I don’t know why so many reporters are covering abortion-related topics these days, but we have the opportunity to look at yet another article in the genre. In this case Robin Toner of The New York Times wrote about the “new tactic” of pro-lifers seeming to care about women’s well-being. The headline is “Abortion Foes See Validation for New Tactic.”
Let’s look at the first couple of paragraphs:
For many years, the political struggle over abortion was often framed as a starkly binary choice: the interest of the woman, advocated by supporters of abortion rights, versus the interest of the fetus, advocated by opponents of abortion.
But last month’s Supreme Court decision upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act marked a milestone for a different argument advanced by anti-abortion leaders, one they are increasingly making in state legislatures around the country. They say that abortion, as a rule, is not in the best interest of the woman; that women are often misled or ill-informed about its risks to their own physical or emotional health; and that the interests of the pregnant woman and the fetus are, in fact, the same.
The use of the passive voice in the first sentence masks the problem with this unsourced thesis. If that — the binary choice — was how the abortion argument was framed, who was it framed by? The New York Times? The mainstream editors who viewed the pro-life movement as only concerned with life from the moment of conception to the moment of birth? And where in the world does Toner get the idea that it is new for pro-lifers to argue that abortion is not in the best interest of women?
It was just two years ago that we spoke well of Toner’s article on Jane Roberts, wife of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, and her involvement with the pro-life group Feminists for Life. That group’s mission statement proclaims: Abortion is a reflection that we have not met the needs of women. Women deserve better than abortion.
And while it may be true that state legislatures are seeing an increase in the number of pro-life legislative attempts involving women, I’d like some numbers to back that up. Toner says that the anti-abortion movement’s focus on women has been building for ten or more years, but she doesn’t quantify that allegation. Even if it is true, readers would like to know how significant this increase is. She quotes Wanda Franz, president of the National Right to Life Committee, as acknowledging the pro-life movement’s view that helping women helps babies, but near as I can tell, the same quote could have been given by all previous NRLC presidents.
Now don’t get me wrong. Toner is an excellent writer and she has a very compelling piece built around the fact that the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the Federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban included support for pro-life arguments that abortion hurts women. That’s more than interesting, and Toner’s article on this is much better than previous articles making note of the same. But at times it seems the reporter didn’t really get the pro-life movement, particularly throughout history.
One of the ways to avoid this level of distrust between reader and reporter is to source the heck out of all allegations. I wasn’t with Toner at the first paragraph, so I certainly wasn’t inclined to trust her that the pro-life interest in women’s well-being was new or increasing. When Toner says that an effort to enact “informed consent” laws is expected to escalate next year, I want to know why she says that.
Stephanie Simon wrote about the issue last month for the Los Angeles Times. In her article she said that informed-consent laws are neither new nor unusual and that 32 states have enacted them. Her article said that anti-abortion activists are pushing for more detailed information to be included in the pamphlets women receive before terminating their pregnancies. Just because Simon already wrote about this doesn’t mean that Toner’s article can get by without better sourcing.
Anyway, Toner goes on to quote a bunch of pro-choice activists who say that pro-lifers don’t care about women’s health. Instead, they’re motivated by ideology. She also says that Planned Parenthood’s research arm disputes the notion that abortion poses dangers for women’s physical or mental health. Toner then goes to the Justice Foundation, a group that submitted an influential amicus brief with statements from hundreds of women who said having an abortion hurt their mental or physical health.
A quick note to show how Toner described the type of abortion banned by the federal ban, which she identified by name:
The case before the Supreme Court involved a specific type of abortion, occasionally used after the first trimester, that involves removing a fetus intact after collapsing its skull.
I do find it interesting that the phrase “partial-birth abortion” is so loathed by abortion-rights activists, considering that the skull-crushing component seems to cause more visceral reactions among laypeople. Either way, I think that Toner handled it well. She didn’t shy away from referring to the partial-birth name but she also explained a bit about the method.
Toner explains that Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion mentioned the emotional impact of abortion on women as written about in the Justice Foundation’s brief. Let’s see how she explains the reaction from the pro-choicers:
The abortion-rights side was caught off guard, in part because its strategists believe the scientific debate has been so decisively settled against the Justice Foundation’s argument over the years. “We thought that brief was so extraneous that we didn’t even bother coming up with a response to it,” said [Roger] Evans of Planned Parenthood.
Okay, so we’re to believe that despite what they have always said, pro-lifers are using women’s health as a strategic political move in their aim to ban abortion. But then we write as fact what the pro-choice side “believes” about science being on their side? Do they really believe that science is so firmly on their side that any argument about abortion being harmful to women is unpersuasive? Was the abortion-rights side really caught off guard? Is that what really happened in their preparations for SCOTUS argumentation?
I mean, this whole article basically questions whether pro-lifers really care about women or are just using them in their quest to ban a procedure with no ill effects. But why isn’t this article starting with a different supposition? Why isn’t this article saying that even the Supreme Court realizes that abortion may be harmful for women? That pro-choicers say they care about women’s health and they say they believe women are capable of making decisions in their best interest . . . so why do they fight efforts to help women learn more about the health effects of abortion and to see their fetuses on sonograms before they abort them? I’m not saying I don’t understand what the pro-choice arguments against informed consent laws are — it’s just interesting that that is not the angle taken by the reporter.