Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–If there’s any upside to the South Dakota Legislature’s Feb. 24 ban on almost all abortions, it’s that it forced the news media to finally engage on more levels with this third-rail social-policy issue.

First-day coverage of the bill’s passage showed the usual approach to the topic. Tepid stories focused heavily on political and legal gamesmanship, noting that the bill was aimed at the Supreme Court, a strategy that was dividing the anti-choice factions.

Decoding the political maneuvering and assessing the legal endgame is crucial, but the immediate coverage failed to convey the draconian nature of the move, which essentially bans abortions for any woman not on the brink of death from her pregnancy.

But as days passed, more coverage and analysis came to the rescue. Not only did it spotlight legislators’ political posturing, it examined the grim personal burdens imposed on women who find themselves at the mercy of those who would control their uteruses.

Some editorial page editors even came right out and said it: Leave legal abortion alone. Imagine that.

Much commendable work was produced by The Associated Press, which kept a stream of stories coming. The AP also commissioned a poll with opinion research firm Ipsos to test current U.S. sentiment on abortion. Result: still a majority for protecting it, but feeling conflicted.

Linda Feldmann of The Christian Science Monitor on March 2 wrote, “Indeed, abortion-rights supporters acknowledge that South Dakota could redound to their benefit, by grabbing the public’s attention and reminding the majority of Americans who want to keep Roe in place that abortion rights are under attack.”

19 Million Desperation Abortions a Year

The AP’s most compelling piece was Nicole Winfield’s story headlined “World Abortion Trend the Opposite of U.S.,” on March 9.

Winfield demonstrated that in the last 10 years more than a dozen countries have made it easier, not harder, to obtain abortions. Winfield included the World Health Organization’s calculation of the risks of desperation abortions: 19 million women, nearly all in the developing world, have unsafe abortions each year, performed by someone unskilled or in a place with poor medical standards. Six hundred thousand die.

In another important account published on the heels of the South Dakota action, Reuters’ Lorraine Orlandi on March 7 turned attention to Mexico, where rape victims are often denied the right to an abortion. Abortion is legal in Mexico for rape victims, but they are often dissuaded from getting them, especially if the rapist is a father, brother or other relative. The victim also can be charged with incest in such cases, Orlandi wrote.

A number of newspaper editorial boards and columnists were sharply critical of the South Dakota law.

Said a contemptuous Times Herald-Record, which serves New York’s Hudson Valley and Catskills communities, on March 9: “Come with us, fellow Americans, to another time, another century, in fact, when life was simple and better–in the view of the governor of South Dakota, at least. The century of which we speak is not the 20th, but the 19th. That’s when South Dakota first passed a law making abortion a crime.”

Two journalists–Time magazine’s Nancy Gibbs (“When Is an Abortion Not an Abortion?” March 6) and the New York Observer’s Joe Conason (“Abortion Ban Will Test ‘Moderate’ Republicans,” March 16)–probed the contorted logic of the supposedly “purist” politicians pushing, or at least not objecting to, laws like South Dakota’s.

‘Culture of Life’ Arguments Probed

If abortion is always wrong–so wrong that South Dakota lawmakers removed exceptions for rape and incest and the health of the woman from their bill–why countenance any exception for abortion at all, even for the life of the woman? And why impose criminal penalties on doctors and not patients? By probing “culture of life” arguments, both writers found politicians who were trying to placate religious zealots in their base without alienating mainstream voters.

Here’s Conason: “Proving his zeal to make himself acceptable to his critics on the religious right, for instance, (Senator John) McCain authorized the release of a transparently stupid statement to the press. His spokesperson said that the Arizona Republican ‘would have signed the legislation, but would also take the appropriate steps under state law–in whatever state–to ensure that the exceptions of rape, incest or life of the mother were included.’ Signing the legislation, of course, would have outlawed the exceptions.”

News organizations abroad also took note of the South Dakota machinations. France’s Le Monde observed that Rounds signed the new law just two days before International Women’s Day.

Britain’s Independent referenced an AP story that quoted Leslee Unruh, a longtime anti-choice activist and founder of a Sioux Falls pregnancy counseling center that steers women away from abortion. Gloating after her group declared victory, Unruh said, “We’re ordering lobster and having a party. We are thrilled.”

How gross.

Scientific Claims and Dark Warnings

On the ardent, outlaw-abortion side of the debate, bloggers and religion-based news services touted the new law’s scientific claim. “The South Dakota legislation (is) based on new scientific evidence showing that human life begins at conception,” Catholic World News wrote on March 6. Meanwhile, Christian News Wire unleashed dark warnings about soulless reproductive health organizations, quoting an activist who predicted that “abortion profiteers will work to subvert the will of the people.”

The LifeNews Web site on March 21 described Planned Parenthood’s Sioux Falls clinic, the only abortion provider in South Dakota, as an “abortion business.”

The RealChoice blog at REAL Women’s Voices, a Web site for a consortium of anti-choice groups that organize rallies and lobbying efforts, urged participation in an April 26 anti-choice rally in Washington: “Your senator needs to know that being pro-life and pro-woman is the same thing!”

While not having the same reach as mainstream wire services and big-city newspapers, these strident voices have considerable clout with their faithful, existing alongside, and increasingly in place of, traditional journalistic media in the homes of their readers.

Where the discussion on government regulation of abortions heads now is anyone’s guess.

I’m encouraged by what I’ve read in mainstream media in the last few weeks, but the journalistic discourse–and who participates in it–bears careful watching.

Writing for the Minnesota Women’s Press on March 8, Haddayr Copley-Woods asked, “What, I wonder, would our national debate sound like if only women engaged in it?”

That’s an important question, since thus far the abortion debate has been dominated by male voices. The American Prospect on March 20 released its analysis of The New York Times op-ed pages from February 2004 through February 2006, finding that 90 percent of writers who discussed abortion on the Times op-ed page during that period were male. During the same period, more than a quarter of abortion-related op-eds in the Los Angeles Times were written by women, the Prospect says. That may be better than The New York Times, but it’s way short of a slam dunk for gender fairness.

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., which received the “Texty” Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of “Exploring Mass Media for a Changing World,” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

The American Prospect: Garance Franke-Ruta
Man Alive: “Is The New York Times Still Pro-Choice? You Wouldn’t Know It From Reading the Op-ed Page,” March 20, 2006:

NARAL Pro-Choice America
Choice in the Headlines
March 21, 2006:

The RealChoice blog: