May 1 2001

Self-Gagged on Gag Rule

Coverage of family-planning restrictions inaccurate, incomplete

George W. Bush celebrated his first working day in office–and the 28th anniversary of Roe v. Wade (1/22/01)–by reinstating the Mexico City Policy, a Reagan-era rule that bans U.S. family planning aid to overseas groups that provide abortions or referrals–even if they do so with private, non-U.S. funds. Under the rule (lifted in 1993 by Bill Clinton), U.S. aid recipients cannot use their own money to discuss abortion as a medical option, lobby their own governments for legal reforms, or conduct “public information campaigns” about the procedure.

Long condemned in family-planning circles as the “global gag rule,” the ban has wide-ranging implications for the health and free speech of women from Albania to Zimbabwe, 78,000 of whom die annually from unsafe abortions, according to the World Health Organization. In countries where abortion is legal, organizations that receive U.S. aid must refuse to advise women about their reproductive rights or relinquish the U.S. population funds they rely on to provide contraceptive programs, maternal care, AIDS prevention and other crucial services. Where abortion is illegal, recipients must give up the right to encourage democratic reforms that would save thousands of women’s lives.

Since this speech-squelching policy isn’t exactly soundbite-friendly, the White House employed a careful misinformation strategy when discussing the gag rule with the press. In a memo to the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID), Bush justified his move by saying, “It is my conviction that taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortion.” That is a concept for which “there’s, frankly, widespread bipartisan support,” press secretary Ari Fleischer insisted. These quotes dominated news coverage on the first two days after the administration announced the ban.

Irrelevant rationale

But the White House rationale hasn’t been relevant since 1973, when Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) passed an amendment preventing U.S. aid from directly financing foreign abortion-related services. Though not one U.S. dollar has been spent on such purposes for 28 years, outlets across the country uncritically repeated Bush and Fleischer’s mischaracterizations in front-page stories, with headlines such as “Bush Halts Funding Used for Abortions” (Houston Chronicle, 1/23/01).

Many initial reports either failed to correct Bush’s error or repeated it in their own words (e.g., CNN, 1/22/01; Washington Post, 1/23/01). What corrective information there was often appeared in passing near the end of the story or came in the form of quotes or paraphrases from reproductive rights activists: Three paragraphs from the end of its front-page story, the Boston Herald (1/23/01) reported that “U.S. Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D.-Lowell) asserted that U.S. funds are not directly used for abortions,” presenting the fact as an assertion of opinion rather than a matter of public record.

Not every outlet made those mistakes. Some, like the Los Angeles Times (1/23/01), got the facts right from day one, reporting in two front-page stories that the gag rule restricts how foreign groups spend their own money.

But few news reporters made the effort to substantively examine the gag rule’s international implications, preferring to focus on how imposing ban might affect Bush’s image as a “uniter, not a divider” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1/23/01). This tendency to view abortion from the standpoint of Washington politics was typified in the Washington Post (1/23/01), where three prominent stories examined reactions of American abortion rights supporters and opponents, but gave no insights into the rule’s impact abroad.

More news in editorials

While the gag rule was reported primarily as a political football, editorials and opinion pieces dissected Bush’s spin, cited UN and World Health Organization maternal mortality statistics and checked the historical record, providing a depth of information missing from most news sections. Many newspapers noted that the U.S. has not funded abortions abroad since 1973; several branded Bush “disingenuous” for implying otherwise (e.g., New York Times, 1/24/01).

And where reporters didn’t spill much ink on the gag rule’s anti-democratic underpinnings, the Washington Post (1/25/01) editorialized that it “would be unconstitutional on free-speech grounds in this country.” The Baltimore Sun (1/24/01) called it “an attempt to legislate for other sovereign countries.”

Some editorials drew connections with other administrative priorities, questioning how Bush reconciled the gag rule with his initiative to give taxpayer funds to American religious charities. Perhaps, the Wisconsin State Journal (1/24/01) pondered, Bush should “demand that they never mention God, even on their own dime.” (In fact, as the Washington Post reported on February 1, Bush privately linked “the executive order I signed about Mexico City”–i.e., the gag rule–to his Office of Faith-Based Social Services, referring to both as part of “a larger calling…about changing the culture of the country” against abortion rights.)

First impressions

Despite the corrective editorials, subsequent news coverage of the gag rule was only sporadically more accurate–and in-depth, analytical follow-up continued to be hard to find.

There were exceptions. The Washington Post made a particular effort to set the record straight, running a correction (1/24/01) and a detailed page-2 story (1/26/01) that noted, “the rhetoric accompanying the latest round of debate has added to confusion over what U.S. policy actually has been, and what it is now.” Finally, Post ombudsman Michael Getler acknowledged (1/28/01) that the paper “fell short…on providing the background, meaning and alternative view of what was taking place, and in critiquing the White House statement.”

Commendably, a handful of outlets filed excellent stories from Mexico (Christian Science Monitor, 1/25/01), South Africa (Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/25/01), Guyana and Cambodia (Chicago Tribune, 2/7/01, 3/14/01), exploring how the gag rule will practically affect family planning efforts and social, economic and health issues in those countries.

As strong as these pieces were, none was carried on page one, and none carried the weight of those initial news reports. Well after editorials cleaned up reporters’ shallow and misleading stories, papers like the Seattle Times (1/26/01), Baltimore Sun (1/28/01) and Christian Science Monitor (1/29/01) were still publishing letters from readers on whom the administration’s inaccurate spin left a lasting impression. “No matter what your position on abortion, it is simply wrong to use taxpayer money to fund abortion clinics or operations. A woman’s right to choose is not affected by the denial of taxpayer funding,” one Los Angeles Times reader wrote (1/25/01).

The White House knows how important first impressions are; “You only get one start,” Ari Fleischer told the San Diego Union-Tribune (1/29/01), “and the tone you set sends a strong message to the American people.”