Something Criminal About 'Legal'

Kathryn Lopez
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Posted: Feb 17, 2006 2:23 PM

Those hoping to be entertained with Valentine's Day-themed programming on ABC tuned into the wrong channel, at least if they flipped to it during "Boston Legal." For those 60 minutes, you were treated to a political lecture, more like C-SPAN's late-night fare, only with prettier people. It was a prime-time hour to celebrate emergency contraception and demonize Catholic hospitals.

The Emmy-award winning show that night included the fictional story of an 18-year-old girl named Amelia who was raped and brought to a local hospital while unconscious. The writers made the hospital "Saint Mary's," which is where the political party began.

Among those watching the show were "reproductive rights" supporters throughout the country, organized into "Boston Legal Viewing Part(ies)" by the likes of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts and the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union. Party favors were viewing guides packed with bullet points of statistics on sexual assaults and laws.

The heart of the Valentine's Day show was what is popularly known as the "morning-after pill," also referred to as "emergency contraception" (EC). Emergency contraception is meant to be used, as the name suggests, in an emergency -- marketed as a last-line of defense against pregnancy.

Currently, in eight states, hospitals are required to make EC available to rape victims. But the Catholic hospital where Amelia was taken did not provide her with EC or even inform her of the existence of the option. (Massachusetts, by the way, is one of the eight.)

Cue to "Murphy Brown" with a Bible in the courtroom.

Remember when the title character on the 1980s sitcom "Murphy Brown" wound up the topic of a national debate when then-Vice President Dan Quayle used the show to make a point about marriage and families when Candace Bergen's character had a child out of wedlock? Back then, with out-of-wedlock births at an all-time high, there was more to the cultural story than you'd get in most sound bites. Well, Bergen plays a law partner on "Boston Legal" now. Watching her, one couldn't help but wonder if there was more to tell than what the show's writers were letting viewers in on.

Sure enough.

In a key primetime moment for the activists watching, an expert witness testified that "the morning-after pill can only prevent a pregnancy." Various characters on the show would go on to laud emergency contraception's ability to lower abortion rates. The problem, which got short shrift on "Boston Legal," is that EC isn't that black and white. How it works depends on where a woman is in her menstrual cycle.

This isn't exactly what you want to get into with a heart-shaped Whitman's Sampler on your lap and "Captain Kirk" on your screen (William Shatner is a "Boston Legal" star), but, EC doesn't only prevent pregnancy -- it can work as an abortifacient, to end the life of a developing human embryo. So, Catholic hospitals, if they are true to their names, will want to tread carefully here.

While feeling the pain, humiliation and anger of a girl who was brutally raped, there is also the reality that Catholic hospital officials who are in the business of saving lives may not want to be accomplice to ending one.

It's a concern that some would like to legislate away -- fighting against "conscience clauses" that would give a St. Mary's legal protection on EC and associated fronts. In related news, for instance, on the day the show aired, the Massachusetts Board of Pharmacy voted to force Wal-Mart to carry emergency contraception.

In a morning-after conversation with Richard W. Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame's law school, he suggested a middle-ground position, one that wouldn't have made the show as dramatic, but perhaps a bit more realistic. "A compromise might be to require Catholic hospitals to inform people that EC exists, and that other hospitals will provide it."

In 2003, there were more than 15.4 million Catholic emergency room visits, according to the Catholic Health Association.

Catholic concerns may not have a prayer on primetime TV, but as Catholic hospitals and other healthcare professionals minister to communities, they deserve a seat at the table in any life-and-death public-policy debate.

But the atmosphere right now, as characterized by primetime and real-life politics, isn't ripe for compromise. While "Boston Legal" writers were sure to condemn the imposition of religion on the fictional rape victim, EC's advocates seem comfortable with dismissing other's views and imposing their own.

Also on the morning after the loaded episode of "Boston Legal," I talked to a "reproductive freedom" official with the ACLU in Pennsylvania. When I asked her if folks at her viewing party thought that the episode was fair and balanced, if "the show was fair to both sides," she told me "I don't think anyone thought there were two sides." In her mind, there is only one side of the story, a victim who should have gotten emergency contraception -- period. Therein is not a healthy starting point for debate.