law & Order’s Ugly History With Abortion
By Gretchen Sisson and Renee Bracey Sherman
‘Law & Order’ doesn’t address abortion often. But when it does, the TV drama opens a window into damning social myths.
Since the now instantly recognizable opening notes of the theme song first aired over 26 years ago, Law & Order and its various franchise series have explored their own dramatic brand of New York City crime and justice. And since that very first season — between stories of homicides and sexual assaults, startling cold opens and jury verdict endings, rotating district attorneys and ever-changing Olivia Benson haircuts — there have been stories about abortion.
The show doesn’t do it often. Only about 2% of the franchise’s over 1,000 episodes address abortion in a significant way. But when it does, Law & Order opens a pop cultural window into the social myths about abortion, the providers who perform them, and the women who obtain them.
These social myths have been evident from the show’s first foray into abortion stories, during the inaugural season in January 1991. In an episode entitled “Life Choice,” Detective Mike Logan and Sergeant Max Greevey investigate the bombing of an abortion clinic and quickly identify a likely suspect: Mary, a devout Catholic school teacher, who was found with a fake ID after being killed in the blast. Anti-abortion advocates admire her as a worthy martyr — until the detectives discover that Mary was actually at the clinic to have an abortion, not to bomb it. Mary’s family impedes the investigation by hiding the fact that she wanted an abortion. They’d “rather her be a martyr than a sinner,” as Mary’s boyfriend says in the episode. To put that another way, Mary’s family would rather their daughter were a domestic terrorist rather than a women in need of an abortion.
Throughout the episode, the investigating officers Logan and Greevey argue between themselves: Greevey is reluctant to investigate the bombing due to his anti-abortion beliefs, while Logan unequivocally argues his support for abortion rights, even disclosing that an ex-girlfriend had an abortion and is now happy in her subsequent marriage and motherhood. The episode was controversial at the time. Creator Dick Wolf told the Hollywood Reporter that advertisers pulled nearly a million dollars worth of advertising after the episode aired, but he also said NBC executives didn’t care because, “it was a good show.”
‘Law & Order’ opens a pop cultural window into the social myths about abortion, the providers who perform them, and the women who obtain them.
For the next 25 years, in one franchise or another, many of the series’ episodes about abortion would suffer from the same problems and recurring themes. Repeatedly, Law & Order has shone a spotlight on every stigmatizing abortion myth and absurd scrap of misinformation, packaging it all as entertainment on some of the longest-running and most highly-rated shows on television. Though some have heralded the show, specifically the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) franchise, as “a show feminists can laud for its commitment to talking about rape” and for its “imperfect” but important lessons about consent, it lacks the same nuance and care for its abortion plotlines. If anything, the show exemplifies carceral feminism, which glorifies the criminal justice system and uses incarceration as a primary solution in the name of protecting white women, and uses abortion as a plot device to demonize those who have and provide them.
It’s easy to write off the shows as sensationalist fiction, but Law & Order isn’t just entertainment. The show’s impact is real, and has been studied in relation to understandings of crime, Constitutional rights, capital punishment, violence towards women, and even jurors’ perceptions in real trials. This show shapes how people think about crime and justice, and though the portrayal of abortion on TV generally has become significantly more nuanced in the past few years, abortion is still portrayed as inaccurately dangerous and, often, incredibly fraught, and the characters who seek abortion are disproportionately young, white, and financially well-off.
Law & Order is no exception; in fact, it often takes general inaccuracies one step further, working to promote misinformation and produce abortion stigma.
Women As Victims, Women As Villains
On Law & Order, abortion is rarely freely chosen. Women are either coerced into getting abortions when they want to continue their pregnancy, or forced to continue a pregnancy when they want to get an abortion. The first SVU episode to address abortion in-depth, titled “Competence,” aired in 2002 and is an example of the first of those two archetypes. “Competence” deals with the case of Katie, a 22-year-old woman with Down syndrome. Katie becomes pregnant after a sexual assault, and Katie’s mother plans for her to have an abortion, despite Katie’s abject pleas that she is capable of parenting. This leads to a hearing about whether Katie is competent to make her own choice and parent her own child.
This example stands in contrast with the case of Jennifer, the protagonist of the 2003 SVU episode “Choice,” who wants to get an abortion until her husband files an injunction to prevent her from doing so. He loses the hearing, but Jennifer decides to continue her pregnancy anyway — despite her ongoing heavy drinking, in violation of a judge’s order.
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These two examples demonstrate the alternating victimization and villainization of characters seeking abortions. Whereas Katie is portrayed as a victim many times over — by virtue of her disability, her sexual assault, and her mother’s pressure for an abortion — Jennifer is doubly the villain. Her pursuit of abortion and her drinking are both framed as dangerous and careless behaviors, equally worthy of state intervention.
This parallel victimization and villainization of characters seeking abortion is a recurring theme. The women in need of abortion on Law & Order are often depicted as innocent or helpless victims: the Catholic school teacher, the choir girl, the comatose rape victims, the disabled rape victim, the 13-year-old rape victim. For these women, both the act of getting pregnant, and the pursuit of abortion, are rooted in coercion.
When there isn’t coercion in the seeking of abortion, women become the villains — if they weren’t already. For example, Gloria from the 2002 SVU episode “Deception” is arrested for first degree homicide on her way into an abortion clinic. Though Gloria is undoubtedly guilty of many crimes, including arranging her husband’s murder and raping her stepson, the location of her arrest for first degree homicide — the entrance of an abortion clinic — seems to conflate abortion and murder.
In contrast, in the 2007 SVU episode “Impulsive,” school teacher Sarah is arrested at the abortion clinic for “destroying evidence” after becoming pregnant as the result of a sexual relationship with her student. The evidence, in this case, being the pregnancy. It is later revealed that Sarah was the sexual assault victim, not the rapist, but she is still arrested for having gotten the abortion and destroying the products of conception, leaving her to occupy the tense role of both victim and villain.
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Even when abortion isn’t a major plot device, it becomes associated with characters who are criminally guilty. This happens to a Russian immigrant in the 1993 episode “The Pursuit of Happiness.” Detectives suspect her of murdering her wealthy husband and use the fact of her previous abortion as evidence of an affair. In 2008’s “Persona,” Linnie is revealed to have been hiding as a fugitive for over 30 years, after killing her abusive boyfriend and escaping police custody to get an abortion.
At other times, abortions can be the tipping point for a woman’s entry into unhinged and criminal behavior. In the 2010 SVU episode “Bedtime,” for example, a woman remains obsessed with the ex-boyfriend who forced her to get an abortion 30 years before, keeping her home as a shrine to him, and cherishing the bloody sheets they slept on together. In 2013, another SVU episode, “Presumed,” featured a young woman who was raped by a Catholic priest years before, and was forced by that priest to get an abortion. Years later, she guns him down at church following Christmas Eve mass, even though she knows the priest was about to be arrested for his own, separate crimes. Yet another SVU episode from 2013, “Secrets Exhumed,” depicts an investigation in which FBI agent Dana Lewis, a recurring character, is discovered to have murdered a romantic rival 25 years prior, after her ex-boyfriend pressured her to get an abortion and then planned to continue a pregnancy with his new love interest.
For most of these fictional women, the effects of their abortions — which were for pregnancies conceived through rape, ended through coercion, or both — are profoundly traumatizing and long-lasting. But this enduring post-abortion trauma is factually inaccurate. Research has found no links between abortion and adverse mental health outcomes, and, according to research conducted by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), 95% of women believe abortion was the right decision for them three years later. These fictional portrayals of long-term psychological damage and violent behavior are themselves dangerous, as they prop up the social myth that abortion is irreparably harmful to women.
Fictional portrayals of abortions as overwhelmingly, profoundly traumatizing are dangerous, as they prop up the myth that abortion is irreparably harmful to women.
Law & Order characters seeking abortion often face other forms of victimization beyond the abortion itself, including physical injury. In 2005’s “Rockabye,” 16-year-old Lauren is repeatedly delayed by a doctor posing as an abortion provider at a deceptive crisis pregnancy center until she resorts to self-induction by having her boyfriend severely beat her. While both doctor and boyfriend are prosecuted, Lauren is the one who is physically injured and later disowned by her father for having a sexual relationship and pursuing abortion.
But at least she is alive at the end of the episode. Other characters are not so lucky.
Meena, a young Pakistani immigrant from Criminal Intent’s 2007 episode “World’s Fair” is murdered by her brother when he discovers her pregnancy and plans for an abortion. Carla, from the 2010 SVU episode “Gray,” ultimately dies from an infection that develops after her boyfriend uses lubricant laced with misoprostol to coercively end her pregnancy, a crime she was initially reluctant to report because of her history of abortion. Lauren, Meena, and Carla are in dramatically different circumstances, but for each, the ending of a pregnancy, either by choice or deception, comes with a steep cost to her physical safety. These narratives reinforce the concept of abortion as a dangerous act, in a way that not only dramatically exceeds the actual medical risks, but suggests that women who pursue abortion are karmically at risk of harm in all areas of their lives.
Violence Against Abortion Providers
‘Kill one, save a thousand.’
Women who have abortions are not the only characters who lose their lives because of abortion on Law & Order. There are five episodes that deal with the murders of abortion providers. Three of these episodes are “ripped from the headlines” stories inspired by real cases.
Law & Order’s “Progeny” from 1995 is based on the murder of Dr. John Britton outside his clinic. Criminal Intent’s “The Third Horseman” in 2002 is based on the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in his home, after returning from synagogue for his father’s memorial service. Finally, Law & Order’s “Dignity” from 2009 is based on the murder of Dr. George Tiller while serving as an usher at his church on a Sunday morning. Because of the close parallels between the fictional characters and their real world counterparts, it is important to consider how any creative liberties taken in the telling of these stories might influence viewers’ beliefs about the real-life circumstances of these doctors and their deaths.
In these episodes, two of the three murderers — featured in “Progeny” and “The Third Horseman” — are revealed to have had ex-girlfriends who obtained abortions over the men’s objections. These experiences with abortion motivated their fictional violence. They are also, tellingly, not based on the real-life defenses of the murderers of Drs. Britton and Slepian, who relied solely on anti-abortion fanaticism as their justification.
Creative liberties taken in the telling of stories ‘ripped from the headlines’ might influence viewers’ beliefs about the real life circumstances of these doctors and their deaths.
The third murderer, in “Dignity,” was motivated to prevent a scheduled abortion, after the father of the woman who wanted an abortion confided to him in the clinic parking lot. The already false equivalency between abortion and murder is taken a step further. The fictional Dr. Walter Benning, who is killed in his church, like the real Dr. Tiller was, is discovered, in the course of the investigation, to have committed infanticide by killing a baby who was born alive during the course of an abortion. Here, the viability of fetuses is exaggerated, abortion is conflated with infanticide, and these actions are presented as possible justification for murder. It bears noting that the real Dr. Tiller was never accused of such crimes and that such a depiction seems tantamount to a deliberate slandering of his legacy.
In each of these episodes, the investigations and trials draw out extended comparisons between the work of the abortion providers and the actions of their killers, stressing a potential moral equivalence between the two, and further stigmatizing the profession as dangerous and immoral.
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Interestingly, the remaining two episodes about the murders of abortion providers — Criminal Intent’s “Seeds” in 2007, and SVU’s “Hammered” in 2009 — have nothing to do with the fact that the victim is an abortion provider. Their occupations are merely red herrings that divert the investigations early on. In “Hammered,” the victim’s ex-husband references the murder of Dr. Tiller, and stresses his ex-wife’s dedication to providing abortion, despite receiving threats towards her family because of her work. Yet her occupation had nothing to do with her death; these details serve only to narratively reiterate the idea that abortion providers are always in imminent physical danger, and that abortion is inevitably risky work.
False Balance And Conflicted Morality
‘I can’t just leave my soul in the umbrella stand when I come into work every morning.’
Since “Life Choice,” that 1991 episode featuring the strained debate between Detective Logan and Sergeant Greevey, Law & Order has seemingly sought to achieve “balance” by portraying law enforcement and prosecutors as conflicted, either internally or with each other, over the question of abortion. This conflict signals to the audience that there is always a moral conundrum about the procedure and views surrounding it.
Often, these conflicts are related to religious beliefs. For example, in “Life Choice,” Sergeant Greevey seems incapable of holding anti-abortion activists responsible for their actions, even when it becomes evident that the activists were implicated in the clinic bombing. He attributes this reluctance to his Catholic belief. Story arcs such as this one seemingly lend support to the “conscience clauses” that allow professionals, mostly medical providers, to opt out of doing basic duties of their job because of their biases against abortion. The idea, then, that conscience clauses might absolve law enforcement officials of protecting abortion patients and providers is perhaps even scarier.
The idea that conscience clauses might absolve law enforcement officials of protecting abortion patients and providers is a scary one.
Similar arguments about the morality of abortion break out in later episodes, too. Detectives Cyrus Lupo and Kevin Bernard argue over later abortion in “Dignity.” Detective Bobby Goren challenges Assistant District Attorney Ron Carver in Criminal Intent’s 2006 episode “Wrongful Life.” Detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler butt heads over abortion in at least 15 different episodes. In many of the SVU episodes, Detective Stabler’s off-hand remarks communicate stigmatizing ideas about abortion, such as in the 2002 episode “Waste,” when he asks an abortion provider, “How does it work? He rapes ’em, you scrape ‘em?”
Five years later, in the episode “Seeds,” Stabler snidely responds to an anti-abortion activist’s comment that abortion is murder by saying, “That’s what I keep telling her,” while nodding toward his partner, Benson. Yet even Detective Benson, who brandishes her pro-choice credentials in many episodes, is not immune from making stigmatizing remark when interacting with a suspect. In the 2002 episode “Deception,”, Benson sharply tells Gloria, the woman who was arrested for murder on her way into the abortion clinic, “You’re getting rid of the baby, too. I guess nobody is safe around you.”
The belief that abortion is always a heated, controversial topic is further reinforced in the courtroom, where prosecutors are often unable to separate the law from their personal feelings, or are suddenly struck with a change of opinion on abortion mid-case. While prosecuting the murderers of abortion providers in “Dignity” and “Progeny,” assistant district attorney (ADA) Michael Cutter challenges both District Attorney (DA) Jack McCoy and a defense attorney, repeatedly comparing abortion to slavery and analogizing between the murderers of abortion providers and the abolitionist John Brown. Throughout “Dignity,” Cutter is conflicted about the case and can’t clearly prepare legal strategy. Sitting second chair, ADA Connie Rubirosa sabotages the case, and then tears up listening to a nurse who violently describes her time in the clinic while testifying for the defense. Rubirosa later tells Cutter:
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.”
While some viewers might feel this is the appropriate grounding for the abortion debate, it’s important to remember that, in this context of this story, the efforts of these fictional anti-abortion advocates include murder, as do the action of real life anti-abortion terrorists.
When ADA Rubirosa’s colleague pointedly tells her to do her job, she replies, “Unfortunately, I can’t leave my soul in the umbrella stand when I come into work every morning.” This comment, which seems to give Rubirosa the moral high ground, communicates the idea that abortion must always contain a moral struggle, and suggests that pro-choice advocates cannot comfortably do their jobs defending it without feeling moral qualms.
This is a recurring theme in the series, that lawyers and judges cannot separate their personal views from their professional work. In “Rockabye,” for example, conservative DA Arthur Branch sends liberal ADA Casey Novak to demand that a feminist judge recuse herself from the case due to to her public opinions on abortion and “work for NARAL,” while simultaneously asserting that his personal opinions will not impact the case. (Branch, played by Fred Dalton Thompson, is an anti-choice Republican Senator and presidential candidate from Tennessee, though is later redeemed in the closing minutes of the episode when he puts his views aside and demands that a doctor at a crisis pregnancy center be charged with fraud for denying Lauren the abortion she sought.)
There is a recurring theme in ‘Law & Order,’ that lawyers and judges cannot separate their personal views from their professional work — but only when it comes to abortion.
In other episodes though, judges have no problem sharing their personal opinions about abortion from the bench. In “Choice,” Judge Howie Rebard asks Jennifer, “Does your child have to become an innocent casualty?” as he denies her estranged husband’s restraining order, effectively allowing her to have an abortion. This comment echoes what many minors are subjected to when seeking judicial bypasses in states that require parental notification; they are often faced with a judge’s personal opinions and condescending commentary. Again, this normalizes civil servants abusing their power in favor of their personal opinions, rather than upholding the law, leaving audiences less likely to be outraged when it happens in reality.
Codifying Abortion Stigma Into “Law & Order”
At the end of the day, Law & Order is a TV show that exists to entertain, and the show’s unrealistic, surreal plot twists and dramatic finishes are its primary offering. But these episodes also perpetuate social myths about abortion by presenting them as entertaining truths. In good faith, the show needs to be more careful about the potential influence on how audiences understand abortion patients, providers, and restrictions. These shows seemingly attempt to present data about abortion access, parental consent laws, medical information, and real-life cases to educate audiences, but when these efforts are paired with sensationalist story arcs, audiences aren’t able to separate fact from fiction.
It’s not an impossible feat. There are plenty of other shows on TV that have attempted more realistic portrayals of abortion. TV abortion stories are becoming more common, especially among comedy-dramas, as in the animated Netflix series Bojack Horseman, or HBO’s Girls, where abortion is addressed in a less heavy-handed way. We’re also seeing more diverse women getting abortions, including women of color — Olivia Pope, in Scandal, for example, and Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy — as well as women who are already mothers, such as Xiomara in Jane the Virgin and Donna in Halt and Catch Fire.
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For many of these shows, the creators are invested in improving the quality of abortion stories in popular culture. The writers of Jane the Virgin, Parenthood, and Girls, for example, consulted with Planned Parenthood when writing their abortion episodes, and producer Shonda Rhimes — whose many shows include about 10% of all TV abortion plot lines in the past decade — serves on the board of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. These stories aren’t perfectly accurate, but they are crafted to change a cultural narrative around abortion and build understanding of the reasons why people choose abortion among viewers.
That stands in stark contrast to Law & Order, which has been stuck perpetuating the same myths about abortion for the better part of three decades. And though it’s unlikely that the show will suddenly start depicting abortions accurately or with needed nuance, for a show that prides itself on changing how people view issues like sexual assault, it’s surprising that abortion hasn’t received nearly the same attention. Instead, the abortion stigma and misinformation is ingrained in episode after episode. If nothing else, the writers could skip the long, strained violin notes each time a character mentions the word “abortion.” Because, after all, approximately one-third of American women will get an abortion at some point in their reproductive lives. These are their stories.