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The New York Times Gives Pro-Lifers Food for Thought


Many pro-lifers rightly criticize the New York Times for its biased coverage of sanctity-of-life issues, but sometimes their reporting provides pro-lifers with real insights. For instance, last summer The New York Times Magazine published a detailed article about the next generation of abortion providers. The article confirmed what pro-lifers have suspected for a long time, namely that most young physicians want nothing to do with abortion.

In the same way, pro-lifers were given a lot to think about by last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article about women who, after simultaneously conceiving multiple children, chose to have all but one of their children aborted. First, it adds another dimension to pro-life thought about in-vitro fertilization. In-vitro fertilization is the reason why many women seek to have their pregnancies reduced to singletons, since the method is more likely to result in multiple conceptions. Additionally, many women attempting to conceive through in-vitro fertilization are older and feel they would lack the energy to raise multiple children.

Second, this article clearly demonstrates the slipperiness of many bioethical slopes. At first, very few abortion providers would perform these types of procedures, since while there are health risks to carrying more than three children to term, there are minimal health benefits from reducing twins to a singleton. Today more physicians are willing to perform these procedures and a small but growing number of women are choosing to have their pregnancies reduced.

Perhaps most interesting has been the reaction of supporters of legal abortion to this article. Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, asked whether women who would make such a choice would be better off forgoing fertility treatment entirely. Pro-choice writers for RHRealityCheck and Jezebel also expressed a considerable amount of unease with women who reduce their pregnancies to singletons. The article even discusses pro-choice employees of an abortion provider objecting to this procedure. In Slate, Will Saletan attempted to explain this puzzling unease among abortion-rights supporters. He argues that they are uncomfortable with the notion that in a single pregnancy, one twin is wanted and another with an identical genome can be discarded.

I think that something different is at work here. Supporters of legal abortion typically do not argue that they want abortion to be common or widespread. They make the case that it should be a legal option for women facing unique or difficult circumstances. They are also aware of polling data that shows that while majorities of Americans think abortion should be a legal option in cases of rape, serious health risks to the mother, or fetal deformity. However, they are also aware that most Americans disapprove of abortion in cases of economic hardship or a desire to have fewer children.

Now, since abortions are done in private, the rationale for most abortions will remain unclear. But women who choose to bear only singletons are seeking abortions out of convenience in a very visible way. Pro-choice activists realize that if this practice is seen as commonplace, that could weaken support for legal abortion.

Given the sensitive subject matter, the New York Times did its best to put a nonjudgmental spin on this. But the reaction of ardent pro-choice activists is very telling. 

— Michael New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.