In preparation for the 34th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, The New York Times Sunday Magazine had a lengthy feature on how post-abortion syndrome doesn’t exist. I’m sure you are as shocked as I am that the paper would come down quickly and easily on this side of the debate.
Emily Bazelon of Slate penned the piece. She has written for Mother Jones, too! Just like Jack Hitt, who wrote a previous (problematic) abortion story for the magazine. One of Bazelon’s stories for that magazine was — wait for it — against a feminist pro-life group. Seriously, if anyone wants to write for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, bolster your leftist credentials. Mother Jones seems to be the surest fire stop on your path.
Also, Emily Bazelon is Betty Friedan‘s cousin. I love it. A sample of the evenhanded perspective of the author:
Abortion-recovery counselors like [Rhonda] Arias could focus on why women don’t have the material or social support they need to continue pregnancies they might not want to end. They could call for improving the circumstances of women’s lives in order to reduce the number of abortions. Instead they are working to change laws to restrict and ban abortion.
See, pro-lifers don’t really care about women.
Anyway, the piece is long but not terribly illuminating. What pro-lifers are going to read such lines and feel their perspective is being given the benefit of the doubt? What pro-choicers will read the same without feeling a sense of self-satisfaction? What has been gained by that little swipe that is, in my experience, completely inaccurate in any case?
Bazelon tracks precisely one woman — Rhonda Arias — who says abortion was bad for her — and only very lightly, in the context of how the same woman now is an evangelical minister who counsels and ministers to other post-abortive women in prison. She gives lots of details about the woman — her past abortions, her preaching style, her emotional religiosity, her messed up childhood, etc. — and yet because the perspective of the author is so clear, it makes it hard to trust that her descriptions are in good faith. Rather, I kept wondering why this was the woman Bazelon chose as her lead/only anecdote. Bazelon also mentions the religious affiliations, mostly Roman Catholic, of many of those working to counsel women after their abortions.
What annoys me more than anything in abortion coverage is how the stories are always so political. This story is entirely political — about the politics of the abortion movement and (without realizing it, it seems) about the politics of the science surrounding whether post-abortion syndrome exists. And the reporter takes precisely the angle you would expect from The New York Times Sunday Magazine. I’ll note that it’s not the same angle I’d expect from the daily Times.
Like most people (statistically speaking) I have many friends who have had abortions. And while the vast majority of these friends remain pro-choice, they would be the first to tell you that the procedure’s effects are profound and long-reaching. Not so long ago, I was privy to a conversation with four pro-choice women who had their first or only abortions over a decade ago. They all spoke of effects that remained with them: Abortion-related nightmares, frequent thoughts of how old their child would be, etc. None of these women are pro-life. But because of the politics surrounding abortion, their situation — shared by millions of American women — receives no balanced coverage. Such after-effects are picked up on as proof of abortion’s evils by pro-lifers and ignored for the same reason by pro-choicers.
Bazelon does mention this in her piece, for which she should be commended:
While it seems that some anti-abortion advocates exaggerate the mental-health risks of abortion, some abortion advocates play down the emotional aftereffects. Materials distributed at abortion clinics and on abortion-rights Web sites stress that most women feel relief after an abortion, and that the minority who don’t tend to have pre-existing problems. Both claims are supported by research. But the idea that “abortion is a distraction from underlying dynamics,” as Nancy Russo put it to me, can discourage the airing of sadness and grief. “The last thing pro-choice people, myself included, want to do is to give people who want to make abortions harder to get or illegal one iota of help,” says Ava Torre-Bueno, a social worker who was the head of counseling for 10 years at Planned Parenthood in San Diego. “But then what you hear in the movement is ‘Let’s not make noise about this’ and ‘Most women are fine, I’m sure you will be too.’ And that is unfair.”
In general, Bazelon’s treatment of how pro-choicers deal — or don’t deal — with post-abortion problems is infinitely better than her emotionally distant and lengthier treatment of the same on the pro-life side. She’s able to look at some of the pitfalls of ignoring emotional problems resulting from abortion with a gentleness and sympathy that is illuminating. While that’s a wonderful benefit for readers in learning one side of the story, the problems are only emphasized for readers wanting to learn more about the other side. I think it may be yet another argument for ensuring that Mother Jones isn’t on the resume of all your abortion reporters.
Ultimately, though, the problem is with this story’s emphasis on politics. A story like this has to include actual women. How many tens of millions of women have undergone abortions in the last 34 years since abortion was legalized? How many of them could share the true effects — subtle or profound — of their abortions years after the fact?
This is why I still think so fondly of Stephanie Simon’s twin stories about women who undergo abortions and women who complete crisis pregnancies. Very little politics at all — just stories about the decisions women face and the choices they make.
How much more interesting would this story have been if Bazelon — a talented and smart writer for sure — had talked to women who had abortions and told their stories?