Did woman really survive abortion?

Once again (shock!), a movie marketed to religious conservatives is making a splash at the box office. This time it’s “October Baby,” about a woman who survives a late-term abortion.

The subject matter drew the attention of The New York Times, which this week featured the film in a front-page news story.

From the start, the Times — in a passive-aggressive sort of way — shows its skepticism of the notion that someone survived an abortion attempt and lived to tell about it.

This is the headline on the online version of the story:

Film Inspired by ‘Abortion Survivor’ Is Quiet Hit

The quote marks scream: This may or may not have happened.

The top of the story:

As mass entertainment goes, the abortion debate does not typically count as good Saturday-night date movie fare; the subject rarely makes it to the mainstream multiplex. But at a time when the issue is once again causing agitation in political circles, a small film, “October Baby,” about a woman who learns she is, as the movie puts it, a “survivor of a failed abortion,” is making a dent at theaters across the country.

The movie, the first feature by a pair of filmmaking brothers from Birmingham, Ala., opened the same weekend as the chart-topping “Hunger Games,” but with the backing of evangelical groups and churches, “October Baby” managed to open at No. 8 and, through Sunday, had made $2.8 million, more than three times its production budget. It is expected to move to more than 500 screens on April 13.

Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films and the Sony-owned Provident Films, which specializes in socially-conservative religious fare, it benefited from the kind of grass-roots religion-focused marketing (enlisting Bible and prayer groups and ministries) that has carried their other Christian-oriented movies, like “Fireproof” and “Courageous,” to box-office success.

Again, there are quote marks, this time around “survivor of a failed abortion.”

Later, there’s this intriguing paragraph:

It was inspired by the story of Gianna Jessen, who says she was delivered alive at a California clinic after a late-term saline-injection abortion. As a paid speaker at anti-abortion events she tells of her struggles and medical conditions. (The film doesn’t get into the science, but a 1985 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology examined  33,000 suction curettage abortions and found a failure rate of 2.3 per 1,000 at the 12-weeks or earlier.)

Did you notice that phrasing? Who says she was … 

My journalistic question is this: Are there facts to back up the woman’s claim or not? Medical records? Is anyone claiming that her story is not true? Can any medical experts or journals speak to the question of whether, and how many, babies survive late-term abortions?

In the parenthetical statement, the Times gives a statistic on the abortion failure rate at 12 weeks or earlier. But how does that relate to a late-term abortion? On an anti-abortion website, one blogger noted:

Duh. Jessen was not “12-weeks or earlier.”

Later in the piece, the paper’s skepticism extends to a reference to crisis pregnancy centers. Note the term placed in front of that phrase:

The Erwin brothers said they had earmarked 10 percent of the movie’s profits for a charity they founded, Every Life Is Beautiful, which supports adoption and so-called crisis pregnancy centers.

So-called, as in, “We ain’t buying it.”

There seems to be less skepticism in relaying a pro-abortion group’s concern about the other side’s extreme message:

Given the links to these groups, the abortion rights organization Naral Pro-Choice America contends that the film is tied to an extreme anti-abortion message. A spokesman, Ted Miller, added that his group was “concerned that some proceeds from this film could be going to organizations that may intentionally mislead women about their health-care options.” The film’s credits include a list of anti-abortion Web sites, some in the guise of therapeutic resources, Naral said.

It would be nice to know which websites appear in the credits, and what services they provide, so that readers can make their own judgment on their therapeutic benefit, or not.

Of course, the Times notes the timing of the film:

Though “October Baby” arrives at a moment when reproductive rights and women’s sexual health are again part of a robust national debate, its makers say they weren’t acting with a political agenda.

(That national debate, of course, does not include religious liberty concerns.)

All in all, however, this is not a terrible news story. In fact, it provides ample opportunity for the major players — including the filmmakers — to discuss their perspectives in their own words. That’s always nice.

It’s just that the piece, as the anti-abortion blogger referenced above put it, has the feel of an “anthropologist visiting some far place peopled by exotic natives.”

I’d love feedback from GetReligion readers. Are the scare quotes used in this story appropriate or not? Did the Times handle the overall subject fairly? Was I too harsh in my assessment?

Remember, we want to focus on journalism and media coverage. Comments that advocate for or against abortion will be spiked.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Chris M

    I don’t like it when news reports mix up labels for those in the debate. When they refer to one group as pro-choice, they should refer to the other group as pro-life. If one group are refered to as Pro-abortion, the other should be anti-abortion.

    In an ideal world, I would prefer the labels to be ‘in favour of abortion’ and ‘in opposition to abortion’ in news reports. It might be too wordy for news reports, but I think it’s the least loaded way to portray the two sides of the conversation.

  • Julia

    When I read this a couple of days ago, I was going to send it to GR as a surprisingly even-handed article – except for the very items you mention. I was particularly struck by the phrase

    so-called crisis pregnancy centers

    I don’t recall ever reading anything in a straight journalism piece on a front page that was quite so snarky. There are criticisms that pro-life pregnancy centers don’t refer or counsel positively regarding abortion. I don’t think these centers ever claim that they do. The writer could have just said these particular crisis pregnancy centers don’t refer or suggest abortions.

    It was pretty easy to figure out what was meant by this phrase that wasn’t as jarring:

    in the guise of therapeutic resources

    The word


    signals an intervention of some kind, presumably abortion.

    It would be useful to see these links at the end to understand what was misleading about them. Do they really lead a young woman to think the place does or refers for abortion; or does the writer and the person quoted think the pro-life agency links should make clear that the agency is not going to suggest or facilitate abortion?

    But good for the NYT to have such an article on the front page that lets the film makers and the objectors speak.

  • Jerry

    I became interested in one item that you noted: Did you notice that phrasing? Who says she was and looked at Wikipedia which notes “citation needed”:

    The instillation abortion was carried out when the biological mother was 30 weeks (7½ months) pregnant. The abortion procedure failed, and Jessen was born alive and premature, with severe injury that resulted in physical atrophy and cerebral palsy.[citation needed]

    This BBCstory from 2005 adds the perspective of her personal statement:

    It says on my records that I was born after a saline abortion.

    And there are web sites one cited in Wikipedia that present this image: http://www.prolife.org.nz/img/gianna-jessen-birth-certificate.jpg [Full citation needed][non-primary source needed]

    Two comments: this is clearly one example where a superficial reading of a Wikipedia entry is at best misleading because the page is internally contradictory as well as displaying Wikipedia’s bias against primary sources.

    Second, I agree with your calling out “Who said she was”. There is no evidence to indicate she was not born exactly as she says. Given how inflammatory abortion is, if anyone doubted the birth certificate, it would have been obvious to a casual searcher. In addition, going back to that BBC story, I read this which to me, put the nail on the coffin of how the story was handled – extremely badly. And I think the current handling of cases like hers needs exposure in news stories.

    Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said it was important to remember that late abortions, like that of Gianna’s mother, are uncommon.

    “If women have a wanted pregnancy and go into labour prematurely they need to know that everything will be done to their babies, but if they need to have an abortion at this late stage then the intention will be that there is not live birth and the procedure should avoid a live birth.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    If anything deserves “scare” quotation marks in the NY Times it is the phrases and words they use to provide its typical liberal spin in what is supposed to be news. Like for example: “so-called” to alert Times fans who can’t seem to grasp how often they are being propagandized in news stories.

  • Kaneda

    Seems slightly more fair than most articles I’ve read. But you are spot on for pointing out those few words that unbalance this piece. The scare quotes are okay, but add in those few snarky phrases, and you change the whole tone.

    The film’s credits include a list of anti-abortion Web sites

    There are lots of links in the article (and even more on NARAL’s take), but not this one?

  • Kaneda

    Oh, and this is at the bottom of the NYT article:

    This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

    Correction: April 4, 2012

    A Web summary with an earlier version of this article incorrectly described the movie “October Baby.” The film is a work of fiction inspired by Gianna Jessen, who identifies herself as an “abortion survivor” and is a paid speaker at anti-abortion events.

    More fuel for the fire.

  • sari

    Leaving aside the scare quotes for a second, what the heck does abortion survivor mean? The article defines it as the unaborted offspring, but without that information, it could just as easily refer to the mother. The headline was ambiguous at best. Lots of women suffer temporary or permanent damage from improperly performed D&Cs.

    Another question. At 7.5 months, how certain can anyone be that the botched abortion procedure caused CP and physical atrophy? Physical atrophy can be a function of CP. CP is very common among preemies (1/100 @ 28 wks or less vs. 1/1000 full-term; incidence is inversely proportional to gestational age). One might say that forcing prematurity might have led to CP, but it’s less clear that the procedure itself was responsible.

  • Kathleen

    Kaneda notes the correction. Here’s the explanation
    In the Times’ morning email summary of the day’s news, the citation read:


    Anti-Abortion Film Is Pro-Profit
    “October Baby,” which opened with the backing of evangelical groups, deals with a young woman who identifies herself as an “abortion survivor” and is paid to speak about her experiences.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Anti-Abortion Film Is Pro-Profit
    “October Baby,” which opened with the backing of evangelical groups, deals with a young woman who identifies herself as an “abortion survivor” and is paid to speak about her experiences.

    Thanks, Kathleen. That headline and summary make it sound like it’s all about the money for the filmmakers and the woman featured.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    I don’t like it when news reports mix up labels for those in the debate. When they refer to one group as pro-choice, they should refer to the other group as pro-life. If one group are refered to as Pro-abortion, the other should be anti-abortion.

    I think the story actually refers to those in the debate as “anti-abortion” and “abortion rights.” That’s the terminology recommended by the AP Stylebook:

    abortion Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.

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

    Hmmm. Journalistically speaking, when – if ever – would scare quotes be appropriate?

    Remember the atheist running the “rapture pet insurance” hoax? Should there have been scare quotes on that story?

  • kristy

    To me, scare quotes are just an excuse for lazy journalism. So are the “as she says”, or “so-called” labels. If there’s doubt about the sincerity or honesty of a statement, call it. Investigate, question and research it. Just don’t roll your eyes at it and smirk about it through the use of those snarky qualifiers.

  • Chris

    “so called” crisis pregnancy centers.

    In that same vein, when exactly does Planned Parenthood help their clients “plan for parenthood”?

    I know they’re great in working with women on the “non-parenthood” bit ?

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


    The vast amount of Planned Parenthood’s work is family planning, i.e. the use of contraceptives to space or restrict the number of children so that they can be properly cared or provided for. This includes avoiding unplanned teen pregnancy, allowing the mother to recover physically from childbirth without fear of another pregnancy too soon and helping choose contraception that will allow pregnancy when finances and the emotional health of the family is ready. Counseling is always part of that.

    Parenthetical objections on “so-called” noted.