Once again, President Bush pledged in his State of the Union address to stretch the word counts of news reporters by signing a bill to ban “what opponents call partial-birth abortion.” That resurfacing bill, along with other pro-life legislation and judicial nominations for strict-constructionist judges, has abortion advocates fearing that someone, somewhere might let a baby survive.
In a Los Angeles Times article on the Roe vs. Wade anniversary, the routinely biased Supreme Court reporter David Savage strained his keyboard by setting up Betsy Cavendish, “legal director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, formerly known as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.” She warned “Roe is in grave peril…A switch in one vote (at the high court) could ban some abortion procedures and possibly ban second-trimester abortions.” That’s not exactly true. Six justices are currently committed to Roe, and five crumped a Nebraska partial-birth ban in 2000. That’s where NARAL could worry about “one vote away.”
Abortion enthusiasts have spent much of the last 30 years touting the line that Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion in Roe created a utopian America where any curtailment of abortion on demand meant the whittling away of the Supreme Court’s “landmark” ruling. In legal reality, the supposed moderation of Blackmun’s clumsy trimester-dividing opinion — allowing regulations for late-term abortions if they didn’t infringe on the health of the mother — was swallowed up by Roe’s companion case, Doe vs. Bolton, which made it clear that “health” would be defined so broadly that the “exception” swallowed the rule. The reality was abortion on demand.
But ever since the New York Times first hailed the decision in 1973, journalists have often used what has become an increasingly misleading shorthand: Public support for abortions in the first trimester are identical to public support for Roe. They’re excluding the fact that Roe led to abortion on demand, and that a repeal of Roe would lead to 50 state regimes of abortion regulation, which would in many states leave abortion legal in the first trimester (and in the “blue states,” long after that).
Take the January 27 edition of Time, where reporters Karen Tumulty and Viveca Novak argued: “For its broader goals, the antiabortion movement still can’t make the political math work. The Senate has a Republican majority, but at least 53 senators are on record as favoring Roe. And the public is not prepared to see it overturned. In the latest TIME/CNN poll, 55 percent of respondents said they support a woman’s right to have an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.” (CNN also touted this poll question on its airwaves.) The poll question in the magazine read: “Do you favor the Supreme Court ruling that women have the right to an abortion during the first three months of their pregnancy?” Time at least acknowledged public uneasiness with the accompanying question “Is it too easy for women today to get an abortion?” Sixty percent said yes, 31 percent no. Somehow, that feeling didn’t penetrate many media accounts mourning that 87 percent of counties don’t have an abortion clinic.
The Washington Post asked a similar Roe question for its January 22 edition: “The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that a woman can have an abortion if she wants one at any time during the first three months of pregnancy. Do you favor or oppose that ruling?” In that day’s Post, White House correspondent Mike Allen recounted how top Bush aide Karl Rove “stopped short of promising a White House push to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which determined that a woman’s constitutional privacy rights entitled her to get an abortion in the first trimester of her pregnancy.”
In a summary of key Supreme Court rulings on abortion, Chicago Tribune reporter Leslie Goldman tidily summarized that the court ruled “that in the first three months of pregnancy, the abortion decision must be left to a woman and her physician. In the second trimester, states may restrict abortions to protect a woman’s health. In the third trimester, states may regulate or prohibit an abortion to protect the life of the fetus, except when necessary to preserve the life or the health of the mother.” The intrusion of real life — where were all the convictions for second- and third-trimester abortions in the last 30 years? — didn’t pierce this hermetically sealed history box.
Even conservative media outlets make this mistake. In their largely sympathetic account of the March for Life on January 23, Washington Times reporters Denise Barnes and Arlo Wagner reported “The Supreme Court voted 7-2 on Jan. 22, 1973, to legalize abortions in the first three months after conception. Pro-life demonstrators said 42 million abortions have been conducted since the decision was handed down.”
Supreme Court justices, like other political actors, can often say one thing, and intentionally or unintentionally, the reality becomes something else entirely. The public expects journalists to be able to make fine distinctions, to deliver the news with judgment and context. Too often on this issue, reporters have played games of rhetorical confusion to make America sound more in favor of abortion, as citizens and as human beings, than they really are.