Abortion Distortion
Will the media correct the record?


Abortion, as we all know, is one of the most scrutinized issues in American politics. The mainstream media is always eager to detail the positions of various candidates, document platform fights, and analyze the views of prospective Supreme Court nominees. However, despite this, the media have only granted scant coverage to the consistent decline in the abortion rate since the early 1990s. Even worse, the only occasions when the media has used, or in some cases misused, these numbers is to advance liberal political objectives.

Coverage by the New York Times provides a good example of this. The Times ran brief stories on declining abortion figures in both 1996 and 1997. Between 1998 and 2004, however, the Times was virtually silent on the topic. Interestingly, the only occasions where the Times referenced declining abortion figures were during sympathetic articles about the approval of RU-486 and the increased amenities that abortion clinics were offering to increase business.

Abortion trends did suddenly become a hot topic during the 2004 presidential election. This was partly because several commentators were using the Clinton-era decline to urge pro-life voters to support candidates who supported abortion rights. A New York Times op-ed by Mark Roche–the dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame–made this exact point. Roche contrasted the slight increase in abortions that occurred under the Reagan administration with the decline during Bill Clinton’s presidency and argued that the interests of abortion opponents might be better served by electing a President who supported legalized abortion.

Perhaps even more notoriously, ethicist Glen Stassen wrote a widely circulated article for Sojourners, arguing that abortions had actually increased after President Bush’s inauguration. This article was reprinted by a number of major newspapers around the country including the Charlotte Observer, the Miami Herald, the Houston Chronicle, and the Hartford Courant. Furthermore, Stassen’s research was cited in articles that appeared in the New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

There were a number of problems with Stassen’s analysis, including the fact he analyzed data from a small sampling of states. Furthermore, some states attributed their increases to more rigorous reporting standards. Nevertheless, Strassens’s claims have stuck and become some of Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean’s favorite stats.

However, in May the Alan Guttmacher Institute (no pro-life outfit) released a comprehensive survey which found that abortions had actually decreased in both 2001 and 2002. Considering the attention that Stassen’s faulty analysis received in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere, one would hope that media organizations would be interested in correcting this misinformation that Stassen and others disseminated during the 2004 election.

Unfortunately, though, the Guttmacher study has been largely ignored by the mainstream media. Almost no major newspapers reported on the findings. The Buffalo News made a brief reference to the study in an editorial criticizing Howard Dean and The Boston Globe mentioned the decline in an article about welfare. However, no other major news organizations reported on the study in the weeks after it was released.

To its credit, the Washington Post did recently run an article about the long-term decline in the abortion rate, citing the Guttmacher figures. However, this article was somewhat disappointing. It did not explicitly correct Stassen’s misinformation and no one representing a pro-life organization was quoted in the article.

Even worse, no one cited legislation as a potential reason why abortions have declined. This is despite the fact that increasing numbers of states enacted partial-birth-abortion bans, parental-involvement laws, waiting periods, and informed-consent laws during the 1990s. Furthermore, a sizeable body of social-science evidence, including my 2004 Heritage Foundation study, finds that state-level legislation is effective at reducing the number of abortions that occur.

Shouldn’t we be able to expect more from publications that sell them selves as bastions of accuracy…like the “the paper of record”?

Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a summer fellow at the Heritage Foundation.