Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–It’s troubling to see how much distortion is presented as fact on sites operated by abortion opponents.

Take, for instance, VirtueMedia, which produced an ad asserting that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, a claim debunked by the American Cancer Society.

Or try going to It’s operated by the Life Issues Institute of Cincinnati and describes its founders–a physician and his wife who draw parallels between abortion and euthanasia–as "the greatest single resource of educational information on abortion and related issues in the world."

As silly as these examples might seem when they’re isolated and pulled out one by one, they have, as a concerted onslaught, achieved considerable influence.

For one thing, they have helped shift the abortion debate from women’s rights to unborn babies, says Deana Rohlinger, a sociology professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee who has conducted several studies on media tactics employed by pro-choice and anti-choice groups.

She found that where abortion opponents initially focused their efforts on religious media, believing that secular media would not give them a fair hearing, they became more sophisticated in their message development and distribution.

"The pro-life movement both put a human face on a fetus and vividly illustrated the ‘violence’ done to unborn children," Rohlinger told me. "With its April 2007 ruling outlawing the D and X procedure, the Supreme Court has demonstrated a willingness to redefine the contours of the abortion debate and the pro-life movement has taken up the call. Armed with this ruling, pro-life activists have adopted the language of pro-choicers and are pushing legislation that advocates ‘informed choice.’"

Poor reality. It’s undergoing such intense manipulation it’s hard to know where to look for it.

Web Site to the Rescue

Fortunately, a Web site offering verifiable facts has recently come to the rescue.

RH Reality–launched in 2006 to rebut misinformation and disinformation and to demonstrate how progressives can harness new media–provides information, analysis, news, commentary and links to sources that support sexual and reproductive health.

"We began as a simple little blog to introduce the concept to the leadership of the major advocacy organizations in the reproductive health community," says Editor Scott Swenson. "Then we began to put the pieces together to grow what is a thriving new media site."

A project of the United Nations Foundation, RH Reality Check is packed with content generated by its own small staff (five, some part-time), freelancers and bloggers.

Its "Leading Voices" feature showcases longtime advocates such as Gloria Feldt, former president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, who is also an occasional commentator for Women’s eNews.

There are also contributions from writers making a name in the blogosphere, and from young writers around the world who offer unique viewpoints from a rising generation.

It also serves as a reference hub for material coming out of reproductive and maternal health advocacy groups, think tanks, universities and health research organizations.

‘Reckless Rhetoric’

But the "Reckless Rhetoric" department–which steers readers to comments that are misleading, dangerous or just plain ridiculous–might just be the most jaw-dropping reading.

A recent display: "There are two questions at issue here. One is medical (Is there ever need for an abortion to save the mother’s life?) and the other is moral (Would an abortion in that case be justified?). The answer to both questions is no." The quote is attributed to Father Frank Pavone, the anti-choice crusader who heads the New York-based Priests for Life.

I also found this gem from Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly. "According to an Australian-Chinese study published in the International Journal of Cancer, moderate exercise such as housework decreases the risk of ovarian cancer in women. The more and the harder the housework the housewife does, the more she benefits . . . The doctor who presented the findings recommended the exercise of walking. (He neglected to suggest walking behind a vacuum cleaner)."

In addition to blunting these kinds of salvos, RH Reality Check is focused on uniting a diverse reproductive health advocacy community that, as Swenson puts it, "doesn’t always agree with itself."

"The advocacy community is very strong but a lot of conversations seem to have been behind closed doors," says Associate Editor Amie Newman. "RH Reality Check has the potential to bring the dialogue out in public. It’s a little scary for the reproductive health communities to have this out in the open, but through the site we can host articles from major leaders and writers who can discuss political strategies and a whole range of issues."

Spotlight on Global Gag Rule

The site has gotten into full swing at a timely political juncture as the "global gag rule," one of the major controversies in reproductive health circles, is claiming wider attention.

The global gag rule–or more formally the Mexico City Policy because it was first announced by President Reagan at the International Conference on Population in Mexico City in 1984–is the nickname for a federal policy prohibiting overseas organizations that provide abortion counseling, services or advocate for changes in their nation’s abortion laws from receiving U.S. funding.

This summer, for the first time, both houses of Congress repudiated it.

"We’re sort of at this historic place where the House and the Senate are in some sort of agreement that this should no longer be in place," Newman says. "I don’t know how large an issue this will be in the presidential campaign, but global women’s health issues should be a larger issue for all the candidates."

RH Reality Check visitors can customize their content preferences so they regularly receive what they want.

But Swenson and his staff also push information out to target audiences. Swenson, for instance, says they offer a daily package to the progressive blogosphere "where we feel there’s a dearth of information on female health issues."

There’s also a monthly editorial memo to 1,600 journalists. The goal, he says, "is to elevate the profile of people who are writing on our site so journalists can go directly to them."

In a reproductive health debate dominated by hype, spin and claims of moral superiority, RH Reality Check is a welcome newcomer. Check it out.

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.


For more information:

Scott Swenson, "Building Community,"
RH Reality Check Oct. 2007 report: