Abortion blindness in the New York Times

Abortion blindness in the New York Times April 13, 2013

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.

A woman who died after being refused a potentially lifesaving abortion even while she was having a miscarriage was told that her repeated pleas could not be granted because Ireland is a Catholic country, an inquest has confirmed. In a case that has reignited tensions over Ireland’s strict abortion laws, Ann Maria Burke, the midwife who attended to the pregnant woman, said at the inquest in Galway on Wednesday that the remark “had come out the wrong way” and that she had not meant it to be hurtful.

The Times reported:

Dr. Halappanavar’s husband, Praveen, has said the couple were told that the country’s Catholicism was the reason for the refusal to terminate the pregnancy, even though his wife was in severe pain and they had been informed that the fetus had no chance of survival. In Ireland, abortion is legal when there is a fetal heartbeat only if there is “real and substantial risk” to the life of the woman. Dr. Halappanavar, 31, was 17 weeks pregnant when she sought treatment at University Hospital Galway on Oct. 21, complaining of severe back pain. Dr. Katherine Astbury, a senior obstetrician who had attended to Dr. Halappanavar, said at the inquest that although the fetus’s prognosis was poor, she had refused to conduct a termination until the fetus’s heartbeat had ceased. “I recall informing Ms. Halappanavar that the legal position did not permit me to terminate the pregnancy in her case at that time,” Dr. Astbury said, referring to a conversation they had on Oct. 23. She also recalled telling Dr. Halappanavar, who she said was physically well at that point but emotionally distressed, that her only option was to “sit and wait” for as long as the heartbeat persisted.

The article then noted that mistakes were made:

The inquest has also heard testimony that several hospital protocols were not followed, amounting to system failures that contributed to Dr. Halappanavar’s death. Dr. Astbury said she might have intervened sooner had she been made aware of the results of earlier blood tests. Instead, she relied on clinical signs, none of which pointed to sepsis.

The article starts with the “you can’t have an abortion because we’re Catholic in Ireland” and then builds upon this theme with the doctor’s testimony about the country’s “Catholic” abortion laws. The question of medical error is mentioned in passing though. Compare this account to that reported by the Irish Independent of same proceedings.

THE DOCTOR at the heart of the Savita Halappanavar case admitted she had not read “significant” medical notes on the chart that would have resulted in her performing an earlier termination. She also accepted that there were a number of “system failures” in Ms Halappanavar’s care.

Dr Katherine Astbury said she had not seen a notation on the 31-year-old’s charts that would indicate a deterioration in her condition. She also conceded that she had not seen Ms Halappanavar’s blood results, which had changed and could have been indicative of severe sepsis. The consultant obstetrician told the inquest that had she been aware of these details she would have brought forward plans for a termination to the Wednesday morning. Dr Astbury had earlier told the inquest that she had been unable to accede to Ms Halappanavar’s requests for a termination on the Tuesday because her health was not in any danger and she feared it could become a legal issue.

In other words the doctor made a mistake.

The Irish Independent reported the doctor as having said she was guided by the legal requirement that there be a threat to the life of the mother before performing the abortion.

The court heard that Dr Ikechukwu Uzockwu, known as Dr Ike, had noted a deterioration in Ms Halappanavar’s condition at 6.30am on the morning of Wednesday, October 24. He made notes of a “foul-smelling discharge” on her chart along with details of a raised pulse and temperature. However, despite receiving this chart, Dr Astbury told the inquest she had not read it. The inquest also heard from Dr Anne Helps, a registrar attached to Dr Astbury, that she may not have passed on significant information on the deterioration of Ms Halappanavar to the consultant.

Dr Helps recalled her colleague, Dr Ike, passing on details to her as they switched rounds on Wednesday. She recalled him telling her of a spike in temperature and that Ms Halappanavar felt unwell but said she could not recall receiving any further details from him. Details of the discharge were included in Dr Ike’s notes, which were also handed over, but Dr Helps said: “I can’t remember reading those notes.” Dr Helps also admitted it was possible she had not mentioned the discharge while reading the notes to Dr Astbury.

Dr Astbury said she would have taken steps to begin a medical termination earlier had she been aware of the issue. She accepted the discharge was a “very significant” finding. “Obviously it should have been communicated,” she said. When it was pointed out that it had been written down on the chart she added, “I should have been aware of it, yes”. Dr Astbury confirmed it was her intention to induce the pregnancy on the Wednesday after forming the opinion that there was a “real and substantial” risk to Ms Halappanavar’s life, but said she would have begun this earlier had she been aware of the discharge.

Yes, the midwife did tell the coroner’s court she was sorry for having made the Catholic remark the Irish Independent stated. The Times was not wrong in having reported this. But in choosing to play up the thoughtless remark and bury the testimony about malpractice, the Times laid itself open to the charge of journalistic malpractice.

What were they thinking at the Gray Lady? The testimony presented makes it quite clear the Catholic comment by one of the midwives played no part in Savita Halappanavar’s care or her death, yet the “Catholic bad” / “abortion good” theme is still being played. I cannot tell if the editors are knaves or fools when it comes to abortion reporting — but what they are not is fair, balanced, accurate or thoughtful.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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  • Martha

    Listening here in Ireland to the daily news reports about this dreadful case, it is becoming more and more clear that it wasn’t merely the failure to perform a termination that caused this woman’s death, it was a whole constellation of error and neglect.

    It’s just one more reason why the conditions in Irish hospitals (and the power of the consultants) should be overhauled, but this is an ongoing struggle (and one minister for health went into office on the basis that she would sort out the consultants and bring them to heel, only to have to retire licking her wounds).

    Unfortunately, i’s going to be simplified and presented as “Ireland needs abortion now!”, both by the activists at home and those abroad. There’s no reason, if nothing else changes, to think that another case like this won’t happen even if we get liberalised abortion laws. But nobody is interested in that angle, unless you’re one of the “fanatics” (that is, pro-life and/or Catholic).

  • FW Ken

    It will happen more often, Martha, a you folks catch up to the rest of the world inn abortion factories and Gosnells out to make a buck (or euro, I suppose).

    But to my point: I frequently complain that real professions have some sort of internal controls and/or outside oversight. From barbers to doctors, you simply cannot practice without meeting standards. Journalism had seemed to lack this, except perhaps in the rough and tumble of free market economics. This week, Get Religion had made a liar out of me, holding your colleagues to a professional level of conduct. Congratulations and thank you. It’s still informal, but, hey, something is better than nothing.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Is there a Pulitzer Prize in a category that could be called: “Lighting a fire under media dereliction of duty”??? Mollie should win it hand’s down this year. But, unfortunately, the Pulitzer Prize seems to be one that is often given more for club loyalty than for real news reporting. Maybe the Pulitzer Prize should be relabeled “The Walter Duranty Prize.”

  • Marty

    Ken, I couldn’t agree more; journalism is self-policed and the NYT, apparent thought-leader of major media world wide, seems to rarely look outside of its cocoon regarding orthodox and/or conservative positions. While I remain surprised that GetReligion seems recently to be surprised by the lack of ” fair, balanced, accurate or thoughtful reporting on abortion, a high five to Mollie, Terry and George for their work and efforts.

  • FW Ken


    Mollie particularly did yeoman’s (yeowoman’s?) work on the abortion issue for a long time. She covered the debacle of the Komen/PP media event and every January brings attention too the March for Life blackout. I suspect the only surprise here is the enormity of this situation.

    • northcoast


  • Martha

    Can you guys confirm for me: are some reporters excusing themselves/the media and their failure to cover this trial on the grounds that “We covered it already back in 2011”?

    Nice to know, for instance, that if a celebrity divorce or serial-killer murder trial comes up, we’ll get one story on it and then no more because “they’ve covered it already”.

    • mollie

      Yep. Some have said that since they covered the initial charges in 2011, they don’t need to cover all the new information coming out in the trial.

      I’m sure it makes sense to them, somehow.

      • Martha

        So, if (for instance) John Smith, the Vermont Deer Strangler, is arrested today on charges of the trail of terror he left with the corpses of strangled deer across Vermont, the media will cover that because it’s news.

        But when the trial date is set for six months later, they won’t write it up because “The public wouldn’t be interested if we rehash ground we’ve already covered”.

        That’s how modern journalism works, right?

  • Chris Bugbee

    Poynter’s roundup focuses on issues of journalism:
    Media coverage swells over the lack of media coverage for abortion provider Kermit Gosnell


  • JoFro

    I cannot tell if the editors are knaves or fools….

    There is no way we believe that nonsense any more!

    This is willfully choosing to not report a story and we’re the fools if we still think news editors are just knaves or fools!

  • There is a difference in emphasis between the NYT and the Independent. But both report the fact that, even though the infant would not survive, an abortion wasn’t possible until either the infant was dead or there was “real and substantial risk” to the life of the mother. And the doctor missed the signs of real and substantial risk.

    So yes, medical error contributed to Halappanavar’s death. But the legal regime also contributed – in another legal regime the abortion could have been performed earlier.

  • gerg

    I remember a time when the NY T was liberal – but honest. They would report facts contrary to their position.

    They don’t do that anymore – as a result they have become completely unreadable. They are in their own little world, where facts are not facts until the Times says they are facts.

  • John M.

    John B: there’s already a Walter Duranty prize in journalism. You should Google it.