Dignity (Law & Order)

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Law & Order episode
Episode no.Season 20
Episode 5 (#438 overall)
Directed byM.T. Adler
Written byDick Wolf (creator)
René Balcer (developer)
Richard Sweren & Julie Martin (story)
Production code
Original air dateOctober 23, 2009
Guest appearance(s)
Episode chronology
← Previous
"Reality Bites"
Next →
"Human Flesh Search Engine"

"Dignity" is the fifth episode in the twentieth season of the American television series Law & Order. The episode revolves around the issue of abortion. The story was inspired by the killing of late term abortion provider George Tiller.[1]


Dr. Walter Benning, a late term abortion provider, is shot and killed while in church. He had been shot the previous year by an anti-abortion radical, and Dr. Benning's wife suspects another one has returned to "finish the job". Detectives Kevin Bernard and Cyrus Lupo investigate the crime. During the investigation, a nurse at Benning's abortion clinic admits to providing illegal abortions. Bernard and Lupo debate the abortion issue. Bernard responds to Lupo's defense of abortion in cases of rape by saying, "You got it backwards, man! The horrible thing is the rape! Not the bringing of a life into the world." Bernard says that he is pro-life because he was born two months premature after his mother tried to force a miscarriage by throwing herself down a flight of stairs; had she been successful, Bernard would not have existed. Their investigation leads them to a pregnant woman, Blair Morton, who was scheduled to have an abortion with Benning a few days later because the child would have been born with Ehlers–Danlos syndrome; her boyfriend was listed as having called the abortion clinic where Benning worked six times the previous week. However, the boyfriend denies calling the clinic. Instead, it was Blair's father, Kevin Morton, who had hoped to convince the doctor not to perform the abortion on his daughter. Eventually the killer, Wayne Grogan, is found and arrested. A pro-life attorney, Roger Jenkins, takes on his case. At the initial hearing, Jenkins says Grogan was acting in defense of a specific person, the baby of Blair Morton and the grandson of Kevin Morton. Kevin Morton had told Grogan that he was trying to convince the doctor not to perform the abortion. The judge approves the defense's request for the right to proceed with a justification defense and a trial by jury is set. After the hearing, the attorneys for the prosecution, Michael Cutter and Connie Rubirosa, argue about the abortion issue; Cutter is pro-life and Rubirosa is pro-choice.

Rubirosa goes to find a nurse who abruptly quit her job at Benning's clinic. The nurse reveals that Benning had killed a baby born alive after a botched abortion. Rubirosa tells Jack McCoy and Cutter, saying they are obligated to hand over the evidence to the defense as Brady material, but both McCoy and Cutter say it can wait until after the trial.

At the trial, Kevin Morton testifies that he encountered Grogan a few days before the murder, and Grogan told him his grandson would be okay. Next, another late-term abortion provider is called to the witness stand, where he says not even the law will stop him and his colleagues from performing abortions. Jenkins summons a witness, a woman, Lisa Barnett, who was pressured to have an abortion because the child would have been terminally ill, but decided against it. The prosecution tries to stop the defense from proceeding but Jenkins says Grogan had seen the woman on a talk show before the crime and it influenced his state of mind. Barnett gives her compelling story of delivering her baby, who spent most of her 21-hour-long life "peacefully in my arms" and died "naturally...with dignity". Most members of the jury are moved to tears.

McCoy realizes that there is extremism on both sides after the testimony of the other late-term abortion provider. At this point Cutter tries to convince McCoy to accept a plea bargain for voluntary manslaughter, saying Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the U.S., conformed to human knowledge of life and science at the time it was decided in 1973 but did not anymore and needed "another look", saying "cats and dogs have more rights than the unborn". Cutter also compares Grogan to a modern-day John Brown. McCoy still refuses. Rubirosa reveals that she did hand over the evidence of Benning's murder of a newborn baby to the defense, saying she could not violate her personal ethics. She tells Cutter that she had once regarded Roe v. Wade as "gospel" but after hearing Barnett's story, she asked herself, "Where does my privacy end and another being's dignity begin?"

The next day the defense calls the nurse, Jennice Morrow, who told Rubirosa about the killing of the newborn baby. Morrow details how Benning asked the patient if he should complete the abortion even though the baby was born alive, and the patient responded, "Yes, finish it." Morrow says Benning inserted scissors into the base of the baby's skull to kill it.

On the third day Jenkins shows the jury a picture of Morton's newborn grandson, saying the baby would be dead if not for Grogan. Cutter begins to show the jury Benning's wallet, containing pictures of his family that are stained with blood from his death, but says there has been too much "heartbreaking testimony". Instead, he tells the jury that the issue of abortion goes to the core of the human person, saying humans are united in the belief that every life is special and has dignity, which is why the violence of Grogan's act should be condemned. The jury finds Grogan guilty of first degree murder.

After the trial, Rubirosa requests to be transferred to another division. The episode ends as McCoy says he once thought people should be consistent; he expected that "pro-lifers would oppose capital punishment" and human rights activists "would claim some [rights] for the unborn." He concludes that it's a "messy world" and tells Rubirosa and Cutter to "figure it out."


The episode was widely praised on the pro-life blogosphere, which had condemned the murder of George Tiller[2] but appreciated the episode's handling of the abortion issue as a whole. Dave Andrusko of the National Right to Life Committee wrote, "What makes the Law & Order episode so riveting is that virtually every pro-life argument you knew you would never hear on a network program is a part of 'Dignity'...More important, it occurred to me as I listened in utter astonishment that each of these observations could have been presented in a way that was artificial, forced, or (as so often is the case with network portraits of pro-lifers) something that you would expect from an idiot. None of that was the case. These were real flesh-and-blood people, not caricatures."[2]

However, the episode was condemned by many pro-choicers. Sarah Seltzer of RH Reality Check said it was an "abortion disaster" and "wasteland of TV."[3] Kate Harding of Salon.com said NBC was spreading "anti-choice propaganda".[4]