Before last night’s episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit aired, NBC was promoting the episodes by teasing that the headlines it would be ripping its storyline from were the ones made by former Rep. Todd Akin last year, when he claimed that women who were survivors of so-called “legitimate rape” couldn’t become pregnant. The episode did that, recasting Akin as a former Congressman and discredited obstetrician. But rather than stopping there, SVU did something even more effective and important, illustrating the consequences of “legitimate rape” claims not just for policymakers, but for survivors—particularly for what they mean for rapists’ ability to seek custody of the children born to women they’ve attacked.
The case Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was investigating involved Avery, a sports reporter who brought rape charges against her cameraman, Rick (Homeland‘s David Marciano). When she became pregnant, Rick, who was defending himself, brought to the stand as an expert witness a former Congressman and practicing obstetrician who testified that “Many of my medical colleagues won’t admit it, but in my experience, it’s nearly impossible for a victim of legitimate rape to become pregnant.” The show used the character to illustrate the true insensitivity of that position from both a lawmaker and a doctor’s perspective: when Rick asked the Congressman what he’d do if a rape survivor came to him for medical treatment, the Congressman said, on the stand, “I would tell her, honey, if you need to lie to yourself or your family, okay. But don’t lie to Doc Showalter. Or the Lord.”
That’s not exactly subtle, but SVU did something smart with the episode, showing how Rick used the Congressman’s testimony to try to retcon not just consensual sex between himself and Avery, but a relationship with her. When Rick had Avery on the stand, he suggested that their conversations on the road as coworkers, her asking him for help with her bags, and the fact that she undressed after she thought he’d left the apartment were all evidence that she had somehow seduced him or consented. “I gave you the child you always wanted,” Rick told Avery in the courtroom, using the fact that she kept the baby because of prior difficulties getting pregnant as evidence of her emotional attachment to him. “How often have you seen an actual rape victim become pregnant and decide to keep the baby?” Rick asked Olivia when he was cross-examining her. Ultimately he’d be acquitted because one member of the jury believed the “legitimate rape” argument, a potent testimonial to the damage that even the limited spread of an idea like this can do.
And just when Avery, despite the acquittal, was beginning to live her life again, telling Olivia in the delivery room that “I thought maybe I would see my baby and think about what happened. But I didn’t. Theo’s his own person,” Rick served Avery with custody papers. SVU used that awful scenario to deliver a tidy little lesson on the real parental rights of rapists. “You’re telling me that a rapist can sue for custody,” Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) asked skeptically. “Yeah, he can,” the ADA told her bitterly—and truthfully. “In 31 states. I’ve seen it used in acquaintance rape cases just to get the victim to drop charges and they call that law. In Boston, a convicted rapist sued for custody rights to a child he fathered with a 14-year-old girl.” Avery was obviously anguished both by the summons and when Family Court, in the absence of New York State law restricting their actions, granted Rick very limited supervised visitation, asking Olivia “When does it end? Do I have to live with the man who raped me in my life forever?” It was a poignant illustration of the damage so many states allow rapists to continue to inflict on survivors of their attacks.
In SVU fashion, that legal failing was subverted when Olivia, herself the result of an attack on her mother, decided not to force Avery to stay in the United States, and allowed her to flee to a country where she couldn’t be extradited. But not all rape survivors who bear children have financial resources and friends in law enforcement—and none of them should need to abandon their home countries to stay safe. SVU’s drew out an enormous problem for a mass audience. But a lot of work remains to be done to mobilize those viewers who have learned the real extent of the cruelty behind Todd Akin’s remarks.