Aug 1 2007

Framing the Abortion Ruling

Religious right’s terms leave women out of issue

After the Supreme Court’s Gonzales v. Carhart decision upheld federal legislation that restricted abortion procedures without providing an exception for the woman’s health, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley (4/23/07) voiced a popular media refrain: “What’s interesting is whoever frames this issue the best is who is going to benefit from it politically.”

Crowley was correct in the sense that the way an issue is presented critically impacts how people understand that issue. Therefore, presentation affects how we vote and what sort of demands we make of our political representatives; it’s something political operatives have long understood and tried to exploit.

But Crowley’s analysis rather conspicuously left out one crucial factor: the media. However various players try to frame abortion issues to favor their cause, those messages reach the public primarily through the media, the gatekeepers who unavoidably have to decide which messages get through and how they’re presented. And on the issue of the federal abortion ban, the media’s framing—particularly on broadcast and cable TV—has both left the public remarkably ill-informed and given a serious advantage to the anti-choice movement.

Democrats’ ‘sticky situation’

Crowley’s statement is itself, of course, a frame; what’s “interesting” to much of the media is not so much the fallout for women and their doctors (the members of the public concretely affected by the ruling) but the fallout for politicians and the political world—particularly with elections coming up. On Fox News, Washington bureau managing editor and anchor Brit Hume (Special Report, 4/19/07) reported that the decision “makes for a sticky situation for Democrats, who would just as soon talk about something else.”

Bill O’Reilly detailed why it was such a “sticky” issue for Democrats (O’Reilly Factor, 4/20/07):

Again, the majority of Americans abhor partial birth abortion. They hate it. They understand it isn’t medically necessary. They understand the dodge of the woman’s health, which could be a headache. They understand it. They got it. They don’t want babies having holes drilled into their heads. . . . Aren’t [Democrats] concerned about the babies that are having holes drilled in their heads?

When Chris Matthews (NBC’s Chris Matthews Show, 4/22/07) asked the BBC’s Kathy Kay, one of his regulars, if she thought the ruling would be “a huge boost for Hillary Clinton,” Kay said no, noting that Democrats are “going to be looking at the moderates and thinking, ‘We don’t want to scare them off.’” Roundtable colleague Kelly O’Donnell of NBC concurred: “That’s what makes it so difficult, because this procedure does upset many people, and so they do want to go very big, talk in the broadest terms.”

The Washington Post (4/19/06) wrote that although every Democratic presidential candidate issued strong statements condemning the ruling, reproductive rights “may not be a fight the Democrats want” for the elections:

Despite the Democrats’ harsh words, many in the party acknowledge they won control of Congress in November in part because they neutralized abortion and other hot-button social issues, fielding candidates who shared the more nuanced views of Midwestern and suburban voters.

The media myth that the “moderate middle” was the secret to Democrats’ midterm success was, unsurprisingly, heavily pushed after those elections by centrist Democrats and their supporters (Extra!, 1-2/06). Predictably, the only source cited by the Post to support its argument this time around was a representative from Third Way, a think tank that urges Democrats to move to the right.

Cokie Roberts, news analyst for ABC and NPR, argued (ABC’s This Week, 4/22/07) that it had been

very foolish for the pro-choice forces to make this fight. . . . They got it as far as the courts, and they didn’t need to do that, and the fact of the matter is that this is a particularly grisly form of abortion. It forces everyone to pay attention to all forms of abortion. . . . And it was something that, as George [Stephanopoulos] pointed out, majorities of both parties voted for, and it becomes something that, you know, you get—you find yourself in an extreme position.

Roberts had both her facts wrong and her analysis backwards: A majority of Democratic lawmakers voted against the legislation, not for it, and it was the anti-choice forces that “made” this fight by crafting and pushing through the legislation.

On anti-choice terms

Looking at the bigger picture, how “extreme” is opposing the federal abortion ban? Media like to point to their polls that show strong majorities in favor of the ban, but how reliable is that polling? What do people even really understand about the law they’re being asked to judge? Most of their information on the subject comes from the media—which means that they’re most likely lost in a fog of misinformation.

The fog begins from the moment the issue is introduced. Mainstream media have long been aware that the term “partial-birth abortion” is inflammatory language, not medical terminology, devised by the anti-choice movement to inspire revulsion-based support for restrictions on abortion (Extra!, 3-4/00). Instead of excising such clearly biased terminology from their lexicon, however, many journalists, particularly on television, simply tack on a “so-called” or “what opponents call” to qualify it, as if that neutralizes the term—and even those weak qualifiers are often dispensed with (e.g., CNN, 4/23/07; ABC, 5/16/07; Fox, 4/19/07). Apparently the media have decided it’s just not worth the time or trouble to get it right; as a top Associated Press editor once admitted, reporters use “partial-birth abortion” because it is instantly recognizable (Extra!, 3-4/00).

It’s true that the anti-choice movement dealt the media a slightly tricky hand, since “partial-birth abortion” as defined by Congress in the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act does not, in fact, clearly refer to one specific medical procedure. The targeted procedure would seem to be one medically known as “intact dilation and evacuation” or “intact dilation and extraction.” But that procedure is not always clearly differentiated from another more common procedure known simply as “dilation and evacuation” or “dilation and extraction.”

This crucial point was made by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, representing more than 90 percent of American OB-GYNs, in an amicus brief that said the law’s ambiguity could chill doctors from performing procedures “well beyond those procedures that the Act purports to target.” It’s an ambiguous definition that’s crucial to the case, which means that it’s all the more important that journalists choose their words with care rather than simply resort to inflammatory, politically charged lingo.

When they’re trying just a little harder, a common substitute the media have hit upon is some variation on “late-term abortion.” While more innocuous-sounding than its alternative, this widely used phrase is actually equally loaded and misleading. Like “partial-birth abortion,” “late-term abortion” has no medical definition, but it is often interpreted as third trimester or post-viability—points after which public opposition to abortion jumps.

The federal abortion ban, however, does not outlaw abortions based on gestational age or viability, but based only on the type of procedure used, and the banned procedures in fact are generally used in the second trimester, both pre- and post-viability. (Viability itself is not achieved at a fixed point in pregnancy, but medical consensus generally places it at about the 24th week, a little more than midway through the second trimester. That’s assuming that the fetus is healthy; one common reason the relatively rare procedures are performed is because of fetal anomalies.)

‘Late-term’ laziness

But with the media’s help, the deceptive phrase has quietly permeated the discourse, confusing and obscuring the issues at stake. As Justice Ruth Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy himself, writing for the majority, referred to second-term, pre-viability abortions as “late-term.”

Citing a demographer from the nonprofit reproductive health research group the Guttmacher Institute, the Washington Post (4/19/07) reported, “Although many people believe the technique is done only at an advanced gestational age, ‘most D&X procedures in 2000 were second-trimester, not third-trimester, abortions.’” And why might many people hold that incorrect belief? You needn’t look farther than the article’s own subhead—“Statistics on Late-Term Procedure Among Most Contested”—and description of the procedure: “a late-term procedure that opponents call ‘partial-birth’ abortion.”

Discussing the ruling on NBC’s Chris Matthews Show (4/22/07), New York Times columnist David Brooks laid bare both his own ignorance on the subject and the emotional charge that lurks beneath the phrase “late-term”:

The issue is late-term abortion, which offends almost all Republicans and almost all Democrats. . . . Once you get to the sixth month, a fetus in the sixth month is dreaming, it’s hearing the voice, it’s recognizing voices. It is biologically very similar to the human baby. And a lot of us who are not for making abortion illegal in the first trimester are certainly in favor of making it illegal in the third because of the reality of the third trimester.

Later, host Matthews added, “When you get to late-term, people do say, ‘My baby just kicked me.’”

It’s only a short leap from there to Fox News, where reporters wholeheartedly embraced the language of anti-choice activists, using not just “partial birth” and “late-term” but “unborn” and “child.” Fox congressional correspondent Major Garrett described how a doctor would “partially deliver a child, pierce the skull and vacuum out the contents to ease the child’s removal from the woman”; in another report (Special Report, 4/19/07), he described the fetus as a “late-term child.” Fox’s Brit Hume explained (Special Report, 4/18/07) that “the unborn but living fetus’s head is partially extracted from the womb and then it’s punctured and brain sucked out in order to kill it”—and let’s not forget O’Reilly’s (4/20/07) “babies having holes drilled into their heads.”

Erasing women

All of these terms and phrases not only misinform and demagogue, they necessarily prioritize the fetus over the woman in the equation, defining the issue from the outset around its status and presumed interests as opposed to the status and interests of the woman—which is exactly the frame anti-choice activists have been pushing for, since it’s much easier to gain support for abortion restrictions or bans of any kind when the woman is erased from the picture.

And erased she was in much of the media, with the notable exceptions of some strong print articles and editorials. Largely missing were explanations of why a woman might find herself choosing to undergo the procedure and what the consequences of the ban could be for women and doctors now, not just if Roe v. Wade is reversed in the future.

Roe v. Wade and later court cases had all affirmed the importance of an exception for the woman’s health in any bans or restrictions on abortions. In Gonzales v. Carhart, the court ruled not that the procedure is never medically necessary (as the legislation asserts as its justification for the ban), but that there is “medical uncertainty” on the subject, and that therefore a health exception is not constitutionally necessary. Ginsburg found this argument “bewildering”:

Not only does it defy the court’s longstanding precedent affirming the necessity of a health exception, with no carve-out for circumstances of medical uncertainty . . . it gives short shrift to the records before us . . . [that] indicate that “the majority of highly qualified experts on the subject believe intact D&E to be the safest, most appropriate procedure under certain circumstances.

Those circumstances, according to the ACOG’s amicus brief, include the woman having certain chronic medical conditions (like bleeding disorders or heart disease) or pregnancy complications, or the fetus having certain abnormalities (such as severe hydrocephalus, a greatly enlarged head).

What Ginsburg also made clear in her scathing dissent, though it went virtually unmentioned in the media, was that young women and poor women are more likely than others to need intact D&E, because they’re less likely to be able to access abortions in a timely manner. Adolescents often don’t realize they’re pregnant or fear their parents’ reaction, and poor women may have trouble getting together sufficient money for the procedure.

The court has ruled, in effect, that all of these women will now still be able to terminate their pregnancy, but they may be compelled by the state to do so in a way that puts their health in jeopardy, against the best judgment of their doctor. That lack of health exception both endangers real women’s lives now and opens the door for further erosion of women’s reproductive rights and health in the future, whether the court reverses Roe v. Wade or not. But that reality was too often missing from media’s reporting on the subject.*

Appalling polling

When it comes time to take the pulse of the public, then, it’s no surprise that polls show support for the ban. The questions are at times appallingly biased themselves: A recent poll conducted by both CNN (5/4-6/07) and Gallup (5/10-13/07) asked this question: “Now I would like to ask your opinion about a specific abortion procedure known as ‘late-term’ abortion or ‘partial-birth’ abortion, which is sometimes performed on women during the last few months of pregnancy. Do you think that this procedure should be legal or illegal?” CNN found 66 percent said illegal, Gallup 72 percent—but given that the actual procedures banned are used more often in the middle trimester, this question has scarcely anything to do with the federal abortion ban.

The information not given can also bias the outcome tremendously—as demonstrated by an earlier ABC poll (7/03) that asked, “Do you think the late-term abortion procedure known as dilation and extraction, or partial-birth abortion, should be legal or illegal?” Sixty-two percent said “illegal”—a result comparable to CNN’s in its 2007 poll—but when a follow-up question asked, “What if it would prevent a serious threat to the woman’s health?” the number who still responded “illegal” plummeted to 33 percent.

Another poll asked if abortion should be legal or illegal “when the woman’s physical health is endangered” (CNN/ USA Today/Gallup, 1/10-12/03); 77 percent favored legal abortion under those circumstances. But very few polls—or stories, for that matter—make reference to women’s health, so we’re left with people’s opinions about a parallel universe where restrictions on women’s medical choices don’t affect health outcomes.

Clearly, the framework of the questions makes a tremendous difference in people’s responses to polls on the abortion ban, and there’s a strong case to be made that opposing the ban is not an unpopular position Democrats ought to run from, as the media and its biased polls would have us believe. But as long as the media continue to distort the debate with anti-choice terminology, the public will remain lost in that fog of misinformation and those working to protect women’s rights, health and lives will have a tough road ahead.

* One observer who recognized that the ruling would have health consequences for women was Tom Minnery of the religious right group Focus on the Family, who told the Washington Post (6/4/07) that abortion procedures that remain legal have “greater legal liability and danger of internal bleeding from a perforated uterus. So we firmly believe there will be fewer later-term abortions as a result of this ruling.”