Abortion coverage, part II

scalesSo the Supreme Court issued an abortion-related ruling Jan. 18 that was fairly limited in scope and, as a result, unanimously decided. It really is hard to characterize court opinions quickly, but a few choices in coverage are worth noting. Even though retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor began the opinion by writing quite explicitly to the contrary, reporters seemed to think the ruling had covered abortion precedent. Here’s The New York TimesLinda Greenhouse explaining how the ruling didn’t touch the abortion issue:

“We do not revisit our abortion precedents today,” Justice O’Connor declared in the opening words of what is likely to be her last opinion for the court. The studiously bland 10-page opinion carefully sidestepped the abortion debate that has been a prominent feature of public discourse about the court’s future.

So what’s the headline of the Times piece? That would be, of course:

Justices Reaffirm Emergency Access to Abortion

While reporters are rarely responsible for the headlines that accompany the piece, Greenhouse also somewhat contradicted her own writing in the piece. Here’s her first sentence, in fact:

In its first ruling on an abortion case in six years, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision on Wednesday that reaffirmed the need to include an exception for medical emergencies in a law that restricts teenagers’ access to abortion.

The Los Angeles Times‘ David Savage gave a generally more accurate analysis of the ruling, but he also had a more overt error (emphasis added):

“The Planned Parenthood Federation and the American Civil Liberties Union welcomed the court’s ruling that doctors must be permitted to act immediately in cases of a medical emergency.”

But ruling that doctors must be permitted to act immediately in cases of medical emergency would be, contra what O’Connor wrote, revisiting previous rulings. In fact, the court didn’t even debate that fairly broad issue. Let’s put it another way: If the justices decide unanimously about a given case, they probably weren’t discussing loopholes or exceptions to abortion laws. At least so long as Antonin Scalia is on the court, if you catch my drift.

Besides, if Planned Parenthood and the ACLU were happy, it’s curious that NARAL Pro-Choice America issued a press release that quoted president Nancy Keenan striking a somewhat different note:

While it is certainly heartening that the Court did not use this case to overturn specific precedents that protect women’s health, this decision does mark a departure from prior cases. In the past, abortion restrictions that did not include protection for women’s health would have been struck down in their entirety. After today’s decision, that is no longer the case.

One would hope that Greenhouse would try a bit harder on the story. At the very least it might have been good for her to spend a bit more time or effort covering the views from pro-lifers that the ruling was positive.

I also wonder if this has something to do with what Terry has been discussing. While I fully support the right of reporters to engage in political activity outside of work, they should always be aware that it leaves them more vulnerable to charges of bias. Since Greenhouse has, at least in the past, chosen to participate in pro-choice rallies, it should mean that she redoubles her efforts at fairness while covering abortion cases at the Supreme Court.

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  • Michael

    Greenhouse gave three paragraphs of comments from both sides. I’m not sure how she could have been more balanced and “tried harder.” In fact, the pro-life position is given higher play in the story than the pro-choice position.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I think you and I are saying different things.

    The pro-life position can not be given higher play than the headline or the first sentence, which is where it counts.

    In the twelfth paragraph, when she began quoting activists, the pro-lifer came first, and she did quote someone on either side for, as you mention 3 paragraphs each.

    However, the paragraph following the activist reaction supported her earlier contentions — and differs from what folks on various sides are saying about the importance of the ruling (that previously the court would have thrown out the law solely because of this medical exception thing, not send back to the lower court to modify).

    Either way, my point was not that she didn’t quote activists from either side for 3 paragraphs each. My point was that she kind of got the story wrong, especially in the beginning. And I think it could have been easily remedied with a bit more caution.

  • Michael


    I guess I was reacting to this comment

    At the very least it might have been good for her to spend a bit more time or effort covering the views from pro-lifers that the ruling was positive.

    I concede that I probably wouldn’t have written the lede she did, although in reading the decision I am not sure she is completely wrong. Given the possibility that the court could have hacked away at the exception, the fact that they didn’t is newsworthy and the decision does point out why the NH law was unconstitutional to begin with.

    With the Supreme Court, sometimes what they don’t do is as important as what the do do.

    On news stories about remedies and procedures, getting the reader interested in the story is often a challenge. A lede which would have said “Lower courts went too far in blocking an unconstitutional New Hampshire law that provided no medical emergency excpetion in a parental notification law” is more accurate, but not terribly interesting.