Window into an abortion clinic

pp6Young master Pulliam previously praised the Los Angeles Times‘ Stephanie Simon for her Nov. 29 piece that profiled a number of women who had abortions at a clinic in Arkansas.

In the amazing story, each woman described the feelings surrounding her abortion in shockingly straightforward ways. If a woman had an abortion because otherwise she wouldn’t fit into her wedding dress, for instance, Simon shared her story. If a broke and single college girl didn’t relish the idea of abortion but felt she wouldn’t be able to provide for a child, that was also shared.

Anyone who has been in an abortion clinic waiting room, worried about being pregnant or been near someone worried about being pregnant can tell you that the way the mainstream media cover pregnancy is woefully inadequate. The only issue that reporters ever cover is the legality or illegality of the practice. But what about the women who end one in four pregnancies in America? In that regard, Stephanie Simon’s piece was brilliant, blunt, fair and poignant.

Luckily for us, she wrote about the process of reporting and writing it for the Casey Journalism Center. It’s a fascinating look at the evolution of a story:

I hoped to provide an honest, unblinking account of what went on in that clinic on that day — without spin from pro-choice or pro-life activists.

Of course thanks in part to that spin, few readers will ever consider a story on abortion honest, much less fair. Most readers approach the subject with intense biases, as do most writers. The only antidote I could offer was to try to absorb and record every detail of my day in that clinic. Some scenes might be offensive; some might play into stereotypes; some might seem too intimate to be exposed to a million readers. But I wanted readers to feel as though they were standing alongside me, learning what I learned.

She even witnessed the abortion of a 13-week-old fetus.

My goal was to present a day in the life of a clinic so that even readers entrenched on one side or another of the abortion debate would learn something new about the cause they defend — or detest. To that end, I chose not to censor material that seemed to favor one side or the other. I didn’t count paragraphs in an effort to be “fair”; I didn’t include a quote from an anti-abortion activist to “balance” out the quotes from the abortion doctor. I kept telling myself that this wasn’t supposed to be an exhaustive analysis of the abortion debate, it was meant to be a window into the world of a clinic on a single day. With my editor’s skilled help, I went through my first draft to minimize the use of adjectives, strong verbs, extraneous details — any devices that bumped up the story’s emotional charge.

fetusIt turns out that not all the readers were as pleased with the story as we here at GetReligion were. Pro-choice readers were upset that she described the ultrasound images or included the story of the woman who had an abortion so she could fit into her wedding dress or the one who said abortion was easier than remembering to take birth control pills. Pro-life readers were upset at the abortion doctor’s quotes saying his patients were so relieved by their abortions that they felt they’d been “born again.” Another reader felt she had promoted abortion by making it seem routine.

The criticism — as well as positive responses from both sides — made me realize I had been naive to think the story could be a window; it was actually more like a mirror: People read into it what they wanted, filtering it through their preconceptions. In that sense, the story failed. Yet it did provoke debate and prompt some reader reflection. On such a polarizing topic, that may be the best we reporters can hope for.

I don’t agree with Ms. Simon’s assessment. Certainly her story was filtered through readers’ preconceptions and biases but that’s because every story is. And yet an unobstructed window into an abortion clinic is precisely what her story provided. Simply reporting the facts in an unadorned manner, as the Times piece did, is far more illuminating than what normally passes for abortion coverage.

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  • Dan Berger

    The fact that Ms. Simon’s story got flack from both sides of the issue says to me that her approach was a good one. It was, indeed, unvarnished and unspun.

    Kudos to her.

  • Mollie

    I want to address this idea that getting flack from “both” sides means a reporter’s approach is good.

    While Ms. Simon’s piece was so honest as to make a few folks on “both” sides of the abortion debate uncomfortable, the actual problems that a few readers on either side mentioned were VERY different. To some extent the pro-life folks were “shooting the messenger” and just disagreeing with what Ms. Simon quoted the abortion doctor as saying. On the pro-choice side, the readers were actually mad that she included stories that made abortion seem callous. Those are very different types of complaints.

    Further, far too many reporters (Dan Rather, etc.) make the claim that they are doing their job sufficiently if “both” sides complain.

    But “both” sides might have legitimate complaints, meaning the reporter is doubly wrong. Or both sides might be full of crap and the reporter fine.

    In many newsrooms you can get 500 letters complaining about something in a story and then one letter from a crazy old lady saying the opposite . . . and the reporter will say, “Well I angered both sides so I must be doing something right.”

    I feel there must be a better standard for whether a reporter is fair and balanced than whether there is opposition from “both” sides.

    Especially since no issue has just two sides.

  • Kelly

    Mollie, thanks for the post and for the comment above. I found the article provocative and confusing about both sides of the abortion issue, mostly because of the directness and transparency of the reporting.

    I know I’m not the only one who is ambivalent about this issue (in the sense of going both ways, not in the sense of not caring), but we tend to not shout as loudly as people that have it all figured out one way or another. On the one hand, it is a horrible practice and the people that are callous about it (the wedding dress woman) make you want to end it right away. On the other hand, some of the women and girls that are in the position of wanting an abortion are only the last link in a long chain of personal and societal sins and yet they have to bear the entire burden with their bodies and their lives. The article managed to show both of these angles without resorting to the tired old ‘he said, she said’ strategy.

  • Dn. David

    Thanks Mollie
    I hated the original article because of what it reported, but I admired Ms. Simon for unbiased and difficult reporting. Never having read anything by her, I had no idea, based solely on the article, where she stands on the issue. And now having read the Casey Journalism School Article, I still don’t. She obviously must have a position, but refused to allow it to shape her journalism. That kind of objectivity is, alas, rare, but all the more to be treasured when encountered.

    I agree that angering both sides is never really a fair test of objectivity. At best it is a reliable test of who’s reading your stuff! I’d be interested in what you and others think is the most reliable way of adjudicating objectivity, particularly on emotionally charged issues.

  • Dan Berger

    Mollie, I sit corrected.

    “Are both sides angry?” is a reasonable rule of thumb in some situations, and I submit that it is in this one… but a better one is the question, “am I letting everyone speak for themselves?” This is what Simon did.

    That’s why some folks got mad, I think. Nothing was spun, and nobody was mislabeled.

  • Dan

    If Ms. Simon is as unbiased about abortion as some here seem to think, maybe her next article will be on the growing number of studies, studiously ignored by most of the U.S. press, that show that abortion hurts women.

  • Mollie

    You know what would make for a fabulous story? Talking to women who had abortions years ago.

    All of my friends and acquaintances who had abortions years ago still talk about them time to time. And it’s pretty amazing how long-term the impacts are.

    Especially considering that the long-term impacts are ignored by the media and everyone else.

    A few years ago I was somehow privy to a conversation with a group of women who had abortions. They all shared how they still had dreams about what they did. While some or even most of them said they still would have had their abortions, their dreams indicated a degree of torment for years afterward. There was a study in Europe recently that mentioned this, as well.

    Why does nobody write about this? It would make fascinating copy!

  • Dan

    Mollie in such a story the selection of women would be critical — and probably impossible to do fairly. The reason for this is that women who are willing to discuss their abortions are a self-selected group. Many women will never, ever tell anyone that they have aborted. How these women feel about their abortions can never be known. The women who will talk about it may not be — indeed probably aren’t — respresentative of all women who abort.

    What is indisputable is that some women who abort suffer severe pyschological trauma when they realize they have killed their own child. The realization that triggers this trauma often occurs long after the abortion — in some cases decades later. In some cases however the trauma occurs immediately after — or even during — the abortion.

    If you want more information on the after effect of abortion on women, check out This is the website for the Elliot Institute. The Elliot Institute is a basically pro-life organization that studies the effect of abortion on women.

  • Fr Joseph Huneycutt

    Mollie, Frederica-Mathewes Green’s “Real Choices” does exactly that. Recommended!

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  • matt

    The reason there are not more articles like this, I think, is because they are physically sickening. Who wants to read about this? I don’t. I wish the practice didn’t even exist. Who wants tears with their morning paper?

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  • Peggy Loonan

    I would have no problem publishing women’s stories about their abortion experience whether they said it was the right thing for them at the time and they have no regrets to those who were extremely troubled over the decision they made. Included should be mainstream – operative word – mainstream – stats on both those populations of women. But we must also include the same about the options of parenting and adoption.

    I tell my two daughters that all 3 options to an unintended pregnancy have life long consequences which is why they never want to find themselves facing such a decision.

    Leslie J. Cannold “The Abortion Myth” speaks about the women who are suffering life long horrible depression because they gave away their baby. She says:
    “The accepted view of adoption is that because it saves the life of the fetus, moral women should choose it over abortion. In addition, women who give away their children to ‘people who can’t have their own’ – as in the case of both adoption and surrogacy – get lots of kudos in our culture for their ‘sacrifice.’ According to many relinquishing mothers and their lost children however, the practice of adoption has given them nothing but pain and sorrow: ‘The feeling of loss has been strong for 18 years – it was though she died, only worse, she was out there somewhere. I don’t even have the right to wonder or ask how she is…{but} I do wonder, cry, and ask. — An Australian Institute of Family Studies report on 213 mother who relinquished a child for adoption found that: ‘The effects of relinquishment on the mother are negative and long-lasting. Approximately half the women reported an increasing sense of loss over periods of up to 30 years. Relinquishing mothers compared to a carefully matched comparison group of women had significantly more problems of psychological adjustment… The decision to relinquish that life for someone else to parent is an unforgettable decision. This decision can result in a lifetime of grief and despair. One birth mother described that “amputation” as being a far worse experience than ILLEGAL abortion: ‘The physical pain and danger associated with 3 illegal abortions were nothing compared with the agony and lifelong regret I have experienced as a result of adopting out my baby. I have never been able to stop wondering if she’s alright. I have never regretted my abortions, but I will regret adopting out my baby for eternity.”

    Adoption is a viable option to abortion but it isn’t the be-all end-all abortion opponents make it out to be. They never seem to acknowledge that there are life long consequences to this option that may pain women as much as abortion has to the women abortion opponents tell us about. They offer the option as if it had absolutely no negative consequences for anyone involved fiom the birth mother to the child that’s given away and suffers self-esteem issues as a result.

    As a supporter of legal abortion (verses illegal abortion) I can acknowledge that all 3 options to an unintended pregnancy have life long consequences – some positive some negative – why can’t abortion opponents acknowledge the same?

    I’ve talked to couples who’ve raised their children and while they love them dearly, had they understood what was involved in parenting they would have chosen to remain childless. Parenting is hard and some regret their decision to parent.

    It’s expected by society, our family and friends that we’ll marry and have children. There is still a stigma attached by our society to those who choose to remain childless.

    There’s no warning label on the expectation to become parents. We aren’t taught how to parent we’re just expected to have that ability and knowledge upon our child’s birth. We need to acknowledge that women can regret their decision to parent as deeply as some tell us women regret their decision to abort.

    Abortion opponents usually respond to me pointing out that parenting and adoption also have life long and negative consequenes by reminding me that the “baby” came out alive in those two instances as if that mitigated or made those women’s depression, pain and regrets of no consequence. They seem to pull a bait and switch and they are really acknowledging that they really don’t care about women, they only care about the fetus.

    Finally, I wish legal abortion opponents would also acknowledge that this problem doesn’t go away if we make abortion illegal. If anything it can only make it worse.

    Women would fear seeking any mental health help for fear they’d be turned in and arrested for first degree murder for having an illegal abortion.

    In the end we should acknowledge – fairly so – that women will and will not regret their decision to have an abortion, parent, and give away their child.

    And legal abortion proponents and abortion opponents should come together and support public policy that would reduce unintended pregnancies which reduces the need for abortion AND saves women from having to decide between 3 options that carry their own unique positive and negative life long consequences like getting the FDA to release emergency contraception for over the counter use and forcing insurance companies to cover female hormonal birth control and abstinence-based comprehensive (not abstinence-only) sex educaiton.

    Peggy Loonan, founder and executive director, Life and Liberty for Women