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Discussing the nuances of the case of Marlise Munoz, the legally dead pregnant Texas woman kept alive for weeks over her and her family’s wishes, my recent conversation with a pro-life friend continually circled back to one question of his: “But why wouldn’t she want the baby?”

Of course, the answer seemed obvious to me, but later I reflected more on his question, and realized why the concept seemed so absurd to him. To most pro-lifers, I think, it is incomprehensible that a woman who initially wanted a pregnancy might want to later terminate for almost any reason.

Abortion, after all, is for those women, way over there, the ones you’ve heard about but never met, despite the fact that 3 in 10 American women will have an abortion by age 45, and that 65% of women who had abortions in 2008 were Protestant or Catholic. To pro-lifers, it’s the domain of “amoral” women making an “irrational” decision they’ll regret when they get to know what having a child is truly like, despite the fact that most women who have abortions already have at least one child. And they claim it’s physically and psychologically harmful, despite the much lower risk of physical complications compared to pregnancy, and the thorough debunking of the largest study purported to show a causal link between abortion and mental illness.

None of these claims are new or uncommon, and none are really reflective of reality. But for those who desperately cling to them, the eminently insulting pro-life motto of recent years, Women Deserve Better, is perhaps more understandable (if not more palatable). But what explains the huge dichotomy between reality—at least, what little of it we can interpret from statistics—and the pro-life mythos of the woman who chooses abortion?


Well, for one thing, these stereotypes are pervasive because that’s what we tend to see. What else except the self-evident “truth” of such claims would explain the dearth of stories about elective abortion in the media—stories that humanize it and display its depth as an issue? A recent analysis of television and movies that portrayed abortion showed that 9% of women who had or even contemplated an abortion died, a gross over-exaggeration of the procedure’s risk. (The actual risk of death from legal abortion is less than 1 per 100,000.)

And in public venues (like, say, slots for public testimony before legislatures considering abortion restriction bills), it is clearly only deemed “acceptable” when a woman who had an elective abortion appears regretful, wringing her hands and gnashing her teeth. Relatively very few women are willing to testify about purely elective abortions they have obtained, even if they do not regret them, and not without cause. When they do publicly discuss it, they risk serious consequences, like Lucy Flores, the Nevada legislator who told the story of her abortion as a teenager in support of a sex education bill and was summarily subjected to a torrent of death threats.

Even more subtle and pervasive than death threats is social ousting. Only days ago I had a conversation with another friend who, while she supports legal abortion, followed that up with the postscript that abortion is still “murder” and in “scenarios where I would not support her decision [I] would most likely be forced morally to cut ties with her.” Every time a friend, neighbor, or relative expresses such a sentiment (despite the high likelihood of unwittingly saying it to someone who has had an abortion), the idea that it is unacceptable to speak about the importance of abortion to the lives of real women is reinforced.

There are sadly far, far too many examples to name, but every time a politician describes abortion as an evil only terrible sinners might contemplate, he effectively silences women as well. Being told, for instance, that you are morally inferior to a rapist since “at least the rapist’s pursuit of sexual freedom doesn’t result in anyone’s death” (I’m looking at you, Rep. Lawrence Lockman) tends to have that effect.

In turn, shame-induced silence propagates the impression of absence. The void is filled by the “socially acceptable” hand-wringers and teeth gnashers who, while they certainly represent a portion of women who obtain abortions, are not reflective of the whole, or even the majority. Pro-lifers continue seeing exactly what they expect to see, and continue advancing (and believing!) the notion that abortion is tangibly harmful, not only to fetuses, but to women.

And, very, very slowly, the pro-choice movement loses ground in the culture war.

The number of people who labeled themselves “pro-choice” in the Gallup poll on abortion, which has been tallying the estimated percentages of pro-choice vs pro-life citizens since 1995, reached an all-time low of 41% in 2012. Other polling has shown an increasing number of pro-lifers among Republicans, and more disturbingly, an increase in the number of Democratic men who oppose abortion as well. While these numbers are more complicated than they appear (for instance, a personally pro-life person may still support some or all legal abortion despite his or her views), the trends over time still have a story to tell.

The Overton window is a political theory that describes a narrow range of political beliefs that are considered acceptable. The silence of women caused by systematic social shaming and a climate of public threat, combined with an increasing number of openly hostile public remarks about abortion, seems to have shifted this window significantly further to the right in the last decade. As claims of dubious medical credibility and offensive remarks about the character of women who choose abortion become more mainstream, support of abortion up to viability is slowly coming to be perceived as an extremist view.

So how can we reverse the trend?

End the silence.



1) Gallup polling on abortion, trends over time: http://www.gallup.com/poll/154838/pro-choice-americans-record-low.aspx

2) The Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project on support for legal abortion: http://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/01/support-for-abortion-slips2/

3) Guttmacher Institute factsheet, Induced Abortion in the United States: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html

4) Guttmacher, Characteristics of US Abortion Patients, 2008: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/US-Abortion-Patients.pdf

5) CDC Abortion surveillance for 2009: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6108a1.htm

6) Slate, “Characters Who Have, or Just Think About Having Abortions, Often Die”: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/01/17/abortion_in_movies_and_on_tv_often_results_in_death.html

7) Article on Lucy Flores, Nevada assemblywoman who received death threats following her testimony about her abortion at 16: http://www.policymic.com/articles/33199/lucy-flores-abortion-nevada-lawmaker-faces-death-threats-after-talking-about-her-abortion

8) An excellent article I recommend, “Abortion as a Blessing, Grace, or Gift: Changing the Conversation on Reproductive Rights and Moral Values” http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2014/04/03/abortion-blessing-grace-gift-changing-conversation-reproductive-rights-moral-values/

9) A great TedX talk on abortion stigma: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxI6HGpaP3Q

My 25 year old son is a former music major who played the tuba for many years. Very talented kid. He now lives in San Antonio where he teaches high school math. Recently, he asked if I could bring his tuba to Texas so he could start playing again. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see him so I jumped in my car and headed south.
I went to Florida first because my sister just moved there and visited with her for a day. I then headed west to see my cousin, who lives in the sleepy town of Gulf Breeze. After a brief visit I started making a bee line to Texas but, before I could even get out of third gear, I found myself driving through Pensacola.

And I suddenly got the chills.

PensacolaMany of you will remember that Pensacola was a hotbed of radical anti-abortion activity years ago. Indeed, as you approach that part of the state there are still billboard after billboard with pictures of little fetuses telling us how a 10 week fetus can recite poetry and do other amazing things. Fortunately, things have gotten a little quiet in the last few years.  As David Gunn, Jr. has been reminding us in his blogs, on March 10, 1993 his father – an abortion doctor – was murdered at the Pensacola Women’s Medical Services building as he was entering the facility. A year later, in 1994, my organization – the National Coalition of Abortion Providers – organized a one year “tribute” to Doctor Gunn at the very site where he was killed. It was a truly emotional moment for the attendees. Approximately 60 of Doctor Gunn’s colleagues made the trek to Pensacola and, with security guards stationed on the rooftops of nearby buildings, we held an open air ceremony which featured an emotional speech by his son.

As I drove into Pensacola, I realized I had to stop at the site once again.

I had a very eerie feeling as I approached Cordova Square and, although the area is now a little more built up, I recognized the building immediately. The clinic is long gone and the building is now the home of several small offices, including an Allstate Insurance agent, a home decorator, a public relations firm and a website designer. But what threw me off was the actual site where Doctor Gunn died is not in its original state. On that horrible day, he parked in his reserved spot and walked towards the back of the clinic. But over the years, someone carved out a cut through road and then put up a large, long fence along the back of the building. So, the actual scene of this horrible crime is no longer recognizable.

Still, I could not help but be paralyzed as I stood there remembering what happened that day and how the murder was a front page news story for weeks and months to come. Indeed, about 18 months later, just a few blocks away, another abortion doctor was killed at another clinic in the city just a few months after NCAP’s tribute.

To try to leave on a more “positive” note, I walked across the street to the serene open air amphitheater where we had our wonderful yet sad tribute. I sat there for thirty minutes and recalled young David, who was visiting the spot where his father died for the first time, talking about “this paranoia that is Pensacola.” He made a great impression that day and we all took solace in being together for a much-need group hug.

I’m glad I stopped in Pensacola.

We must never forget. I know I never will.


When I was the Executive Director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, one of the more controversial things that I did was have regular conversations with anti-abortion leaders.  We would usually find a neutral location, some restaurant, and split the bill.  My purpose was not to try to convert them – that would have been a waste of time.  Instead, my hope was that if they really had a better idea of why women were seeking abortions, then maybe they would just be a little more understanding and less likely to go out and scream at the women as they entered abortion facilities.

One of the antis that I met with regularly was with a group called Priests for Life, one of the more aggressive anti-abortion groups in the country.  He was a rather vocal advocate for his side and did spend a lot of time in front of clinics all across the country spewing his ugly stuff.  One day during a lunch at a small café in Alexandria, I asked him if he had ever been in an abortion clinic.  He almost choked on this peanut soup.  “Of course not,” he said.

So, I asked the question:  “Well, would be you interested in visiting a clinic and talking to the women and staff?”   Much to my surprise, he did not hesitate and quickly accepted my offer.

A few weeks later, I arranged for him to privately visit an abortion facility in Pennsylvania.  The clinic was a very special one in that the counselors really sought to delve into the hearts of the women who were seeking abortions.  In fact, one wall in the waiting room was adorned with letters from the women, some of which were addressed to their “baby” that they could not have.  I always choked up when I entered that room.

The priest went to the clinic and spent a lot of time with the staff and owner.  I don’t know all of the details of the visit.  In fact, I didn’t want to know too much because I wanted to keep it as quiet as possible to respect the priest’s delicate position.  If his anti-abortion colleagues found out that he had visited an abortion clinic, it would have raised quite the ruckus.

Interestingly, after his visit he told me he was touched by the letters and the women and over the next few weeks, I may have imagined things but I thought I saw a decided toning down of his rhetoric.  For a while, I did not hear him talk about “murder” and “baby killing.”  He was clearly against abortion but I actually wondered if that visit had had an effect on him.

That was 14 years ago.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was channel surfing when saw him on some talk show, probably FOX or something of that ilk.  And, much to my consternation, he was back to his old self, ranting and raving about the “abortionists” who were “killing babies.”   I was a certainly disappointed but I guess I wasn’t that surprised.  As I thought it through, most organizations cannot raise money by being moderate, by being open to ideas from the other side.  They gotta get out there and pander to the extremes to raise big money.  You need to get in the newspapers and on television and for that to happen, you have to be positioned on one the wings of your issue.

I’m reminded of an organization that was formed years ago called “Common Ground.”  One of their goals was to bring the anti-abortion and pro-choice folks together at a table to try to find items of mutual agreement.  They got a grant or two from some foundations but after just a few years, they quietly dropped the abortion portion of their portfolio.  No one was interested.

So, I sit here and wonder what the visit to the abortion clinic was all about.

Pregnancy as an “inconvenience”

One of the greatest falsehoods of the pro-life movement is that pregnancy is merely an inconvenience, a period of temporary discomfort. This is more than a mere talking point; it’s a dangerous lie. Pregnancy is actually a life-threatening condition for many women.

The maternal mortality rate (MMR) is significantly higher in the US than in other developed countries, and the number gets even more pronounced when divvied up into demographics. The 2010 MMR in the US was 21 maternal deaths out of 100,000 live births, a number higher than 47 other countries listed by the CIA’s WorldFact report on maternal mortality. Compare this to the US Dept. of Health and Human Services’ goal for 2010 of 3.3 deaths per 100,000, and about seven times as many women are currently dying from pregnancy-related causes in the US than should be.

Shockingly, not only has the maternal mortality rate not fallen since the mid-1980s, it has actually steadily risen (the MMR in 1987 was 6.6!). But racial disparities in the MMR reveal even more appalling numbers: in 2007, black women were 2.7 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women. A 2005 paper on the preventability of pregnancy-caused deaths in North Carolina showed that while 33% of deaths among white women were preventable, a full 46% of deaths among black women were preventable.  This is probably reflective of wider disparities: minority women are more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy, to be poor, and to receive care at lower quality medical centers than white women.


Even worse, most of these figures are likely underestimated. A 2005 study compared actual rates of pregnancy-caused death to purported rates on death certificates in four regions and found a prevalent underestimation of pregnancy as a cause of death. In Massachusetts, death was inaccurately accorded to a cause other than pregnancy in 93% of the cases studied.

While the maternal mortality rate is increasing, the rate of severe pregnancy complications is also increasing. A 2009 study analyzing trends in the rates of severe obstetric complications showed a “20% increase in rates of renal failure, respiratory distress syndrome, shock, ventilation, and an approximately 50% and 90% increase in pulmonary embolism and blood transfusions, respectively” from 1998-2005. Although there was a correlation between increasing rates of (often unnecessary) caesarian section and severe complications, this only partially explained the dramatic rise in severe obstetric problems experienced by American women since 1998.

In addition, the infant mortality rate is also relatively high in the US compared to other developed countries. Despite substantial decline over the course of the 20th century, the rate of infant death has stagnated in recent years and the US international ranking for infant mortality fell from 12th place in 1960 to 30th in 2005. Abysmally, a Save the Children report recently showed that the US has the highest first day infant death rate of all industrialized nations studied in the report, 50% more than all other industrialized nations combined. And, as with the maternal mortality rate, racial disparities in the infant mortality rate are stark: according to the National Vital Statistics Reports for 2009, the mortality rate for black infants was 12.71per 1,000 live births, compared to 5.32 for white infants (and the report noted that the former is likely an underestimation).

And yet, as part of so-called “informed consent,” pro-life groups routinely tout the fallacious risks of abortion with pseudoscientific claims (e.g. increased risk of breast cancer, infertility, depression, and death) while understating the risks of childbirth. Among first trimester abortions, which comprise the vast majority of abortions, the risk of serious complications is less than .5%.  However, more than 50,000 women per year suffer from severe maternal morbidity (SMM), potentially life-threatening conditions associated with pregnancy. The rate of SMM is also increasing over time, more than doubling from 1998 to 2011. This does not include more minor complications, which are far more common in pregnancy (94.1% of the pregnancies in 2008) than first trimester abortion (2.5%).


What should we be doing?

 First, and perhaps most importantly, we need to gather information. Why, besides increased caesarian sections, are the rates of severe obstetric complications increasing? Why is the maternal mortality rate increasing so steadily despite the $86 billion spent on pregnancy and childbirth in the US per year? How can we standardize data collection to ensure accurate information on maternal health outcomes across the board? What programs can hospitals institute to reduce the rate of mortality for women and infants?

Although we have some notion of risks associated with maternal and infant death, our data is far from complete. In 2011 the Maternal Health Accountability Act was introduced to provide grants to create state-level maternal mortality review committees to standardize data collection and eliminate disparities in health outcomes. The bill unfortunately died in a Republican-controlled committee.

Otherwise, we are aware of many of the risks and should be able to address at least some with public policy. Higher risk of infant mortality is associated with preterm birth, which is associated with teen pregnancy, unplanned pregnancy, and poor/minority mothers.

These risk factors overlap significantly; for instance, teen mothers are more likely to be poorer, less educated, and to receive less prenatal care than mothers in other groups, and 70% surveyed in a 2004-2006 North Carolina study indicated that their pregnancies were unintended. Similarly, poor and minority women are less likely to receive prenatal care, and minority women are more likely to be poor and have higher rates of unintended pregnancy than other women as well. As for maternal mortality, disparities in access to prenatal and labor care and family planning; poverty; and minority status are all major risk factors, and these also often overlap.

While the problem is systemic, it can be tackled in very specific ways. One of the most important steps in tackling poor health outcomes for mothers and infants is to reduce unplanned pregnancy, which is indirectly associated with both infant and maternal mortality, since the groups at highest risk of dying of pregnancy complications and/or losing an infant are also at very high risk of unintended pregnancies. The major means of accomplishing this goal are to offer comprehensive sex education to adolescents, to increase public funding to family planning clinics, and to make access to reliable contraceptives as universal as possible.

Every one of these things has been directly evidenced to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy. Comprehensive sex education is associated with reduced rates of teen pregnancy. Conversely, abstinence-only education has not been correlated with lower rates of vaginal intercourse, and states with abstinence-only or non-requisite sex education programs consistently have some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the nation. But that doesn’t stop pro-life politicians from routinely insisting on abstinence-only programs, despite their marked failure year after year.


For six in ten patients using publicly funded family planning services, it is their primary source of health care. An estimated 1.94 million unintended pregnancies and 810,000 abortions are prevented each year by use of public family planning clinics, but as I noted in my last article, they only meet a paltry 40% of the need. Increasing funding to family planning clinics, and therefore access to preventive services and contraceptives, would further decrease the rate of unplanned pregnancy. However, Republican politicians in numerous states consistently cut funding to family planning and women’s health services.

To give an example of the cognitive dissonance so prevalently present between stated pro-life ideology and the consequences of implementing pro-life laws, let us take Texas for an example. In 2011, as part of a sweeping pro-life agenda to shut down Planned Parenthood (the ultimate abortion scapegoat, despite 97% of its services being non-abortion related), Texas slashed family planning funds by 2/3 and barred Planned Parenthood from receiving funds from the Texas Women’s Health Program, resulting in a 77% reduction in the number of patients using family planning clinics, in a state that ranks first in the nation for the number of uninsured, 8th for poverty, and 3rd for teen pregnancy.

The maternal mortality rate has quadrupled in Texas in the last 15 years to 24.6, and even after improvement from 2009, the 2010 demographics are abysmal and much higher than the national average (27, down from 30.8, for white women, and 53.9, down from 66, for black women). For reference, that means black women are statistically better off giving birth in Mexico or Kazakhstan than Texas, and that white women would be better off in Saudi Arabia.

In addition, despite the incredibly high teen pregnancy rate, Texas schools stress abstinence education, do not require contraceptive education, and do not require that sex education be medically accurate. The budget cuts for women’s health care have also decreased the number of clinics that offer preventive healthcare for sexually active teens without parental consent or notification.

Every policy outlined above is one that increases the rate of unintended pregnancy, especially in populations more highly prone to infant mortality (teens) and maternal mortality (poor and minority women). Far from being “pro-life,” Texas has implemented a set of policies that will result in the unnecessary deaths of women and infants. It has instituted legislation that directly decreases access to contraceptives, preventive screenings, checkups, and prenatal care. These in turn lead to increased rates of poor health outcomes for pregnant women, as well as unintended pregnancy among the groups least likely to want or afford pregnancy or children. Simultaneously Texas has instituted sweeping anti-abortion policies that vastly remove access to abortion for women who can’t afford prenatal care or postpartum checkups.

The state ironically takes no responsibility for its own role in making women’s lives worse, exhibiting Orwellian double-speak about personal responsibility even as politicians systematically remove the resources women would otherwise use to BE personally responsible for their reproductive destinies.

All of Texas’ legislative actions aimed at shuttering the Planned Parenthoods in the state are particularly cruel considering they have also declined to expand Medicaid, leaving many poor and minority women nowhere to turn for contraceptives, preventive healthcare, and prenatal care. The Texas Policy Evaluation Project’s survey of low-income women following Texas’ 2011 budget cuts found that “now more than ever disadvantaged women must choose between contraception and meeting other immediate economic needs.”

Texas, sadly, is not alone. Many other states are likewise instituting anti-abortion restrictions while failing to address the unmet need for family planning, expand Medicaid, increase access to prenatal and postpartum care, or offer comprehensive or medically accurate sex education. Far from being an “inconvenience,” pregnancy is a condition fraught with major risks of health complications for both mother and infant. And when legislators intentionally limit abortion access while failing to address the increased risks of maternal and infant death that accompany high unintended pregnancy in poor, uneducated, teen, and minority women, they really don’t deserve to be called “pro-life.”



1) “Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA.” Amnesty International.  http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/deadlydelivery.pdf

2) Berg CJ, Harper MA, et al. Preventability of pregnancy-related deaths: results of a state-wide review. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16319245

3) Hasnain-Wynia R, Baker DW et al. Disparities in health care are driven by where minority patients seek care: examination of the hospital quality alliance measures. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17592095

4) MacDorman MF, Mathews, TJ. The Challenge of Infant Mortality: Have We Reached a Plateau? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2728659/

5) “Surviving the First Day: State of the World’s Mothers 2013″. Save the Children: http://www.savethechildrenweb.org/SOWM-2013/files/assets/common/downloads/State%20of%20the%20WorldOWM-2013.pdf

6) CIA World Factbook rankings of countries by maternal mortality rate: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2223rank.html

7) Kochanek, K., Xu, J., et al. Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2009; National Vital Statistics Reports. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr59/nvsr59_04.pdf

8) Xu, J., Kenneth, D., et al. Deaths: Final Data for 2007; National Vital Statistics Reports. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr58/nvsr58_19.pdf

9) Gaskin, Ina. Maternal Death in the United States: A Problem Solved or a Problem Ignored? Journal of Perinatal Education, 2008.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2409165/#citeref9 

10) Deneux-Tharaux, C, Berg, C, et al. Underreporting of Pregnancy-Related Mortality in the United States and Europe. 2005: http://opac.invs.sante.fr/doc_num.php?explnum_id=4060

11) CDC fact sheet on Severe Maternal Morbidity in the US: http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/MaternalInfantHealth/SevereMaternalMorbidity.html

12) National Abortion Federation fact sheet on the risks of abortion: https://www.prochoice.org/about_abortion/facts/safety_of_abortion.html#n5

13) Elixhauser A, Wier M. Complicating Conditions of Pregnancy and Childbirth, 2008. http://www.hcup-us.ahrq.gov/reports/statbriefs/sb113.pdf

14) “Unintended Pregnancies: 2004-2006 N.C. Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS)”  http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p249901coll22/id/22589

15) An epidemiological review of the effects of comprehensive, abstinence-only, and lack of sexual education on the likelihood of teen pregnancy and rate of intercourse: http://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X(07)00426-0/abstract

16) Teen pregnancy rates by state: http://www.livescience.com/27417-teen-pregnancy-rates-by-state.html AND, for comparison, a brief on state policies on sex education: https://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter/spibs/spib_SE.pdf

17) Guttmacher news release on unintended pregnancies and abortions prevented by the use of publicly funded family planning services: https://guttmacher.org/media/nr/2009/02/23/index.html

18) 77% fewer Texas clients for family planning clinics: http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/11/21/after-budget-cuts-texas-family-planning-program-serving-77-percent-fewer-clients/

19) Texas has highest uninsured rate and ranks 8th for poverty: http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2013/09/17/texas-has-highest-uninsured-rate-high-poverty/

20) “Republicans Offer an Obamacare Alternative,” Time Healthcare online: http://swampland.time.com/2014/02/03/obamacare-republican-alternative/

21) The Texas Policy Evaluation Project, “Low-Income Women’s Attitudes About Affordable Family Planning Services” http://www.utexas.edu/cola/orgs/txpep/_files/pdf/TxPEP-ResearchBrief-WomensAttitudesAboutFPServices.pdf

Part 2 of 3

By K.J. Farrell

In Part 1 of this three-part series, the focus was concern that the anti-abortion movement has with numbers in the claims that the media discriminates against them. News coverage and extremist branding are the focus of Part 2.

News Coverage Generally

Anti-abortion complaints about the lack of media attention to their annual 1/22 protest against Roe v. Wade were not justified. As noted in Part 1, there was coverage by all major media sources. The annual Roe v. Wade protests are predictable. Given the intense, real-time competition for consumers of print, online, and broadcast news, priority is given to issues of concern to the market – frigid weather and sports this year. There was no ideological media bias involved.

In addition to the Roe protest, anti-abortion groups do not think that their so-called “pro-life” bills are receiving proper attention. Media coverage of restrictive abortion legislation is newsworthy given the impact on social policy and law.  Even pro-choice bloggers have observed that basketball has received more media attention. After the media reports the initial announcement of the legislation, though, how many repetitions of predictable responses are necessary or beneficial?  Image

Why is it that anti-abortion organizations make such a fuss about media discrimination or bias but, aside from some random pro-choice blogs, there is little complaint from the pro-choice organizations? Why do they think the media favors the pro-choice position, especially given the lack of attention to the restrictive abortion legislation and its intent to erode reproductive rights for women?

One reader raised an interesting point: Any ideological bias on the part of the media could actually be steeped in religious views that favor the anti-abortion position.  Consider a 12/13  Harris Poll that revealed that 74% of U.S. adults believe in God; 54% believe in God with absolute certainty. In another survey, “only 21% of Americans believe humans beings evolved without involvement from God.”  When press coverage is poor or unfavorable, pro-choice supporters could make the claim that ideological bias towards the religious leanings of the anti-abortion movement is responsible.  What I do hear from the anti-abortion community regularly is reference to the religiosity of “most Americans” and message-manipulated polls that “most Americans” support the anti-abortion position. Thus, it would seem a bit of a contradiction: “Most Americans” would include the media. Therefore, if most Americans are religious and against abortion, media discrimination would be against the pro-choice position. Right? This premise takes me back to the questions, “Why all the fuss? Is there discrimination?”

Abortion-Related News and the Marketplace

Let’s look beyond the annual Roe v. Wade events. The criminal trial of former Dr. Kermit Gosnell is continually cited as evidence of media bias favoring abortion rights. I addressed media coverage of the case and will only say here that as egregious as the case was, the media did cover it fully, beginning with the indictment. It is insulting for anyone to suggest that the pro-choice community wanted it kept quiet – if anything, they wanted it exposed to illustrate what can happen when abortion is inaccessible, especially to poor women.

At this writing, there are 261,000 search engine results for the “Gosnell case” – 551,000 for his name alone. There are 86.5 million for “George Zimmerman case”, 12.5 million for “Jodi Arias case”, and 38 million for “Casey Anthony case” – exponentially more for each when “case” is excluded. Yes, the media responds to the marketplace.

Although anti-abortion groups claim that Americans are on their side, they clearly had/have more interest in cases unrelated to abortion or Gosnell. It would be the same situation if a fertility doctor or OB/GYN was found to be violating standards and law, or an adoption lawyer lost his license due to fraud. Media has ethical and practical responsibilities that are more important than the wishes of activists dedicated to a polarized issue. (Does anyone recall the name of the fertility doctor and the professional consequences he had as a result of his involvement in the Nadya Suleman multiple pregnancy? Probably few of you…but you know the names of all others referenced here.)

ImageThe recent “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” (NTFAA) that the House of Representatives recently passed will not likely be introduced in the Senate and, even if it was, President Obama would veto it. The Hyde Amendment already ensures that federal dollars cannot be spent on abortion. Prior versions of the NTFAA included language that introduced the political nuances to the legal term of “forcible” rape. This version is really about stopping insurance companies (private) from providing abortion coverage even though more than 80% include it with other reproductive services, including fertility services. The media knows that it will never be passed. Will coverage benefit their advertisers? No. Editors clearly decided that the coverage provided was sufficient to inform the public.

Contrast the coverage of the NTFAA to the political-conservative-initiated boycott of Girl Scout Cookies that began when the Girl Scouts supported Texas Senator Wendy Davis as someone who could be considered a Woman of the Year. Davis is pro-choice so, naturally, that means the Girl Scouts include abortion rights as part of their agenda. They actually have no position on abortion. Their agenda is developing girls into strong, independent women. Period. Role models are from all political and professional backgrounds.Image

The Girl Scout cookie boycott is newsworthy because the cookies are such an icon of Americana. Few have not had the pleasure of Thin Mints or Trefoils.  Most organizers of boycotts want news coverage.  Media did not create the news – press releases did! But, anti-abortion strategists realize that this is not the kind of news that will help their cause. That leads to the matter of branding with extremism.

 The Branding of the Anti-Abortion Movement by Extremists

Think about the purpose of news – to inform so that readers can form their own opinions. At times, the “goal to be truthful and objective can be at odds with journalistic ethics“ (Carole Rich, PracticalBioethics.org 1994). Those reporting the news must be responsible.

In the summer of 1991, when the notorious Operation Rescue was protesting outside of the clinic of the late Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, a human fetus was pulled out of a jar to illustrate what a late term abortion produces. Responsibly, the media refused to show the dead fetus because there was no evidence that it was connected to Dr. Tiller. Neither the age nor the source of the prop could be verified. Reporting about the fetus took place but without visuals and with context provided to avoid implying that the fetus was from the clinic (Rich).

Operation Rescue was upset that photos of the fetus were not shown. Some anti-abortion groups were upset that it was reported at all because they believed that the media was conspiring to paint all anti-abortion activists as radicals.

To be fair, during the very contentious post-Roe era of Supreme Court decisions, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the media did seem to provide more coverage of anti-abortion activities that involved violence or highly charged characteristics. Various surveys of abortion news concluded that while most likely not intentional, the pro-choice perspective had more column inches about their activities as well as more positive coverage. This prompted news organizations to initiate policies about abortion coverage that remain in place. That said, violence is newsworthy. The media doesn’t control absurd anti-abortion strategies staged for press. Through violence and shock tactics, the anti-abortion movement has branded itself. They have themselves to blame for the media coverage that they find unfavorable. By no means is it discrimination for the media to cover unusual tactics.

When conservative politicians try to justify anti-abortion legislation, they often mention that their constituencies are “everyday” people, not wild eyed religious zealots. It is hard to be convincing when, for example, a person interviewed about traveling to a protest refers to busloads of traveling companions as “die-hard Catholics” and “soldiers of Christ” or when an organizer for an event to celebrate the closing of a clinic in Missouri states that credit for the closure goes to God and those who pray daily.  Worse for politicians is when their colleagues, in promoting the anti-abortion position, discount rape or imply that the sex lives of women are the problem.  It is also challenging to justify public policy dependent on falsehoods.

No organization appreciates it when an inappropriate source is interviewed or a representative performs poorly. It happens. Among the anti-abortion representatives, there seems to be a preference for people who have no capacity to listen, an inability to be or sound reasonable, and talk over people with unproven, false talking points. In July, 2013, should the media have ignored it when former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum “criticiz[ed] the media for portraying the [extremely restrictive abortion] legislation as radical instead of…part of a movement of love”? Had the media not reported, it then would have been accused of withholding media criticism from the public.

ImageThe media is not discriminating when religious zealots, ignorant politicians, and inarticulate organizers who alter or deny facts serve as contacts. Years ago, anti-abortion supporters complained that the very articulate, attractive, African American President of Planned Parenthood, Faye Wattledon, was quoted or interviewed so often. Their position was represented by James Dobson of the Family Research Council or Gary Bauer of Focus on the Family. NARAL’s Kate Michelman and NOW’s Molly Yard also spoke to the national media on the pro-choice side. Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, National Right to Life’s John Wilkes or Wanda Franz, and religious leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson did for the anti-abortion side. Criticism about higher quality spokespeople on the opposing side was an internal issue in the anti-abortion movement – it was not discrimination.

Many of us supporting the pro-choice position are ardent supporters of free speech. We do not want a part of any discrimination towards an opposing view. It is safe to say that there is no discrimination in the news coverage of anti-abortion views or activities.

Stay tuned for Part 3, which will focus on the semantics of the abortion issue and the real discrimination that exists in the media coverage of abortion.


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