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Lopsided Coverage of Partial-Birth Abortion
By Sean Grindlay
November 14, 2003


Ideological predispositions affect the media’s treatment of all sorts of issues, but seldom is the bias so flagrant as when the subject is abortion. Coverage of the recently enacted Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 has made that bias all but impossible to miss.

When covering a battle or a drive-by shooting, journalists are generally quite willing to include unpleasant details in their stories. Consider one recent article from the Washington Post: “The soldiers dragged his limp body by the arm and hurled him into the open bed of an army truck. The corpses were four deep….”

When the topic turns to abortion, however, reporting suddenly becomes much more delicate. Partial-birth abortion in particular is something journalists are generally loath to describe in any but the vaguest terms (try finding this nurse’s account in your newspaper, for example).

Most reports regarding the recent law describe the procedure with such ambiguous phrasing as “a certain abortion procedure” or “a certain type of late-term abortion,” mentioning the term “partial-birth abortion” only in quotation marks or with the cautionary modifier “so-called.” Contrary to the claims of many reporters, the term does in fact appear in medical literature: The Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary defines it as “an abortion in the second or third trimester of pregnancy in which the death of the fetus is induced after it has passed partway through the birth canal.”

The Washington Post’s November 6 article on the ban is in many ways representative of reporting throughout the news media. Beginning with the title - “Bush Signs Ban on Late-Term Abortions Into Effect” - the article dances around the question of exactly what the bill prohibits. The reporter’s first two references to the procedure call the law a “significant federal restriction on abortion” and the prohibition of “a relatively uncommon procedure.” Not until the seventh paragraph does the Post give us a (very brief) description of what is actually being banned.

Ironically, after taking great pains to avoid the term “partial-birth abortion,” the reporter goes on to tell us that the law “bars doctors from an ‘overt act,’ such as puncturing the skull, to kill a partially delivered fetus.” If the procedure in question is a type of abortion, and, as the Post admits, the “fetus” has been partially delivered, then what exactly is inaccurate about the term “partial-birth abortion”?

Moreover, many journalists state or imply that the procedure is sometimes necessary to preserve a mother’s health - a myth that has long been debunked by physicians. “Partial-birth abortion is never medically necessary to protect a mother's health or her future fertility,” former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop has stated. “On the contrary, this procedure can pose a significant threat to both.”

Likewise, many reporters claim that partial-birth abortion is performed only on rare occasions. The Post calls the procedure “relatively uncommon,” and the Times reports that it is “rarely used.”

Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, would beg to differ. He estimated in 1997 that at least 3,000 partial-birth abortions were being performed each year, adding that “in the vast majority of cases, the procedure is performed on a healthy mother with a healthy fetus that is 20 weeks or more along.”

Just as with the abortion debate in general, the terminology reporters have used to describe the political divide over the bill is fraught with bias. The Post refers to those on one side of the debate as “abortion rights supporters” and those on the other side as “abortion foes” and “abortion opponents.” Similarly, the New York Times speaks of “[s]upporters of abortion rights” versus “foes of abortion” and “[a]nti-abortion groups.”

Practically all other news outlets in the country use similar terminology. The Chicago Tribune even went so far as to introduce an article with the headline “Anti-choice groups celebrate victories.”

Journalists apparently see no problem in consistently employing negative language to refer to one side of this controversial issue while using the words “rights” and “supporters” to describe those on the other side. One could just as accurately cast the debate in terms of “fetal rights” or “protection for the unborn,” with conservatives being the “supporters” and Planned Parenthood et al. being the “opponents.” But how many newspapers frame the issue in those terms?

Moreover, the media’s practice of using the words “rights” and “choice” to describe those who wish to keep abortion legal rarely extends to other issues. For example, those who resist further restrictions on gun ownership - which, unlike abortion, is a right actually mentioned in the Constitution - are often said to “oppose gun control” (as a recent article in the Post puts it), not “support gun rights.” Those on the other side of the issue, meanwhile, are routinely called “supporters of gun control” (in the words of the Times) rather than “opponents of gun rights” or “anti-gun groups.”

Furthermore, although both the Times and the Post (along with the large majority of the mainstream media) give the phrase “partial-birth abortion” the ten-foot-pole treatment, they repeat with a straight face such loaded phrases as “tilt the balance against abortion rights,” “constitutional protection for terminating pregnancies,” “whittle away at abortion rights,” and “the right of a woman to choose how to handle a pregnancy.”

But the prize for bias has to go to CBS anchorman Dan Rather, who recently said to viewers, “Abortion rights take a historic hit from Congress. What do women face?”

Unfortunately, we already know what unborn (and partially born) children and their advocates face: a billion-dollar abortion industry and a media establishment that is all too willing to defend it.

Sean Grindlay is an intern at Accuracy In Media and can be contacted at aimintern@yahoo.com