“I remember sitting in my office,” Kate Michelman recalled years later, “and James saying to me: ‘Kate. This is a disaster.’” Michelman was the head of NARAL, the abortion lobby, and its vice president, James Wagoner had just brought her a copy of a congressional letter on partial-birth abortion. It was bad enough that the Republicans had just taken Congress a few months previously. Now NARAL and its allies had to deal with a new issue that was tailor-made for their opponents.
They quickly came up with a few defenses. Partial-birth abortions, they claimed, were done rarely and only for medical reasons. Planned Parenthood explained, “The procedure, dilation and extraction (D&X), is extremely rare and done only in cases when the woman’s life is in danger or in cases of extreme fetal abnormality.” There were only 500 to 600 such cases a year. Moreover, NARAL and Planned Parenthood claimed, the fetus felt no pain, since anaesthesia given to the mother had already killed it.
The press bought it. The Los Angeles Times reported that there were only 200 such abortions a year. “Typically, it is used in late pregnancies to save a mother’s life or after the detection of severe fetal abnormalities.” A New York Times story also echoed the abortion lobby’s talking points. USA Today, the New York Daily News, and syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman all repeated the claim that anaesthesia killed the fetus before the scissors made contact. None of these stories even acknowledged that pro-lifers disputed these claims.
All of them were false.
The claim about anaesthesia was debunked first. Martin Haskell, the abortionist who had first brought partial-birth abortion to public attention, had said in a 1993 interview that the fetus was not dead before the D&X began. Dr. Norig Ellison, the president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, testified before the House that the claim that anesthesia killed the fetus was “entirely inaccurate” and dangerous to spread, since it could cause mothers to turn down anaesthesia to protect their unborn children. At this point, anaesthesia dropped out of the debate.
In September 1996–after Congress had passed a bill banning partial-birth abortion and Bill Clinton had vetoed it–Ruth Padawer, a reporter for the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record, disclosed that a local clinic performed 1,500 partial-birth abortions per year. That was more than the abortion lobby and much of the media had claimed took place nationwide. Within days, David Brown and Barbara Vobejda reported in the Washington Post that it was “possible–and maybe even likely–that the majority of these abortions are performed on normal fetuses.” Their finding tracked with Haskell’s remark that 80 percent of the partial-birth abortions he performed were “purely elective.”
Five months later, a bigger bombshell: Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, told American Medical News and the New York Times that he had “lied through [his] teeth” about partial-birth abortion. When Nightline interviewed him in November 1995, he had followed the party line: Partial-birth abortions were rare and performed only in extreme cases. In truth, he said, the vast majority were performed on healthy mothers with healthy babies. “The abortion rights folks know it, the anti-abortion folks know it, and so, probably, does everyone else.” He estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 were performed each year.
The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood’s research arm, maintained that there were “about 650” partial-birth abortions in 1996, or at any rate that the number fell between 500 and 1,000. It stuck to that line for several years. Later, it issued a new figure: There had been 2,200 partial-birth abortions in 2000. Either the number had tripled in four years, or one or both estimates were flawed. Since clinics’ participation in the institute’s survey is voluntary, both numbers are probably underestimates.
Assume, however, that there are 2,200 partial-birth abortions annually. Is this a big number? Its defenders point out, accurately, that it is a small fraction of the total number of abortions each year in America. Yet it is also true, as pro-life lobbyist Douglas Johnson notes, that “[i]f a new virus [were] killing 2,200 premature babies annually in neonatal units, it would be on the TV evening news every week.”
Many reporters continued to spread myths about partial-birth abortion long after they had been debunked. In 2003, the Wall Street Journal reported that partial-birth abortion was “typically” performed “for medical reasons.” The same year, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Miami Herald made the same false claim.
Much of the press, led by the New York Times, avoided using the phrase “partial-birth abortion” (or placing it in distancing quotes) whenever possible. This impulse has led to some convoluted Times headlines: “House Acts to Ban Abortion Method, Making It a Crime”; “President Vetoes Measure Banning Type of Abortion”; “Bush Signs Ban on a Procedure for Abortion.” The kids at Hogwarts speak the name of Voldemort more freely than the Times editors use the phrase partial-birth abortion.
The press has not shown any general reluctance to adopt politically contested phrases. When Congress banned “assault weapons,” the NRA bitterly protested that the phrase had been made up and referred to no distinct class of firearms. Yet the press adopted it without resorting to locutions such as “a class of guns called ‘assault weapons’ by advocates of gun control” or “Congress Bans Type of Gun.”
When pro-life presidents cut off family-planning funding for groups that counsel women to have abortions, pro-choicers called the policy a “gag rule”–and the press did not handle the phrase with gloves and tongs. Headlines, including New York Times headlines, regularly used variants of the phrase. Linda Greenhouse casually referred to Rust v. Sullivan, which concerned the policy, as “the abortion gag-rule case.”
The conservative Media Research Center analyzed 217 stories about partial-birth abortion on ABC, CBS, and NBC that aired between 1995 and 2003. They found that only 18 of those stories explained what took place in a partial-birth abortion (and only three of them explained it between 1998 and 2003). They reported on congressional votes and Supreme Court decisions about partial-birth abortion, but refused to provide the facts that would make it clear what the fuss was about.
The partial-birth-abortion debate was, as Michelman predicted, a disaster for the abortion lobby. But the press did everything it could to contain the damage.
– Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review and author of The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life from which this is excerpted.