There’s a pony in here somewhere

When I saw that the New York Times magazine had an 8,000(!) word piece on the “The New Abortion Providers,” my heart sank a bit. This is an otherwise interesting publication that doesn’t just seem obsessed with churning out pro-abortion propaganda, it has a history of wildly botching stories on the topic and refusing to correct them.

But for the most part, the magazine’s problem is that they hire left-wing journalists who wear their biases on their sleeve and then give them free rein to tackle a subject that requires a good deal of nuance and balance.

This is where Emily Bazelon — Slate senior editor, Truman Capote law-and-media fellow at Yale Law School, Betty Friedan’s cousin and unabashed abortion activist — comes in. Bazelon is no stranger to criticism here at GetReligion. Why not give her several thousand words on abortion in NYT mag? What could possibly go wrong?

Anyway, if you can stomach diving through the pile of bias in Bazelon’s work, she knows the abortion topic well enough and does enough reportage you can usually find a pony of interesting info in there somewhere. (Though it’s often unintentionally illuminating — Bazelon is the journalist who basically got Ruth Bader Ginsburg to admit abortion was legalized in part out of “concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”)

Some of the info in Bazelon’s latest truly was stunning and revealing. She discusses at length the background around Warren Buffet’s $3 billion donation to advance abortion access — including the fact that Buffet’s money is directly funding a program to train abortion doctors.

The overall premise was intriguing, and it’s certainly a topic that deserves some scrutiny, even if it deserves a more balanced perspective than brought by Bazelon. In a nutshell, the article discusses how pro-abortion forces are working to integrate abortion more into the mainstream of the medical profession — more abortion training for OB-GYN’s and general practitioners in medical school, as well as the emergence of a “new vanguard [that] don’t define themselves as ‘abortion doctors.’ They often try to make the procedure part of their broader medical practice trying to integrate abortion procedures into more more clinics and hospitals.” Currently, most abortions are performed at Planned Parenthood clinics and other stand alone facilities that are easy for pro-life forces to target with protests.

If that sounds intriguing, gird yourself. For Bazelon, discussing this state of affairs means tailing a bunch abortion providers and discussing in a remarkably one-sided fashion the challenges they face for embracing their controversial vocation. Abortion opponents and religious perspectives are brought up in a way that that’s almost comical. Take this description of an abortion provider:

Many of the two dozen young doctors I talked to for this article were similarly conflicted. They wanted to talk about their work. They see it as part of making abortion mainstream. But the murder of Dr. George Tiller last year scared them. One 33-year-old family-medicine doctor I met in Rochester drives 90 miles each week to perform abortions at a clinic in Syracuse. She is pregnant with her third child, and she asked me not to use her name after her father insisted that she’d be putting herself and her kids at risk. Still, at her Episcopal church, where she feels safe, she is open about what she does. “When people are surprised, I say, ‘Yes, a Christian can also be an abortion provider,’” she told me.

A major section of the article just ends right there without any further discussion of the conflicts between being a Christian and an abortion provider. The idea a “a Christian can also be an abortion provider” is put out there like a defiant statement of fact, not a rather dicey proposition. Of course, one can also be murderer and a Christian — but that doesn’t make it compatible with Christian teaching. What Bazelon’s doing here reminds me of an old Soviet proverb: “If you see a Bulgarian on the street, beat him up. He will know why.” Apparently Christians who don’t embrace abortion are obviously inferior beings, and no need bothering to explain to them why.

Okay, think I’m being hyperbolic? Let’s move on — and be warned this next bit is a tad graphic:

As Godfrey came to know the nurses and front-desk staff at her primary-care clinic, she learned that some of them flatly opposed abortion. They’ve come around, she says, out of mutual professionalism. She doesn’t object when nurses don’t want to assist her, and she tries to meet them halfway by doing abortions only up to nine weeks of pregnancy. The early threshold means that no one on staff has to contend with recognizable fetal parts. “It was a way of being respectful, because I know that not everyone agrees with me and what I do,” she says. After I watched Godfrey coach one of the residents she trains through a surgical abortion for a 22-year-old college student who was six weeks pregnant, we went to the clinic’s utility room. The resident floated the pregnancy tissue in a glass dish of water, for a routine check. Amid the uterine tissue was a gestational sac about the size of a dime surrounded by millimeters-long white villi, the fronds that later help form the placenta.

How exactly does one meet “halfway” on abortion? I’m curious to know. But despite being actually in the doctor’s office in question, Bazelon doesn’t talk to any of the people in the office made uneasy by performing abortion procedures. Why not? Here’s another ball quite obviously dropped for fear it might upset the narrative:

These gradated choices are a delicate subject within the field. The abortion providers I talked to are intensely grateful to the doctors who are willing to handle difficult late-second-trimester cases. But they also see the moral complexities up close. Two years ago, a young professor at the University of Michigan named Lisa Harris wrote an academic article about performing an 18-week abortion while she was 18 weeks pregnant. Harris described grasping the fetus’s leg with her forceps, feeling a kick in her own uterus and starting to cry. “It was an overwhelming feeling — a brutally visceral response — heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics,” she wrote. “It was one of the more raw moments in my life.”

[snip]

When Harris’s article was the subject of a workshop at one of the Family Planning Fellowship’s annual meetings, Sunni remembers the difficult emotions that came to the surface, and also the concern about how the article had been depicted in the anti-abortion press, its most graphic passages quoted as evidence of hypocrisy and folly. “We want to bring this discussion more to the forefront,” Sunni says. “But it’s a bit dangerous. Because people can misconstrue what we mean.”

Again, heavy moral issues that are given the inch-deep treatment, for the sake that it might be “misconstrued.” Hmmm. But fear not gentle reader, late in the piece after being introduced to probably a dozen pro-abortion medical doctors, we finally speak with a somewhat conflicted pro-life nurse who works for a doctor who performs abortions:

When I talked to Ann — Ray offered her his office chair while he saw a patient — she said that when Ray took over the practice, she and the office manager, another woman in her 60s, weren’t sure if they would stay. “We didn’t want a young doctor with attitude,” Ann said. “We’re too old for that. But we gave him a chance. And he has exceeded our expectations wildly. I thank God every day, because he’s so good with the patients. I’m just blessed. Other than the little termination thing — ” she made a small box with her fingers and then moved her hands to her left, as if to set the box aside.

Ann reassures herself that Ray is never casual about abortion. “He makes the women think about it longer, to make sure they know this is something you have to live with forever.” She also told me something Ray hadn’t mentioned. “If a patient calls and she’s not sure, I ask, ‘Have you looked into other things?’ I say, ‘Come in and let’s talk.’ I tell her that if adoption might be a difficult situation, there is other help out there. I may refer her to a crisis pregnancy center” — an anti-abortion organization that counsels pregnant women to keep their babies. In 2006, Congressional investigators found that most federally financed crisis pregnancy centers they contacted gave out wrong information like tying abortion to breast cancer or infertility or mental illness. Yet as part of the compromise between doctor and nurse, that is where Ann says she refers some women who call Ray’s office.

Oh please. We’re repeatedly told in this article that abortions are completely safe — though for some inexplicable reason it’s casually mentioned performing this supposedly safe surgical procedure adds about $10-$15,000 a year to a doctor’s malpractice insurance. But the real cause for concern is that women at crisis pregnancy centers will might be given misleading information about the procedure! That’s to say nothing of the fact the debate around crisis pregnancy centers and health risks of abortion is a politically correct minefield.

I’ll leave you with one final headscratcher:

Ray, who is in his 30s, is an OB-GYN in upstate New York who learned to do abortions during his residency. As a teenager, Ray (who asked that I use only his middle name) saw his brother’s fear when he got his girlfriend pregnant. Race also mattered in Ray’s decision to become a provider; he is African-American. “We utilize the service a lot, but publicly we don’t really support it,” he said of the local black community.

…and that’s all were given about this race-and-abortion bombshell. In New York city, more black children are aborted than born every year, and the author has a black abortion doctor saying that factors linked to race played a major role in his decision to perform abortion. Yet, this is another loose thread that merits only a passing mention. Gah!

Anyway, it’s a very, very frustrating piece — but it will enhance your understanding of the issue if you have the fortitude to endure it.

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  • Jerry

    Gee, Mark, why don’t you tell us how you really feel about this issue and how you don’t like the opinions being expressed in the article.

    I do have a journalistic question: This is a magazine article not a news story. I’ve always assumed that the rules and expectations are a bit different. I expect honesty and good writing in a magazine article, but I don’t expect that an article on America in Afghanistan must also include the Taliban perspective for the sake of balance.

    Come to think of it, when was the last time the Taliban point-of-view was expressed in a news story about our war there? After all, balance requires hearing the other side’s perspective in equal measure.

  • mark

    Jerry,

    A couple of thoughts.

    If this were, say, an article that appeared in Mother Jones or The Nation, I guess I’d shrug. I do realize that the fact it’s a magazine doesn’t meant they need to play it entirely straight. However, this is The New York Times a publication that last I checked as at least a nominal interest in appearing objective and authoritative.

    And even if it was published in Mother Jones or The Nation, I still think the bias here is a problem. It gets in the way of the reporting and hinders readers getting a deeper understanding of the issue both because they don’t trust the reporting and the person writing it appears to have obvious blind spots.

    Unlike, say, the Taliban — the pro-life/anti-abortion perspective isn’t something that can be casually dismissed.

    Best,

    Mark

  • Harris

    Reactions may be a case of cup half empty v. half full.
    By far the most intriguing aspect was the self-limiting nature of the practice: where is the boundary at which an abortion is not performed? For the lead figure in the article it was 9 weeks.

    This queasiness boundary already identifies a victory for a broader pro-life consensus (the “half-full”). The doctor’s moral decision would seem to rest on the broader societal understanding and warrant — similar to other moral decisions. I would suggest that in its way, this indicates the success of the broader, softer pro-life frameworks.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    We’re repeatedly told in this article that abortions are completely safe…

    I can’t find that phrase in the article. I do find a citation of a low rate complication, but not a zero rate.

    though for some inexplicable reason it’s casually mentioned performing this supposedly safe surgical procedure adds about $10-$15,000 a year to a doctor’s malpractice insurance.

    Both the article and Mark’s commentary leave out some important context. What are the insurance costs for other specific procedures? Does that include ‘protest insurance’ or anything of that nature?

  • Jerry

    Unlike, say, the Taliban — the pro-life/anti-abortion perspective isn’t something that can be casually dismissed.

    That was actually a question because in some places, say Pakistan, the Taliban perspective can’t be casually dismissed or at least won’t be.

    I think we’d be better off with more balance in reporting even when the other side is obviously evil and wrong as in the case of al Quaeda.

    Otherwise, that was a good point about the Times magazine section versus a magazine with a distinct point of view.

  • mark

    Ray,

    I think “completely” was a bit of obvious hyperbole to make a point. It’s fair to say piece does go out of its way to repeatedly portray abortion as a low-risk and uncomplicated procedure without really discussing potential health risks.

    Best,

    Mark

  • dalea

    Mark says:

    It’s fair to say piece does go out of its way to repeatedly portray abortion as a low-risk and uncomplicated procedure without really discussing potential health risks.

    Perhaps this is because the article focuses on structure building for legal abortions not medical issues. The reporter does not appear to be medically educated but does show a good grasp of political and organizational issues. I read this as a report on how Pro-Choice women have responded to restrictions on abortion. And of the progress they have made.

  • Hector

    Jerry,

    Yes, clearly the Taliban (who believe in extinguishing innocent human life to accomplish their goals) and the pro-life movement (who believe in NOT extinguishing innocent human life) are equivalent.

    Gimme a break.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Mark, the way I read it was a contrast between the (standard rhetorical) “illegal back-alley abortion” and one done by a trained professional in a clinical environment. It’s hardly surprising that the latter is dramatically safer than the former.

    Comparing complication rates of legal abortion to other procedures would also add context and allow readers to determine if abortion was disproportionately risky, either compared to other procedures or the ‘benefits’ from it (or both).

    I’m not sure if that fits into what’s apparently intended as a more personal study of abortion providers… but given abortion’s controversial status, it probably makes sense, since they had the space for it.

  • Sean B

    Bazelon’s statement that “a Christian can also be an abortion provider” reflects a descriptive definition of Christianity (that some abortion providers unproblematically belong to some Christian communities is an empirically verifiable fact). This article’s critique of that statement implies a prescriptive definition (it inserts an unspoken, unwritten “true” before the word “Christian”). I am not a journalist, but the former strikes me as much more appropriate perspective for journalism than the latter. Why should a journalist want to decide what counts as “authentic” religion? Why should readers want journalists to do that?

  • Bob C.

    I found a couple of . . . well disconnects in the original article. The first was that an abortion clinic tried to make their patients feel more warm and comfortable by putting a picture of a Caribbean beach on the ceiling. What is the message here? Don’t think about the baby think about the beach?

    The other is that the national agency that gives credentials to specialists (in this case ob/gyns) decided to FORCE residents into taking a course in how to give an abortion! Yep. That’s choice, isn’t it?

  • mark

    Sean,

    I see your point, but I don’t think I’m claiming to enforce some orthodoxy with regard to abortion on the whole of Christendom.

    I do think the idea that abortion providers would be Christian should not be presented as a ho-hum state of affairs, rather than something that is DEEPLY divisive in the Christian community. The context certainly gave it additional impact, beyond just a flat observation.

    Best,

    Mark

  • Passing By

    Another takedown of the article at First Things.

  • Sean B

    Thanks for your reply, Mark — I’ve been only a lurker up to this point, but I do much appreciate this website.

    I guess I didn’t understand your original objection to this section in the NYT article. For my part, I simply cannot imagine that any reader would be unaware that the most prominent Christian voices in the U.S. are deeply opposed to abortion. However, I certainly can see a potential reader being surprised, even shocked, that an abortion provider would belong to a Christian community that supports her. It seems as if that idea is meant, in the story, to surprise (see its placement at the end of a section — not to mention your own observation that it functions as “defiant”). Do we really need to be told in this section of the article that other/many/most Christian communities would not accept this doctor’s choices?

    Also, I’m not suggesting that you are trying to do anything so conscious as “enforcing” any view of Christianity, only that normative assumptions about religions (other examples would be: jihadists aren’t real Muslims, Fred Ph3lps isn’t a real Christian, Episcopalians aren’t true, biblical Christians) obscure understanding of actual, on-the-ground religious practices and beliefs.

  • chuck

    When I saw the headline I thought it was going to be a story about religion in general, not abortion.

  • Marc

    It’s nice to know that I’m not considered a “true Christian” by Sean B. I now know one more website I won’t bother to track to again.

    There’s more to Christianity than a Bible, but apparently that’s way beyond Sean’s level of sophistication.

  • Sean B

    Marc,

    Wait a second … I was criticizing those “not a true X” ideas as being examples of normative judgments about religion that get in the way of understanding religion. I’m defending Bazelon’s more descriptive characterization of certain kinds of Christians. I definitely sympathize with Episcopalians being on the defensive these days (hey, I’m one too!), but you didn’t characterize my post accurately.

  • http://benplonie.bravehost.com/ Ben Plonie

    An aside- anyone following certain issues is aware of the left wing bias of the journalistic side as well, in what is reported, not reported, over-/under-/mis-reported, labeled and illustrated and captioned on the bias etc. But never mind that for now.

    I suggest closing the loop by requiring abortions to be done exclusively by pediatricians rather than OB’s. Maybe that will bring a little reality therapy to the issue. or maybe an OB and a pediatrician in attendance, if we don’t mind a few fistfights in the OR.

  • http://benplonie.bravehost.com/ Ben Plonie

    Make that a neonatologist (a sub-specialty of pediatrics dealing with newborn infants and particluarly premature and low birthweight infants) rather than a plain pediatritian. My thinking is that from the point of view of an obstetritian, the fetus is just a straight man for the main act, a disposable and dispensable one at that.

    For the larger context of this article (particularly as it applies to religion), I believe what this is about is that there is no more fundamental issue in religion and politics and governance that the definition of humanity. Abortion and euthanasia and slavery for that matter define the outer and lower boundaries of humanity, and social relations define the middle ground. It is important for those playing ‘King of the Hill’ to seize control of the conversation, especially as opposed to those who consider God to be the ‘King of the Hill’.

    Add to that the basically uncontested charge that the New York Times acts as an outlet for agencies of so-called progressive change (which in other contexts is actually regressive), and there you have it. If the NYT is like Google, the NYT Magazine is like Google Labs.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    You think the higher premium might have to do with safety issues and spurious lawsuits brought by RTL moles? I have spoken to several people working at clinics where abortion is offered and they have all mentioned fake patients coming in to try to trip them up on legal matters. Nuisance lawsuits cost the insurance providers money. Of course you pay a whole lot more than $15,000 additional if you are an OB who attends births. Last time I asked an OB, her malpractice insurance premium alone required 40 hours work a week, with additional hours to cover overhead, staff and personal pay. Most of the OBs I know have discontinued obstetrics and only do gynecology for financial reasons. Put it in context: the additional insurance premium for abortion providers is way less than the additional insurance premium for gynecologists to do obstetrics.

  • LJ

    Warren Buffet’s $3 billion donation to advance abortion access — including the fact that Buffet’s money is directly funding a program to train abortion doctors.

    “…embraced rather than shunned” “…aims to supply medical schools with funds to train obgyn residents in providing abortions” This is evil.

    It is well said – It’s easier for a camel to pass thru the eye of a needle then for a rich man to make it to heaven!” This is certainly about depopulization. And at the top of the pyramid are the elite who prefer all mankind (eventually) to march under their electronically administered commands via mind control. Our world is in exile – for this is satan’s land. Only the Lord giveth and taketh away life. We are to protect those who cannot for themselves at any cost!!

    For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

    We must always remember that we must war with the power of His might- not our own – for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God. (2 Cornithians 10:4)

    Daily Readings for Wednesday July 21, 2010
    Reading 1, Jer 1:1, 4-10 1 The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, one of the priests living at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. 4 The word of Yahweh came to me, saying: 5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I appointed you as prophet to the nations.’ 6 I then said, ‘Ah, ah, ah, Lord Yahweh; you see, I do not know how to speak: I am only a child!’ 7 But Yahweh replied, ‘Do not say, “I am only a child,” for you must go to all to whom I send you and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of confronting them, for I am with you to rescue you, Yahweh declares.’ 9 Then Yahweh stretched out his hand and touched my mouth, and Yahweh said to me: ‘There! I have put my words into your mouth. 10 Look, today I have set you over the nations and kingdoms, to uproot and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’ Gospel, Mt 13:1-9 1 That same day, Jesus left the house and sat by the lakeside, 2 but such large crowds gathered round him that he got into a boat and sat there. The people all stood on the shore, 3 and he told them many things in parables. He said, ‘Listen, a sower went out to sow. 4 As he sowed, some seeds fell on the edge of the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Others fell on patches of rock where they found little soil and sprang up at once, because there was no depth of earth; 6 but as soon as the sun came up they were scorched and, not having any roots, they withered away. 7 Others fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Others fell on rich soil and produced their crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Anyone who has ears should listen!’


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