Still just a clump of cells?

This story that ran in the New York Times late last month is headlined “In Ultrasound, Abortion Fight Has New Front.” The inclusion of the word “fight” made me think the story might include perspectives from those who support abortion as well as those who don’t. And I guess, technically, the story did. To get that other perspective, it helps to not blink while you’re reading toward the end of the piece. But all of the drama, the meat and personal stories come from one side.

The quotes in the story are (in order) from an abortion technician, a 36-year-old woman who is aborting her baby, the owner of the clinic where that abortion is taking place, another woman getting an abortion at the clinic, a 27-year-old woman who had an abortion at that clinic, the president of the National Abortion Federation, a Focus on the Family spokesman, another clinic director, and a 28-year-old woman getting her second abortion in three years.

I suppose the headline “Abortion rights press release on why ultrasounds are cruel, offensive and ineffective” was just too long.

The first thing I noticed about this story was that it conspicuously avoided mentioning anything about public opinion. The day before the story came out, for instance, Gallup released a poll showing that half of Americans view abortion as a “moral wrong,” while only 38% said it was morally acceptable. And this is the second year in a row that more Americans self-identify as “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice” (47% versus 45%).

About the only value this story has, really, is if you’re interested in reading pro-choice arguments. It begins fairly innocuously:

“It’s going to be cold, and some pressure, O.K.?”

As required, a woman named Laura underwent a pre-abortion ultrasound at the clinic.

The medical assistant guided the gelled ultrasound transducer across the pregnant woman’s belly. The patient, a 36-year-old divorced woman named Laura, stared straight ahead, away from the grainy image on the screen to her side.

The technician told Laura she was at 11 weeks. “Do you want to see your ultrasound?” she asked. “I’d rather not,” Laura answered promptly.

Laura, who asked that her last name not be used, had come to the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham with her mind set on having an abortion. And she felt that seeing the image of her bean-size fetus would only unleash her already hormonal emotions, without changing her mind.

The rest of the story gets to the point that it actually includes anecdotes saying that women felt better getting their abortion after they saw the ultrasound — because, you know, it’s just a “bean-sized fetus” with “barely detectable” “human features.” Now, I realize that GE ad above is of a baby well beyond the first trimester. But come on. It’s like the reporter is banking on none of his readers ever having witnessed an ultrasound.

In fact, perhaps reporter Kevin Sack’s New York Times piece was so laughably bad to me because I have a uterus that has housed babies. And when I found out I was pregnant with my second daughter, I had absolutely no idea how far along I was. I was sent for an ultrasound and it turned out I was only 10 weeks along. Now, it’s certainly true that Lindy looked different at that age than she did at birth or than she does now, but the technician showed me all sorts of human features that were developing on her. For instance, her head. And her heart was beating at some insane rate that was pretty hard to miss — like 170 beats per minute or something.

The story doesn’t mention what an ultrasound in the first trimester — when most abortions take place — might even show. Or how it varies week by week. Or how an ultrasound given to a woman who doesn’t plan to terminate the life of her fetus compares with an ultrasound required by law is given at an abortion clinic. Instead we get the barely updated version of “just a clump of cells”-type language that is much more fitting for political rhetoric rather than a mainstream media story. He also steadfastly avoids any straightforward discussion of the impact ultrasound technology has had on the abortion debate in general.

A few days after that story ran, the Times ran another piece headlined “Abortion Foes Advance Cause at State Level.” It’s a much more balanced piece. Even though it’s about how abortion opponents have passed laws in 11 states this year, it includes a healthy bit of pro-choice perspective. Compared to the source list above, we hear from a Villanova law professor providing context, the vice president for government affairs at Americans United for Life, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, the director of state legislation for the National Right to Life Committee, a spokesman for Naral Pro-Choice America, and a Nebraska state senator who proposed one of the pieces of legislation.

Here’s a sample:

“This is a good year as far as victories,” said Mary Spaulding Balch, director of state legislation for the National Right to Life Committee, who named several states, including Arizona, Missouri and Tennessee, that are now more open to restrictive laws. “I do get the impression that the climate is friendlier.”

Eighteen states passed or introduced bills requiring counseling before abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Arizona, where Janet Napolitano vetoed abortion restrictions as governor, passed four laws this year under Jan Brewer, who became governor in 2009 after Ms. Napolitano resigned to become the secretary of homeland security. The four include restrictions on coverage under health insurance exchanges, state employee insurance and Medicaid, and call for stricter reporting requirements for doctors who perform abortions.

I don’t really have much to say about this second story. It manages to just tell the news about what’s happening in state legislatures without trying to advocate for one side or another. That’s good.

Still, there’s one thing you won’t find in this story, either. And that’s any information on public opinion. It seems like it used to be a staple of abortion reporting that stories would include a line stating that most Americans were pro-choice or opposed laws restricting abortion. I always thought the story was a bit more complex than such passed-off lines made it seem. Still, it’s telling that we no longer get that brief contextual information in abortion politics stories now that public opinion has changed to be more strongly against abortion.

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  • T Stanton

    “I suppose the headline “Abortion rights press release on why ultrasounds are cruel, offensive and ineffective” was just too long.”

    HAHAHAHA – laugh to keep from crying…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is not just on the abortion issue that the mainstream media plays its poll game. When a poll on any issue is to their liking (or going in a direction they like) it seems
    we read or hear it ad nauseum, ad infinitum. But when polls are not to their liking reporting on them seems to disappear.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The quotes in the story are (in order) from an abortion technician, a 36-year-old woman who is aborting her baby, the owner of the clinic where that abortion is taking place, another woman getting an abortion at the clinic, a 27-year-old woman who had an abortion at that clinic, the president of the National Abortion Federation, a Focus on the Family spokesman, another clinic director, and a 28-year-old woman getting her second abortion in three years.

    We really need to create a new GetReligion catchphrase, something to salute MSM stories that, when pressed to find a balancing quote from the cultural right, feature — solo — a Focus on the Family spokesperson.

    It’s the new Pat Robertson quote, maybe?

  • John D

    And where is the religion ghost here? Sure, you mention that half of Americans consider abortion morally wrong, but is that a religious view?

    Is it obligatory to mention religion in every story on abortion? In every story on same-sex marriage? Does it raise religion questions to examine these issues in a purely secular context?

    As for the phrase “clump of cells,” well, I’m just a clump of cells with typing skills.

  • Jerry

    The quotes in the story are (in order)

    I vaguely remember reading once a study about how people read stories including that often people only look at the headline or first paragraph or perhaps the first and last paragraphs. So while most of us are careful readers and pick up on such things, I’ll bet that most readers miss most of the content.

    Does anyone know if my vague recollection is accurate?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Jerry,

    I don’t know about news stories, but it’s pretty well known in fundraising circles that people read (in order): the salutation, the closing signature, the postscript, and then and only then (maybe) the body. That’s why every fundraising letter you get will include a P.S. – the “extra” message at the end is actually the whole reason for the letter!

    For online writing, writers are repeatedly told to write shorter stories with plenty of headings and bullet points for anything important.

  • Jerry

    Mike, thanks for the perspective.

  • Dave

    [The story] steadfastly avoids any straightforward discussion of the impact ultrasound technology has had on the abortion debate in general.

    Evidently the article was about the impact of ultrasound on women seeking abortions, not on the general debate about abortion. Does a reporter not have a choice now of what his/her story is about? Is failure to throw in some poll numbers now a failure to get religion?

    Jerry, years ago when I took a management training course we were told that people retain the first and last thing they hear from a presentation. This looks like s similar phenomenon.

  • Dan

    The article states: “In one of the few studies of the issue — there have been none in the United States — two abortion clinics in British Columbia found that 73 percent of patients wanted to see an image if offered the chance. Eighty-four percent of the 254 women who viewed sonograms said it did not make the experience more difficult, and none reversed her decision.”

    I’m quite suspicious of that reporting although I am not familiar with studies on the issue. As the reporter phrased it, it sounds like the abortion clinics administered the study — which is alone a major reason to question it. The reporting is also vague. One study is reported on but what about the others even if there are only a few? Within the pro-life movement it is commonly thought that sonograms are a highly effective tool in persuading women not to abort. Certainly there is much anecdotal evidence to support that belief and it also comports with common sense. I would not think that most women are so desensitized to human life that seeing a daughter or son in utero would have no impact on the decision whether to abort.

  • Rachel

    I’d also be interested in knowing what kind of ultrasound equipment these clinics use. Is it grainier than average? That would serve the purpose of the clinics and is the only way I can think of that a baby older than 8 weeks would have undetectable features. When I got my 9-week ultrasound (which was just at a regular doctor’s office, not a hospital), it was so baby-shaped that even a friend of mine who had applied to work for the National Abortion Foundation saw the picture and squealed, “Awww, look at the baby!”


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