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Misremembering Dr. Tiller: How Law & Order Got It Wrong

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It's never a good idea to look to primetime television for a fair and accurate depiction of the abortion debate. Without fail, TV writers stretch the facts for dramatic effect, oversimplifying choices. Last Friday's Law & Order episode was no exception. The show's "balanced and thought-provoking" take on abortion -- based on the murder of Dr. George Tiller this past spring -- was both damagingly trite and dangerously wrong.

Salon writer Kate Harding got it right when she pointed out earlier this week, that the issue of abortion is not nearly as simple as the NBC show portrayed. The show's character, Dr. Benning, provides abortions later in pregnancy, like Dr. Tiller, and was shot in his church after surviving a prior shooting, also like Dr. Tiller. With that, the similarities end.

Enter instead a parade of caricatures: the pro-life character whose his own mother didn't want him and attempted to self-induce. The pro-choice female character who suddenly tosses out her lifelong beliefs and leans pro-life. And another doctor who provides abortions and ultimately reveals on the stand that he's a raving extremist. None of these narratives have anything to do with the lives of women. Nor do they remotely penetrate the everyday experiences of the doctors and clinic staff who provide abortion.

We recently conducted research investigating the challenges abortion providers face merely to do their jobs, chronicling the appalling circumstances in which providers operate, including regular death threats, dead animals being left at their front doors, break-ins at their homes and offices, and physical assaults by protesters. They live in fear of violence.

One doctor in Pennsylvania who has been extensively protested at his residences told us that he now takes an inordinate amount of precautions. He parks away from the clinic to prevent the tracking of his address through the motor vehicle registry. He has an unlisted phone number. He owns a bulletproof vest. He feels that he is being stalked, as he moves from town to town followed by protesters. He has notified the local police, but the authorities have said there is nothing that they can do as long as the protesters do not trespass or become violent.

Abortion providers face an ongoing barrage of restrictive laws that severely limit existing doctors' ability to exercise their profession and even provide services. These restrictions serve no medical purpose. And they run the gamut from the cruel -- forcing clinic staff to provide biased or misleading information to patients -- to the inane -- requiring clinics to make renovations such as higher ceilings or manicured bug-free lawns.

Dr. Tiller endured this legal, political, and physical intimidation and harassment for over two decades. Those actions included an assassination attempt in which he was shot five times, and his clinic was vandalized. He was also dragged into court numerous times on trumped-up allegations spurred on by anti-choice zealots. Each time, he was found innocent of any wrongdoing.

None of this reality was portrayed in the show. On Law & Order, no one questions the ludicrous accusation by a nurse that Dr. Benning killed a live baby following an accidental delivery, appearing to suggest that these actions are a common or acceptable medical practice. Yet the law is very clear that a delivered baby may not be injured, nor would any doctor do what Dr. Benning did.

By the same token, the stories of the fictional women patients in the "Law & Order" episode are simplistic, if not non-existent. We hear more from the father who doesn't want his daughter to get an abortion than from the daughter herself. And the sole female character who has had an abortion on the show slams her door in the face of a detective and refuses to answer any questions.

Rather than grapple with trying to portray the complicated decision of having an abortion later in pregnancy, the writers dodge it altogether in the name of drama. As an organization that represented Dr. Tiller's patients, we've heard women talk about the moment their doctors told them that their fetus has no chance of survival or the hours after the appointment when they're forced to envision watching their babies die after delivery.

One of our clients was pro-choice and her husband was pro-life. They learned that their fetus had massive amounts of water on the brain and would likely die before birth. Even if the baby beat the odds and survived, he would be in a vegetative state. As the husband explained it to us, "I was forced to re-examine, and truly understand my beliefs on abortion." His child "would never toss a ball, never go to school, never know his parents or have friends, never be able to do anything but breathe and digest food."

After seeking advice from their pastor, the couple chose abortion because it was "the compassionate thing to do--not for us--but for our son." Before all of this happened, the husband said he thought abortion was wrong except in very rare instances, such as if doctors were certain that a pregnant woman would die from childbirth. "I considered other cases to be very much in a grey area. Now we were in that grey area and my beliefs were being tested."

While no one expects a television drama to painstakingly relate the whole truth, it remains a sad commentary on the state of the abortion debate that a mainstream show like Law & Order could so badly distort the facts related to an actual, and quite recent, murder of a medical doctor.

As we have seen in our work with women and their families, a clear understanding of the complexities of these issues is all too often lacking in the policy debates that surround abortion. Yet such an understanding is essential - because breaking through all the noise to see the truth, as Dr. Tiller did, requires both compassion for women and their families and an unwavering respect for the choices they make.