So 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 Times‘ Linda 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.