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'Law & Order: SVU' tackles the anti-vaccination movement

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Michael Parmelee/NBC

It’s time for Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) to face the anti-vaccination movement when the sergeant’s foster son, Noah, gets swept up in a measles outbreak at school during this week’s episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. That’s not the only thing the kids are spreading, though: There’s also pornographic pics, which were taken at a middle-school sex party.

“We’re doing our job by making every parent in America feel anxious about everything,” SVU executive producer Warren Leight jokes to EW. He says the measles plot was sparked by on-set discussions among parents on staff. “We started to read these articles that said the lowest rate of kid vaccinations are in desparately poor third-world nations and Napa Valley. There was something horrifying about that. People are voluntarily putting thousands of kids at risk because they decided they know more than medical science. We were intrigued by this.”

Such an outbreak alone wouldn’t be a “sexually based offense,” the sort of case the Special Victims Unit generally covers (as detailed in the show’s title card opening). So Leight and company found a way to tie measles into a particularly seedy storyline—adding in the elicit pic swapping that end up making waves online. “It’s our all-viral episode,” Leight says.

Leight and the writers sought to bring some depth to the episode’s antagonists: guest star Missi Pyle and the other Tribeca moms. “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,” he explains. “Even if I have my own personal opinions, and people here have their own personal opinions, we don’t make it a straw dog. We present both sides of the debate as articulately as we can.” An example: An early draft of the script featured district attorney Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) shutting down Pyle’s character on the stand with an eviscerating question. But the writers later added Pyle firing back with a strong answer, diffusing an apparent win for the prosecution.

But that won’t deter Benson. While Leight wouldn’t say if other characters express their stance on anti-vaxxers, “mama bear Benson” and her beliefs are unambiguous: “If you believe the anti-vaxxers are putting kids at risk, among the kids put at risk are the ones who haven’t been vaccinated because they’re too young.”

The episode also features franchise vet David Margulies (The Sopranos) returning for the first time in a decade as an aging, beloved pediatrician. “I needed somebody who immediately told that story of the old, socialist doctor from the ’60s, who still has his practice going and doesn’t really like Big Pharma and doesn’t like CDC, rules and thinks the way we did it before the vaccines came in was fine. He’s got immediate believability,” Leight says of the 78-year-old’s first SVU turn as Dr. Eric Setrakian. (Margulies previously appeared in original flavor Law & Order—also as a doctor, albeit one with a different name.)

“Granting Immunity,” the 19th episode of SVU‘s 16th season, airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.