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.