Aug
01
1992

Abortion Coverage Leaves Women out of the Picture

As a background graphic for reports on abortion, TV has sometimes used a depiction of a late-term fetus hanging in space, with no connection to a pregnant woman. The "floating fetus" logo is in sync with the media's tendency to push women out of the public's mental picture of the abortion issue.

In recent years, national media have heavily covered the issue of abortion. In 1989 and 1990, close to 1500 articles on abortion appeared in major dailies; the weeklies -- Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report -- have featured stories on abortion more regularly than any other social policy issue.

However, as is the case with other social policy issues such as civil rights or welfare, abortion is more often covered not from the perspective of those most affected by the issue, but from the standpoint of Washington politics. According to the National Newspaper Index of major dailies, there were more articles on how the issue of abortion has affected various political candidacies, races and parties than there were articles on how women with unwanted pregnancies are affected by growing restrictions on funding and counseling.

Though former Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida will never have an abortion, a Washington Post headline declared (8/1/89): "Governor at Risk on Abortion Issue." While it is individual women, not political parties, who confront the choice to terminate a pregnancy, a Wall Street Journal headline stated(10/20/89): "Abortion Debate Proves Painful for Republicans."

National news outlets have occasionally shown themselves willing to deal with the painful reality of abortion for women and the tragedy of unwanted children -- but usually only when discussing abortion policies of foreign governments, in particular the policies of Eastern European countries under Communism. For example, Newsweek published an article titled "When Abortion Is Denied: What of the 'Unwanted'?" (8/22/88), discussing the consequences of Czechoslovakia's ban on abortions. And the Washington Post ran a poignant article (6/17/90) on restricted access to abortion in Romania under Ceausescu. But the human consequences of restricting access to abortion in the U.S. have seldom made news.

What is striking in the coverage of abortion in mainstream media is the lack of opportunities that U.S. women have to speak for themselves and articulate their concerns. Although stories regularly carried the soundbites of abortion-rights representatives and anti-abortion spokespersons, the women affected by specific restrictions were rarely cited as sources in abortion stories.

For example, the Supreme Court decision that enabled states to require women under the age of 18 to get parental consent before getting an abortion was widely covered. However, while more than 1 million teenagers become pregnant each year, and thousands of them are affected by state legislation requiring parental consent, reporters almost never sought their reaction, covering the legal change without consulting anyone in the group that it impacts.

Articles on the recent cuts in Medicaid funding for abortion, and on President Bush's veto of a provision that would have granted an exception in cases of rape or incest, similarly failed to quote the women who would be affected -- poor women, largely women of color, and rape and incest victims. Rather, the story was played as a political skirmish, with members of Congress and administration officials, mostly male, squaring off against each other and trying to appear principled.

One recent challenge to abortion rights has been in the realm of abortion referrals and counseling. In September 1990, the Supreme Court was asked by the Bush administration to uphold federal regulations that prevent doctors, nurses and counselors at federally funded family-planning clinics from discussing the option of abortion or referring patients to abortion providers. An exceptional front-page article in the Washington Post (10/30/90) interviewed women who count on the services of these clinics and contemplated what it would mean if they closed. But most stories on the issue merely reported that the "U.S. Files Narrow Defense on Abortion Counseling" (New York Times, 9/9/90) and were relegated to the back pages.

Not only have women been undercited as a source in abortion stories, but much space has been devoted to questioning their capacity to speak on the subject altogether. (See Extra!, 7-8/90.) The Los Angeles Times (6/3/90)devoted 28 column inches to exploring the question, "Can Woman Reporters Write Objectively on Abortion?" -- without pondering whether male reporters can.