Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–In a scene that could have come straight out of "The Handmaid’s Tale," Margaret Atwood’s novel about men’s absolute control of women’s reproduction, President George W. Bush, flanked by a row of men in suits and ties, signed a bill Nov. 5 limiting women’s and doctors’ abilities to use the full range of options for terminating a pregnancy.

The image of the jubilant male legislators, the handshakes all around, made for a jarringimage on television screens and front pages. But it was consistent with the media coverage of the so-called partial-birth abortion ban in the years devoted to making it into law: Quotes from men on the political warpath and precious little from physicians who provide abortions or women who need one.

Much of the coverage was a mishmash of comments from competing lobbyists. There were arguments about whether "partial-birth abortion" is a clinically defined procedure, when it is not. There was confusion about whether the procedures could be called "late-term" abortions–meaning in the third trimester–which would be incorrect because the new law, now being challenged in courts, does not refer to the gestational age of the fetus.

Misleading Terminology

The use of "late term" has been especially vexing. The morning after the bill was signed, Ann Curry of the "Today" show on NBC delivered a report saying the bill referred to what its advocates call "partial-birth abortion" while the graphic on the screen said "late-term abortions." Other TV news operations did the same. The two terms are not synonymous, but many in the media, including news organizations as august as The New York Times and as popular as USA Today, used them as if they were. After years of following the debate, many reporters still have trouble getting it right.

The rhetoric used by the ban’s proponents is deliberately misleading and the media have failed in their duty to clarify the law. No less a figure than President Bush said the law protected fetuses "who are inches from being born," suggesting that full-term babies who would otherwise have normal births are being aborted by heartless mothers and callous obstetricians. Such phrases feed the misperception that the law seeks to prevent late-term abortions of viable fetuses, when in truth the vague language of the law suggests it could apply to abortions performed as early as 13 weeks.

In contrast with the thousands of column inches and hours of airtime given to the discussion of the political stakes, not nearly enough journalism "space" was spent on the human dimension of the ban–the professional crisis the bill’s enactment creates for physicians and the personal agonies that now loom for women who need to end pregnancies. The threat of prison will be likely to discourage many doctors from performing abortions at any stage–the obvious intent of the law’s backers.

News articles that did put an appropriate focus on doctors and patients included an illuminating piece on Women’s eNews ("’Partial-Birth’ Abortion Term Puzzles Many Doctors," July 28, 2003) by Suzanne Batchelor. Another excellent job was by The Village Voice’s Sharon Lerner ("The Inception Deception," Nov . 5-11, 2003). Lerner interviewed women whose health conditions required abortions that many doctors would be leery of performing under the ban. Why don’t we see more of such coverage in the dominant news media?

Lazy Television Coverage

Television didn’t go much beyond the "he said, she said" format, in which interviewers fail to challenge their guests or even clarify what they are saying. The day of the Bush signing, CNN’s "News Night with Aaron Brown" featured interviews with Kate Michelman of NARAL/ProChoice America and Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee. At the very end of his response to Brown’s final question, Johnson said, "Fifty-seven percent of OB-GYN’s are in favor of the ban." Where did that figure come from? Brown, eager to wrap up, didn’t ask. But that figure doesn’t square with the continuing opposition from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association.

Earlier that evening, Gwen Ifill of "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS moderated a discussion with Curtis Cook, assistant clinical professor at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, and Paula Hillard, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Ifill did press Cook, who had testified before Congress in support of the legislation, on his rather high estimates of abortions performed using surgical techniques to which ban supporters objected. However, she let pass his inflammatory rhetoric about abortion surgeries being "a heinous crime" and abortion providers being "rogue doctors," the anti-ban positions of the two medical associations notwithstanding.

Important Correction

When Ifill turned to Hillard, the physician immediately corrected "The News Hour" on the terminology used in the news summary that opened the broadcast. "This was referred to earlier on the program as late-term abortion, but the law is so broadly written that it could be interpreted to include other types of abortions," Hillard said.

Her remark illustrates the problems caused by reporters who continue to say that this ban is about late-term abortions. This misrepresentation, fostered by its proponents and repeated by many news reports, masks its true effect, which could be to eliminate abortions at much earlier stages, when most abortions are performed.

The consequence of this "incredibly deceptive" law, Hillard said, is that "it will place the government between a woman and her physician" without providing any exception for the woman’s health–a stunning cruelty written into law by so-called compassionate conservatives.

The fight over who gets abortions and who may decide isn’t over. But what readers, viewers, listeners, Internet surfers and other media consumers deserve is not just reporting about the jousting in Congress and the courts but clear, critical analysis of what those events mean for the people who must live with the consequences.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.



For more information:

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists–
"Statement on So-Called ‘Partial Birth Abortion’ Law":

Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc.:

The Village Voice–"The Inception Deception":