If there is one image that has come to epitomize the abortion debate, it is pro-choice and anti-abortion demonstrators shouting at each other, brandishing placards. Mainstream media specializes in “extremists of both ends” coverage, bemoaning the “angry rhetoric” of both sides.
The search for “compromise” has long been a staple of abortion reporting, and in recent months, with the Supreme Court’s decision on the fate of Roe v. Wade imminent, the media seemed to have stepped up their efforts. In February and March, several outlets ran positive profiles of the “common-ground movement,” founded in St. Louis to promote dialogue between supporters and opponents of abortion.
Faced with “voices shouting in anger on both sides,” CBS Evening News correspondent Bruce Morton reported on an “Eye on America” segment (3/10/92), “some dedicated Americans [have] moved the abortion issue from a battleground to common ground.” The only point of agreement discernable from the report was mutual support for healthy babies, but even that was seized upon as a breakthrough by an enthusiastic Morton: “Help for pregnant women. Help for babies. Common ground.”The idea that the need for abortion can be eliminated through increased support for mothers—pushed by, among others, Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens—also fueled Life Itself, the widely publicized new book by pundit-at-large Roger Rosenblatt (MacNeil/Lehrer, Newsweek). Rosenblatt,noting the high level of ambivalence in polls on abortion (without questioning what impact media coverage has on poll results), suggested that we “permit but discourage” abortion—a solution that would satisfy neither side, allowing for the harassment of pregnant women while legal abortion continued. Nonetheless, Rosenblatt’s book received a lengthy excerpt in the New York Times Magazine (1/19/ 92), and won praise from the New York Times Book Review (3/15/92) for avoiding the “usual shouting-match anger” and revealing the “common anxieties” of abortion-rights and anti-abortion advocates.
The compromise theme is paralleled in the entertainment media, which have been dodging the abortion issue ever since a 1972 episode of Maude in which the lead character had an abortion, sending advertisers fleeing. Since then, though unwanted pregnancies are a staple of primetime programming, abortions have been almost non-existent. The ABC series China Beach reportedly scrapped a story line in which the lead character had an abortion because it would make her less “attractive”—instead, a supporting character brewed up a home abortion and almost died from complications.
Several pro-choice producers have fallen back on their own form of compromise: having their characters mull the possibility of abortion, then choose to have the baby—a plot- line followed by both CBS‘s Murphy Brown and ABC‘s Sisters last year. As Murphy Brown producer Diane English told the New York Times (5/31/92), “If I went to CBS and said, ‘I’d like Murphy to have an abortion,’ it would have been a long, hard struggle, and I can’t say whether they’d stand behind me.”
That the public turmoil over abortion had an impact on the Supreme Court is apparent from the Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which made clear they were concerned that overturning Roe v. Wade outright would come “at the cost of both profound and unnecessary damage to the Court’s legitimacy, and to the nation’s commitment to the rule of law.” Their solution: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s “undue burden” test, a “compromise” that legal experts fear could permit all but the most stringent anti-abortion legislation.
As a public relations move, however, “undue burden” worked beautifully. Most coverage the day after Casey implied that the significant development was not that the Court had upheld Pennsylvania’s unprecedented restrictions on abortion, but that “moderates” on the Court had shied away from formally overturning Roe. (The New York Times led the pack with its June 30 banner headline: “High Court, 5-4, Affirms Right to Abortion But Allows Most of Pennsylvania’s Limits.”) On a Lifetime cable special July 1, moderator Linda Ellerbee sidestepped the question of whether Roe v. Wade had been eviscerated by balancing the middle ground against itself, explaining how the Casey decision was, “depending on who you ask, a defeat for both sides, or a victory for moderation.”
“The “evenhandedness” on display was so extreme that New York Newsday felt the need to run an editorial the day after the decision (6/30/92), criticizing as “simplistic logic” the idea that “when neither side is happy with an outcome, then it must be a wise compromise.” Newsday‘s front-page headline that day: “Abortion Ruling: No One Wins.”
Neil DeMause writes a monthly media column for the Guardian.