Spinning the Sotomayor Abortion Debate in the NYT

Charlie Savage did some good reporting on the Bush signing statements, but his front-page story in today’s New York Times on reproductive rights groups’ reaction to Sotomayor is way off course. His lead explains that abortion rights advocates are worried about Sotomayor, because “when she has written opinions that touched tangentially on abortion disputes, she has reached outcomes in some cases that were favorable to abortion opponents.”

OK, so what are those opinions? Here’s what he names: She ruled in favor of the Bush administration’s reinstatement of the global gag rule; she ruled that anti-abortion protesters could take police to court for allegedly using excessive force to break up one of their demonstrations; and she’s ruled in a few cases in favor of Chinese refugees seeking asylum because of China’s forced abortion policies.

Now, who’s uneasy about these? I’ve looked around, and the only one cited by any reproductive rights groups I’ve seen is the first–it was a case brought by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (now the Center for Reproductive Rights)–though I’ve also seen other reproductive rights advocates say it was a narrow ruling based pretty clearly on precedent and not something that would threaten Roe. The second one I haven’t seen mentioned –it would seem to be about abusive police conduct rather than reproductive rights, anyway, so it’s not really clear why it should be included here.

But the third category is just absurd. Those are pro-reproductive rights rulings that no reproductive rights group I’ve heard of is protesting (and it would be frankly bizarre and troubling if they were). He even quotes an anti-choice activist saying basically as much, though in a much more pejorative way: “even ‘the most radical feminist’ would object to forcing women to abort wanted pregnancies.”

So why were those seemingly unrelated cases included in the piece? It seems Savage got most of the material for this article–an article about reproductive rights groups’ reactions to Sotomayor, remember–from a religious anti-choice group’s website. And as far as one can tell from reading the article, the only people he actually spoke to were two anti-choice advocates. That’s a mighty odd way to write about reproductive rights backers’ feelings on the subject. Since part of the way the anti-choice movement works to chip away support of reproductive rights is to falsely frame advocates as “pro-abortion,” Savage plays right into their hands, making that association for them on the front page of the New York Times.

It does seem that some reproductive rights groups are concerned about Sotomayor’s position on Roe v. Wade, since that hasn’t been spelled out yet. If you’re going to write about that, here’s a much more logical (and responsible) way to do it–talking to reproductive rights groups in order to frame your story about what their concerns are, rather than using their opponents’ talking points to conjure up false arguments.

About Julie Hollar

Managing Editor of Extra! Magazine
Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.