Mar 1 2000

Partial Truth Abortion Coverage

Media adopt rhetoric of 'fetal rights'

Coverage of restrictive abortion legislation demonstrates that “balanced” reporting is not necessarily synonymous with accurate reporting. Even while seeming to present impartial facts, media often simultaneously participate in the subtle rhetorical shift toward elevating the fetus to a legal standing separate and equal to a woman’s.

The “rights of the unborn” is the most recent gambit for the movement to curb reproductive choice–illustrated by Arkansas’ Fetal Protection Act, which punishes attackers separately for crimes against a fetus; Missouri’s extremist Infant Protection Act (currently under a judicial restraining order), which threatens women and doctors with sentences of up to life in prison for causing the death of an “intact child”; and the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act (UVVA), which passed the House of Representatives in September 1999, seeking to make killing or injuring a fetus a federal crime.

The new twist in the struggle to define when life begins has created an unprecedented legal category, and a vocabulary of redefined words like “infanticide” and new words like “feticide” with no set meanings. Far from questioning the use of these nebulous terms, employing doctors’ opinions or medical definitions, reporters tend to recycle wholesale inflammatory and cryptic terms–like “partial-birth abortion,” “intact child,” “infant protection” and “fetal protection.” The indiscriminate appearance of such expressions in the press lends them a scientific credibility that they have not earned.

A slogan without fixed meaning

“Partial-birth abortion” is one term that has been widely adopted by the media, despite being a political construct that refers to no known medical procedure. The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act was sold to the public as banning one procedure late in pregnancy, when in fact the vague language could ban a wide variety of abortions, even before fetal viability. In coverage of three runs through Congress and attempts in some 30 states to institute a ban, the press has consistently adopted the inflammatory phrase.

In the matter’s first hearing before a federal appellate court, in September 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit unanimously declared “partial birth” bans in three states unconstitutional. In the ruling, Judge Richard S. Arnold said, “The law refers to ‘partial birth abortion,’ but this term, though widely used by lawmakers and in the popular press, has no fixed medical or legal content.” (Village Voice, 12/21/99) The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists argues that “the definitions could be interpreted to include elements of many recognized abortion and operative obstetric techniques.”

While some reporters supplement their use of the phrase by adding “so-called” or “the procedure known as” in front of “partial birth abortion,” others–in outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and major wire services–often neglect to distinguish it from medical fact. In response to a complaint from the Center for Reproductive and Law & Policy, Mike Silverman, AP‘s deputy managing editor, admitted that “birth” is a loaded word in the context of an abortion procedure, but said that reporters use “partial birth abortion” because it is instantly recognizable.

In a Washington Post article (9/23/99) about the Missouri law that attempts to define abortion as “infanticide,” reporter William Claiborne identifies the procedure in question as “what opponents call ‘partial birth’ abortions.” What were readers to deduce, then, from the fact that Claiborne himself refers to the procedure as “partial birth abortion”–without quotation marks–throughout the remainder of the article?

Protecting fetuses, not women

Similarly, outlets covering the Unborn Victims of Violence Act have appropriated the political slogan “unborn child” instead of the medical terms “embryo” or “fetus.” For example, one AP article reported (9/30/99): “Some 24 states have laws that recognize the unborn as potential victims.” The adoption of an imprecise term like “the unborn” helps assimilate loaded, propagandistic language into the general vocabulary.

Accounts of UVVA typically included a disapproving quote from Planned Parenthood or the ACLU, followed by one from the National Right to Life Committee denying that abortion foes are using the bill as a proxy vote on Roe vs. Wade. But when Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council asserted that “recognizing the personhood of the preborn child” in the Unborn Victims of Violence Act was a “profoundly significant moment in pro-life history,” it only appeared in four outlets on the Nexis database, including AP and AP Online (10/1/99). Parshall’s comment indicates that the legislation is part of a larger strategy which aims to overturn the right to choose, but it did not become part of the journalistic discussion; Rep. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C), the bill’s sponsor, instead appeared in nearly every article insisting that UVVA has nothing to do with abortion.

Conservative legislators present fetal rights legislation as a way to protect women from abusive partners, but such legislation is designed to prioritize the fetus, not to hone in on the problem of domestic violence. The press presented Arkansas’ Fetal Protection Act as a narrow and safe pro-woman law; in fact, like the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, it fails to see that an assault that harms a pregnancy is inherently an attack on a woman. Significantly, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence does not support UVVA, and none of the co-sponsors of UVVA signed on to the Violence Against Women Act–facts unnoted in mainstream press coverage.

When Shawana Pace, a nine-months-pregnant Arkansas college student, miscarried after being brutally beaten by three men allegedly hired by her boyfriend, the press used her case as a lead-in to describing Arkansas’ Fetal Protection Act and its federal twin. Stressing the tragedy of the miscarriage, reports in the local Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (e.g., 8/31/99), AP (e.g., 8/31/99) and UPI (9/4/99) neglected to describe the woman’s injuries: Pace had to have her spleen removed after the attack.

Green light for terror

Because Missouri’s Infant Protection Act (IPA) is recognizably the most extreme in the country, creating a felony of “infanticide,” banning virtually all abortions back to the sixth week of pregnancy, and providing no health exception and a very narrow life exception for the woman, it received more attention than other anti-choice legislation. In a front-page article in the Los Angles Times (9/17/99), reporter Stephanie Simon made clear that “the law’s fuzzy language” could “threaten doctors and–for the first time–women with sentences of up to life for causing the death of any ‘intact child’ who is ‘partially born or born.'” As is the case with UVVA, lawmakers were hoping that the unusual wording of the IPA, and its tack of targeting murder, not abortion, would help it survive a court challenge.

But the press played down the most menacing aspect of the legislation: that IPA seems intended to legalize violence against doctors. After vetoing the law, Gov. Mel Carnahan wrote a furious editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (10/3/99), pointing out that the bill gave “legal defense to anyone who uses violence–including deadly force–to prevent an abortion that he or she ‘reasonably believes’ is banned by the bill.” This defense is integrated into the bill in a covert manner: A technical-sounding reference to another part of the Missouri code turns out to relate to the legitimate use of force, thereby giving a green light to clinic terrorism.

Yet not one account of IPA gave the terrorist’s clause more than a brusque, sentence-long description, or addressed its sanctioning of murder outside the context of Carnahan’s statements. AP‘s bloodless description of the clause was typical (9/17/99): “Carnahan, the Democratic governor, has said the measure could be interpreted as a legal defense for violence against abortion providers and could end up outlawing more procedures than the one targeted.” It’s surprising that news outlets did not find the passage of a state law effectively endorsing violence against abortion providers more worthy of comment.

Miranda Kennedy writes about reproductive rights for several publications and currently lives in Brooklyn.