Roe v. Wade may be 30 years old, but abortion advocates seem hopping mad that there’s still this annoying pro-life presence in America that won’t accept the historical inevitability of abortion on demand. On CBS’s The Early Show Wednesday, Roe lawyer Sarah Weddington expressed amazement. “I really thought the opinion had been written in concrete.”
Thirty years later, the prospect of any restrictions on abortion is portrayed in ominous tones by the media as a slippery slope toward the overturning of Roe and the victory of a violent anti-choice minority. Wednesday night on CBS, reporter David Axelrod lectured about “how abortion is redder than any other red meat social issue in America. It’s the one producing the most violence.” (And he means outside the clinics, not inside.) Like ABC’s Linda Douglass the same night, he deplored how “the number of counties with no access to abortion is up.” He concluded the right to abortion is hanging in “tenuous” balance since “Roe v. Wade is just one Supreme Court justice’s vote away from being overturned.” There’s a sense that historical inevitability is slipping away.
When abortion advocates cheered 30 years ago as the Supreme Court created a national right to deny the humanity of the unborn, they were hastily building a sense of public momentum. The ruling was to be hallowed as a “landmark” precedent that was never-ending, and never to be curtailed. On Wednesday’s edition of The Early Show, CBS proudly reran film of Walter Cronkite reporting, “Good evening. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions.” While today, liberal TV reporters seem desperate in attacking the pro-life movement as a violent, extremist threat, liberalism seemed triumphant on nearly every issue in the 1970s, and the national media greeted the Roe v. Wade decision with warm applause.
Time magazine — helped by a young David Beckwith, later known as a Dan Quayle spokesman — was the first to break the scoop on the Monday of the decision.” Last week Time learned that the Supreme Court has decided to strike down nearly every abortion law” and to permit “only minimal curbs” on abortion. “No decision in the court’s history,” they predicted, “had evoked the intensity of emotion that will surely follow this ruling.” Chief Justice Warren Burger was outraged at the leak, but within hours, the decision was revealed to all.
The next day’s New York Times carried a report by Warren Weaver Jr. under the headline “High Court Rules Abortion Legal.” Weaver wrote: “The Supreme Court overruled today all state laws that prohibit or restrict a woman’s right to obtain an abortion during her first three months of pregnancy. The vote was 7-2. In an historic resolution of a fiercely controversial issue, the Court drafted a new set of national guidelines that will result in broadly liberalized abortion laws in 46 states, but will not abolish restrictions altogether.” It was still early enough in the abortion debate that journalists would still use a word like “obtain,” before abortion advocates no doubt protested it sounded far too much like a economic transaction, rather than a revolutionary act of women’s liberation from traditional maternal roles.
On the editorial page, the Times unfurled the superlatives: “The Supreme Court has made a major contribution to the preservation of individual liberties and of free decision making by its invalidation of state laws inhibiting a woman’s right to obtain an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy.” Was the decision radical, legislative instead of judicial? The Times hailed the decision as offering “a sound foundation for final and reasonable resolution” of the abortion debate. Why would abortion foes fuss? In typically clueless fashion, the Times declared “nothing in the court’s decision ought to give affront to persons who oppose all abortions for reasons of religion or individual conviction.”
The Times was not alone. The other national newspaper editorial boards were also clapping. The Washington Post said the decisions were “wise and sound.” The Los Angeles Times called it “sensible” as well as legally and historically “persuasive.” The Boston Globe said it was “deeply gladdened” by the outcome. Even The Wall Street Journal editorialists, while expressing “certain reservations,” said that overall, the court had struck “a reasonable balance on an exceedingly difficult question.”
The week after its initial scoop, Time cited new polling data from Gallup that showed 46 percent of those surveyed favored leaving the abortion decision to the woman and 45 percent opposed. They suggested “such a close division of sentiment can only ensure that while the matter has been settled legally, it remains a lightning rod for intense national debate.” But Time didn’t find it odd that the Supreme Court’s 7-2 vote obviously landed a fair piece to the left of the public, even as measured by Gallup. Time praised the decision as “bold and uncompromising.” Refusing to compromise is never a virtue on the right. It’s portrayed as a mark of fanaticism.
The Roe decision competed with other news as the week elapsed. The peace process was kicking in to draw down the Vietnam War, and Lyndon Johnson died at the age of 64. Newsweek declared “the end of a war and the death of a president got bigger headlines. But in a quiet way, a third event last week may have as lasting an influence on American life.” The 7-2 result, especially the 3-1 split of four Nixon Court appointees (Blackmun, Burger, and Powell vs. Rehnquist), made it for Newsweek “An astonishing decision for the Nixon Court to reach…most astonishing of all was the broad scope and explicit detail of the decision.”
Few media outlets were horrified at the prospect of decades of abortions to come. The St. Louis Review, a Catholic diocesan newspaper, was, but they also clairvoyantly saw the future: “The U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down state abortion laws has nationalized the anti-abortion movement….With the restrictive statutes supported in state capitals apparently outlawed by the Court decision, the new target has become the Congress.”
Over the decades, with polls showing an overwhelming majority of journalists favor legal abortion, media coverage of Roe’s fate has flip-flopped between cocky stare decisis (in effect declaring, Wallace-like, “Abortion forever!”) and propagandistic panic (“The anti-abortion movement has been creeping to the edge of bloody fanaticism for a decade,” Jane Pauley, 1995). But coverage has never wavered on the question of whose side the media favor. Remember this the next time someone tries to tell you that a conservative bias now reigns in the media elite.
— Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.