Abortion blindness in the New York Times

Three cheers for my Get Religion colleague Mollie Hemingway! She has done a fantastic job this week pointing out the professional failures of the national press coverage of the Kermit Gosnell trial in Philadelphia. The self-censorship of the New York Times on this issue is of Walter Duranty-like proportions.

But the Gosnell case is not an isolated incident when it comes to questionable abortion reporting — they have form. There is a blindness in the Times coverage of abortion — they see only what they want to see. Or, there is a sleight of hand at work here — like the three card monte dealer they promise you a fair game as the cards pass before your eyes — but the hand always comes out in favor of the dealer — and in this game the rightness of abortion always comes up aces.

Take the Irish abortion controversy that dominated the media for a few weeks after the election. Last November/December the Times ran six stories on the death of Savita Halappanavar.  The lede of its first report set the tone of its subsequent coverage:

The death of a woman who was reportedly denied a potentially lifesaving abortion even while she was having a miscarriage has revived debate over Ireland’s almost total ban on abortions.

The stories that followed focused on Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws — and upon claims that an abortion was not performed when the life of the mother was in danger because of Ireland’s Catholic culture.

Dr. Halappanavar contracted a bacterial blood infection, septicemia, and died Oct. 28, a week after she was admitted to Galway University Hospital with severe back pains. She was 17 weeks pregnant but having a miscarriage and was told that the fetus — a girl — would not survive. Her husband said she asked several times for an abortion but was informed that under Irish law it would be illegal while there was a fetal heartbeat, because “this is a Catholic country.”

The coroners inquest this past week in Ireland has seen blow by blow reports in the Irish and British press — with some papers publishing updates after each session. The Times returned to the story on 11 April 2013 with an article that backed the editorial line taken last year.

[Read more...]

On media malpractice and Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death

Back in March I wrote in “How To Cover A Hate Crime” about my obsession about the horrific beating death of Shaima Al Awadhi, a 32-year-old mother of five:

Apparently other people have been obsessed, too, as there are literally thousands of stories out there about the crime — virtually all of them centered around it being an alleged hate crime.

In April I wrote in “Reporting The Hate In Hate Crimes“:

When we looked at stories last week, we noticed that the media seemed to be pretty sure that the murder was a hate crime and that meme dominated the coverage. Rather dramatically dominated the coverage. That remains the case.

Anti-hate crime protest movements sprung up globally as communities expressed widespread outrage over the circumstances of her death. I asked if the media should wait for more information before running with a hate crime story. I noted that if it weren’t a hate crime, the media would look horrible and irresponsible in how they handled it. Was there enough information to frame this as a hate crime story? What facts should the media wait for, I wondered, before running with the hate crime angle?

This week we learned that Al Awadhi’s husband was charged with her murder.

I thought of that rush to judgment when readers began sending along stories about another woman’s tragic death. One wrote:

The story is about a Hindu woman in Ireland who died when Drs refused to do an abortion on the grounds that ‘this is a Catholic country’. Expect the story to get legs in the US as the prochoice movement is already pushing it at Progressive sites. Might check it out.

Indeed, the US media have adopted the pro-choice movement’s certainty about the circumstances surrounding Savita Halappanavar’s death. A casual trip around the internet will yield plenty of stories with headlines and ledes of “woman dies because she was denied an abortion.” The Times of India went with “Ireland murders pregnant Indian dentist.” Those stories tend to place blame on the Roman Catholic Church based on the widower’s claim that his wife died because she was refused an abortion and the reason for such was because Ireland is a Catholic country.

Pro-choice activists and the media have said Halappanavar’s death should force changes to Ireland’s abortion laws, which protect unborn children from termination.

That is a very complicated and interesting debate to have, but for our purposes, we’re only interested in media coverage of this story.

Irish Times has a good roundup of America media reaction.

One medical professional wrote to us that “Most journalists don’t ‘get religion’ any more than they ‘get medical science.’ … What really bothers me about the story is that it recklessly thrusts upon an uneducated public an unproven and questionable assertion that this woman would have lived if she had been allowed to have an abortion. The more detailed stories that I have read indicate that she died of septicemia AND and E.coli ESBL. This provides valid reason to question whether this woman would have survived, regardless of the treatment. This ESBL-producing E.coli strain is harder to treat than MRSA. The E.coli ESBL infection may not have even been related to the miscarriage initially, but she’s been cremated, so there is no way to do further investigation. The E.coli ESBL could have been the cause of the miscarriage in the first place. Again, my point is that there is no conclusive evidence that earlier termination of the pregnancy would have saved this woman. She had a terribly antibiotic resistant infection that caused septicemia. It is very possible that her death could have been hastened (and actually was) by the medical removal (D & C) of the baby, dead or alive. If there was infection in the uterus, once the blood vessels were ruptured the infection quickly became systemic, and antibiotics were of no help.”

I do wonder whether the media has any responsibility to wait for the facts of the medical investigation before concluding the cause of death. To be fair, this Irish Times report says one government health official (who said “I am privy to certain facts but I am not privileged to share them”) that “often in a case where miscarriage was inevitable, it was the view of the medical experts that allowing that to occur naturally represented the safest option.” Still, this viewpoint isn’t exactly being highlighted in the above stories.

When did the infection present? Was it related to the miscarriage? What were the medical options that were available? Do the medical professionals agree with the widower’s assessment of the course of treatment? Did the medical professionals follow the law? What are the established protocols? We know that Ireland does permit induction to save the health of the mother. What went into the decision to avoid that in this case? Is this a story about medical malpractice? Should these questions be answered before running with the story in the manner it’s running?

OK, moving on from the medical issue, what about the way Catholic teaching is being presented? If the allegations against the hospital are true, was the hospital treating its patients according to Catholic teaching? Has the media explained Catholic teaching well in this matter? If not, why not? How does the Catholic Church’s teaching that the lives of both mother and child need to be cared for relate to this particular circumstance? The Anchoress has some helpful links on that matter here.

There’s much more that can and will be looked at here. Here’s some trenchant media analysis. Do let us know if you see any examples of good journalism on this sad story (or particularly noteworthy advocacy).

And here’s a video of Savita Halappanavar dancing the ‘Zor Ka Zhatkha’ with her husband Praveen and another couple at a Diwali festival two years ago. It’s difficult to watch the young and beautiful couple, so full of joy and life, in light of the tragedy of her death.


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