Feb 1 1994

Koppel’s ‘Tough Question’: Should Doctors Be Killed?

Nightline‘s December 8, 1993 program was a prime example of imbalanced, irresponsible journalism. The issue was the killing of doctors who perform abortions: not how it can be prevented, but whether such attacks are justified.

Invited into the studio to discuss this “issue” were Helen Alvare, a representative of the Catholic Bishops Pro-Life Committee, an anti-abortion group, and Paul Hill, the director of a tiny anti-abortion faction called Defensive Action, which advocates the killing of doctors. No one with a pro-choice viewpoint was allowed to participate in the live discussion. (The three soundbites from pro-choice sources in the pre-recorded portion of the broadcast were well outnumbered by 12 soundbites from advocates of anti-abortion violence.)

Koppel opened the show by comparing the number of legal abortions with the number of murdered doctors–an equation often made by those who justify violence against clinics. “Here’s the latest casualty count from the battlefront between the pro-life and the pro-choice movements,” Koppel began. “Thirty million aborted fetuses over the past 30 [sic] years since Roe v. Wade…. On the other side of the ledger, 7,709 incidents of violence and disruption targeting doctors and abortion clinics since 1977… [including] one attempted murder and one successful murder.”

This sort of arithmetic leaves pregnant women–including the estimated 200,000 women who die each year during illegal abortions worldwide–entirely out of the picture. Hill picked up on Koppel’s theme when given his opportunity to explain his advocacy of killing doctors: “We’re saying 30 million children have died…. Sometimes you have to use force to stop people from killing innocent children.”

While opposing Hill’s tactics, Alvare used similar language: “Even if you were to harm an abortionist, the child who the abortionist was going to destroy is probably going to be destroyed either tomorrow by another one, or later by the same abortionist.”

Faced with two anti-abortion guests, host Ted Koppel did not pose any questions from a pro-choice viewpoint. Rather, his questions seemed to echo his guests’ assumption that the only relevant question was the appropriate tactics to stop abortion. Koppel never questioned Hill’s constant equation of terminating a pregnancy with killing a child, as when Hill proclaimed that “we” (implicitly men) shouldn’t “stand by with our hands in our pockets and watch, say, our wives kill our unborn children.”

Rather than taking issue with the misogyny of that statement, Koppel turned to Alvare, asking her to address “that very, very difficult moral question, the difference between a child that is one day old and a child that is one day away from birth. That’s perhaps the toughest question of all.”

During a commercial break, Koppel seemed to have been reminded that abortions are almost never performed in the final three months of pregnancies, but he still blurred any distinction between a baby and a fetus: “If a parent would be justified in using violence, even deadly force, to protect a one-day-old infant,” Koppel asked Alvare, “why is that same parent not justified in using the same kind of force to prevent the abortion of, let’s say, a five-month-old child?”

Nightline‘s decision to treat the issue of doctor-murder as solely a tactical debate within the anti-abortion movement is peculiar. It is difficult to imagine the show bringing on representatives of a mainstream peace group and a far-left organization to discuss, say, whether bombing Army recruitment offices is a justifiable way to oppose U.S. military intervention.

Is it possible that people will die because Nightline provided a platform to an advocate of murder? In a taped interview broadcast at the beginning of the show, Hill bragged of his influence on Rachelle Shannon, arrested in the non-fatal shooting of a Kansas doctor. He had sent Shannon an essay with the message, “There is no question that deadly force should be used to protect innocent life.” Thanks to ABC and Ted Koppel, Hill has now been able to bring that same message to millions of people.

If you are concerned about Nightline‘s allowing an anti-abortion activist to advocate violence against doctors, without any opposition that would question his anti-abortion assumptions, express your views to Ted Koppel, Nightline,1717 DeSales St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036 (or phone 202-887-7364). Please send a copy of your letter to FAIR, and let us know what kind of response you get.