“Law & Order: SVU” went for the jugular with the anti-vaccine debate on Wednesday night during an episode that guest-starred Missi Pyle bearing a suspicious resemblance to actress/TV host Jenny McCarthy, who is known as the celebrity face of the controversial anti-vaccination movement.
While “SVU” is normally about sex crimes, the show pounces on any opportunity to rip from the headlines. And it’s hard to get more topical than vaccines. The episode started in a fairly typical way: Detectives investigate a high school party that led to explicit photos of underage kids going viral. But the investigation stalls when the detectives can’t interview every student because, strangely, many are out sick with the measles.
Detectives find out the whole outbreak started with a mom named Trudy Malko (Pyle), the “queen bee” of Tribeca who runs a lifestyle site that promotes holistic treatments and herbal therapies. Trudy believes vaccinations could lead to autism, so she roped her doctor into falsifying her son Gabriel’s immunization papers, which say he was vaccinated. Trudy spread her anti-vaxxer views to the other neighborhood moms, and the doctor faked their forms as well. Then, 15 years later, there’s this measles epidemic — and it’s not a coincidence.
The case gets personal when Sgt. Olivia Benson’s (Mariska Hargitay) baby son, Noah, is infected when he picks up the disease from Gabriel’s infant stepbrother while in a doctor’s waiting room. Through various scenes, the show rails against “hippie-dippy” parents who don’t vaccinate their kids. The writers also present the anti-vaccination point of view, though drive home how dangerous it is. Such as this scene between Trudy and Olivia:
Trudy: “I’ve always insisted that Gabriel be raised in ways that strengthen his natural immunity.”
Olivia: “Is that why he was never vaccinated?”
Trudy: “The risks of vaccination outweigh the benefits. When Gabriel was born, I tried to get a medical or a religious exemption, but I couldn’t get either one.”
Olivia: “So that’s why you had the doctor lie on his records?”
Trudy: “He believes parents should have the right to decide what’s best for their children.”
ADA Rafael Barba: “Did you recommend him to other families looking to get around the law?”
Trudy: “The law is unjust. As a mother protecting my child, I can’t tell you how many mothers thank me for what I’m doing.”
Olivia: “Doing? So you’re still steering parents to [this doctor]? Okay, we’re going to need their names.”
Trudy: “I won’t betray them. The AMA, the CDC, the Board of Health, the Department of Education, they are the villains here. Go after them.”
Olivia: “After them? You’re encouraging other parents. You are endangering the health of every child in this city.”
Trudy: “So this is personal? Because your son took ill, you and you are coming after me?”
Rafael: “No, this has nothing to do with Sgt. Benson’s son. You are openly flouting the law. This is reckless endangerment. And we will stop you.”
Later, the detectives take Trudy (or “Typhoid Trudy,” as she’s called) to court for coordinating an effort to hide the unimmunized kids at the school, which had to be shut down and decontaminated. Trudy is charged with reckless endangerment, conspiracy and falsifying business records.
The courtroom case plays out in a similar way to the above scene: The show includes many facts about vaccines while Trudy throws back every one with an idea of her own. “SVU” executive producer Warren Leight told Entertainment Weekly this was intentional. Though he and his staff were “horrified” by statistics about some kids not being vaccinated, the writers decided to tackle both viewpoints. “The people who are anti-vaxxers, they’re not Looney Tunes: They believe what they say. They believe it fervently, and they believe they have science to back it up and/or life experience to back it up,” Leight said. “We present both sides of the debate as articulately as we can.”
Toward the end of the episode as Trudy is on trial, a doctor on the stand explains the dangers of measles (a higher infection rate than Ebola, can lead to pneumonia, bronchitis or death) and that Trudy’s son contacted measles while he was in the under-vaccinated community of Pacific Palisades. The Centers for Disease Control determined he was patient zero and so far, there are 48 cases of measles in the area. The only people infected? Those who were not vaccinated.
Trudy’s defense attorney shoots back as they spar about potential serious side effects of the MMR vaccine, such as pancreatitis. The doctor says those cases are so rare that they’re statistically insignificant.
Later, Trudy takes the stand and explains why she made her choice: Shortly after her nephew was vaccinated, he was diagnosed with autism, so she vowed she would never do the same thing to her son.
“Are you aware that Institute for Medicine, the CDC and numerous other research groups have found no links between vaccines and autism?” Rafael asks her.
Trudy says she doesn’t trust the CDC or “big pharma.”
“I’m aware of every argument used to ostracize and vilify the so-called ‘anti-vaxxers.’ Again, I’m not anti-science. I’m not against vaccines,” Trudy says. “I believe it should be a choice made by individual parents, not imposed by the bureaucrats.”
In the end, Trudy is found guilty of reckless endangerment, sentenced to three months in prison and nine months of probation. The detectives are relieved, but it’s little comfort: Benson’s baby Noah is still in the hospital, though he’ll likely recover.
Moral of the story? As executive producer Leight told EW, in this episode, “We’re doing our job by making every parent in America feel anxious about everything.”