Media Stories on Abortion Access
The PBS NewsHour ran a 10-minute story called Even with Roe v. Wade intact, many states have aggressively restricted abortion access (September 7, 2018).
We offer below a letter in response from one of our board members, and then some comments on this kind of story from another board member.
Since the episode and a transcript are on the web, responses are still worthwhile well after airdate; you can write them at firstname.lastname@example.org
Letter from Julia Smucker
Dear NewsHour staff,
As a loyal fan and daily watcher of the PBS NewsHour, I strongly appreciate your commitment to serious, in-depth journalism that favors substance over hype, and to providing a range of perspectives that is generally well-balanced without shying away from controversy.
If there has been any exception to this in my observation, it has been in your coverage of abortion-related topics. My impressions here were exemplified in Amna Nawaz’s recent segment that aired this Friday, Sept. 7 (though I should also note that I do not intend to single out Ms. Nawaz for individual critique, as my concerns are not unique to this one segment, and I have found her reporting on other subjects, especially immigration, to be an excellent representation of the NewsHour’s high journalistic standard). While I recognize that this is a difficult and controversial subject, I have two basic concerns about how it is handled in the NewsHour’s coverage.
Firstly, the issue tends to be framed almost entirely as a question of access to a service, without addressing in much depth the underlying bioethical controversy based on the science of human development and embryology (i.e., what – or who – is being “terminated” in an abortion procedure?), or the connection to underlying injustices such as poverty and gender discrimination except as illustrations of why women feel the need to turn to abortion, rather than as root-cause problems that need to be targeted in themselves.
Secondly, there is a disappointing lack of representation of pro-life women. I was dismayed to notice that the only pro-life activists interviewed in Friday’s segment were men, and middle-aged white men at that. This has the effect, whether intended or not, of feeding a false narrative that the controversy on abortion is neatly split along gender lines . . . There are many women, myself included, who believe that abortion does not solve, but instead masks, other problems such as those I mentioned above by implicitly accepting their existence. In order to include a broader range of perspectives in future coverage of this issue, including ones that don’t fit the usual political narratives, I strongly recommend contacting organizations such as Feminists for Life, New Wave Feminists, Feminists Choosing Life of New York, Secular Pro-Life, Rehumanize International, and the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians – all of which are nonpartisan, nonsectarian, pro-life organizations headed by women.
Thank you very much for your consideration and, again, for your dedication to quality journalism.
Sustaining member of Maine Public in Portland, Maine
Comments from Rachel MacNair
As abortion numbers halted their upward trajectory in the 1990s, and since around the year 2000 have had a dramatic decline, stories like the PBS one have been seen now and then. These stories ring alarm bells that abortion access is getting lower, and fewer doctors are willing to do them.
They generally have a bias in favor of abortion access. Their purpose is to uncover this as a “problem,” hoping coverage will help solve the problem. After all, that’s commonly done in journalism, with all kinds of things that really are problems.
I don’t know of any studies that show the impact of these stories, and of course they have different impacts on different groups. The pro-abortion slant is likely to have a similar impact to other stories with a similar bias. Yet I propose that this particular approach is, in one way, possibly helping the pro-life cause.
- If you are a medical student or doctor contemplating adding abortion to your practice: Would you be more or less likely to do so after seeing that story? The story communicates that abortion practice is harmful to a medical career. The field is dying and stigmatized. If you enter the field on principle, be prepared to be brave. It’s a requirement. There may be individual doctors who respond to the story as the reporters intend, but the overall impact is to show the field’s undesirability.
- If you are a woman contemplating abortion or the activity that might make you pregnant: Would you be more or less likely to do so after seeing that story? The whole point of the piece is that abortion is hard to come by. The reason is that so many elected legislatures have tried to make it so and succeeded. The stories, while often trying to talk about how abortion should be normalized, exhibit how attempts to normalize abortion have, in fact, failed. Miserably.
- If you are a member of the general public who doesn’t already feel strongly on the issue: Might you be a little more inclined to listen to reasoning about what’s wrong with abortion when you know they’re declining? When they’re rising, it’s painful to hear what’s wrong. There are many people uncomfortable with abortion but also uncomfortable with abortion bans, and they really wish abortion practice would just go away and relieve them of the dilemma. What happens when such people are informed that there’s a trend showing such relief may be on the way? To see the psychological theory behind this idea, see my article in First Things, “Our Pro-Life Future: A Plan for Building on Anti-abortion Successes.”
We’ve seen many stories like the PBS one, and as abortion declines further we’ll see many more. The current sense of certainty on the pro-Roe v. Wade side that the case is in danger of being overturned outright (whether true or not) may well bring on more of them.
Of course, the bias is still excruciating. Whenever these stories come up, we should protest them vociferously. Those of us who are pro-life feminists and consistent-life advocates may be especially effective in doing so.