CHAPTER FOURTEEN
THE ABORTION DISTORTION FACTOR

The "abortion distortion factor" is the doctrine by which all the rules that everyone normally has to follow are tossed in the garbage when the subject at hand is abortion. The courts and the media provide the primary examples.

THE COURTS

At the very beginning of the legal abortion period, the courts provided an excellent example. Sarah Weddington, the lawyer for Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade, was uncertain of her chances when arguing in the Texas court, before it went up to the Supreme Court. She reported: "At one point during the hearing when my nervousness was obviously showing, [Judge] Sarah [Hughes] winked at me as if to say, 'It's going to be all right.' Sure enough it was."[1]

A federal jurisdictional statute permits only a three-judge district court to declare a state statute unconstitutional, yet certain lower circuit court judges to have ignored this requirement and themselves declared the state statute unconstitutional. The state wasn't even given the opportunity to brief them on the merits of the case.[2] The Supreme Court unanimously rebuked the over-zealous circuit court, yet a majority of the Justices granted doctors the unprecedented right to present not their own constitutional claims but those of their patients. [3]

Writing not for the winning opinion but in dissent, Justice White observed, "I am not yet prepared to accept the notion that normal rules of law, procedure, and constitutional adjudication suddenly become irrelevant solely because a case touches on the subject of abortion."[4]

MEDIA BIAS

In politics in general, in the courts, and in the media, the abortion distortion factor is one of the forces that the abortion business has been able to count on most in its quest for public support, protection, and more business. In theory, it would appear to be an unshakable prop, and a crucial one.

The media's normal rules on objectivity and fairness to both sides in a controversy suffer badly from the abortion distortion factor. Reporters commonly become agents of the rhetoric of abortion defenders. Columnists such as Nat Hentoff, Mark Shields and John Leo have commented on this eloquently and frequently. A series by David Shaw in the Los Angeles Times had such titles as "Abortion Bias Seeps Into News," "Abortion Foes Stereotyped, Some in the Media Believe," and "Abortion Hype Pervaded Media After Webster Case."

"A comprehensive Times study of major newspaper, television and newsmagazine coverage over the last 18 months, including more than 100 interviews with journalists and activists on both sides of the abortion debate, confirms that this bias often exists."

Shaw finds "scores of examples large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence."[5]

Shaw says these practices fall into six broad categories:

As mentioned in point one, the very terms used show a bias. One side gets called "pro-choice", its desired designation. The other gets called "anti-abortion." The argument is that the term "pro-life" doesn't really fit, but that argument shows that the reporter is taking sides. Prolifers, after all, don't believe that the term "pro-choice" fits, either. Objectivity would have both sides called by what they call themselves, or else both sides called by neutral words. If one gets its way and the other doesn't, then objectivity can't be claimed. It's even worse on those occasions when one side is called "anti-choice." If it's acceptable to call a group by the abrasive term used by its opponents, then why do we never hear of the "pro-killing" side of the abortion debate?

In early 1997, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) ran a segment on its quarterly documentary, Media Matters, on the coverage of the "Partial-Birth Abortion" ban proposed in the U.S. Congress. Their press packet said that their investigation found that many journalists "did little original reporting and willingly accepted information from pro-choice sources -- which turned out to be inaccurate." Their conclusion that overall press coverage of the issue has been biased and distorted is shared by a number of journalists interviewed in the program.

The propensity of the media to go to pro-life male underlings rather than female leadership for comment is another startling example. This is not merely an unconscious bias with stereotypes. It would be difficult to come up with any other issue on which reporters could get away with such incredible sexism. Because the issue is framed as those who favor women's rights vs. those that oppose them, they can in their own minds get away with ignoring professional, articulate spokeswomen. There is no other issue where that would be tolerated.

The media approach to violence is one of the most egregious examples of the abortion distortion factor. Setting aside the question of abortion itself being violence, but looking only at questions of bomb threats and death threats and violent activity of activists in the two opposing movements, the bias is positively incredible.

Consider the case of the series of bomb threats received by abortion clinics in California. According to the Los Angeles Times, Frank Mendiola would get up in front of pro-choice rallies and tell the story of how his twin sister had died from an illegal abortion. But he had no twin sister. That lie didn't get him to jail, but phoning in the bomb threats did. Even his own home was included as one of the targets of late-night bomb threats.

He was hoping the threats would arouse sympathy for his cause. They only consumed police work and terrified the recipients, who kept the calls secret for fear of copycats.

The reporter's conclusions are sympathetic to Mendiola. "Somewhere in Mendiola's two falsehoods were verities about the abortion rights movement: Clinics elsewhere had been threatened, even bombed, and the public and the press had taken notice."[6]

This newspaper knows how to deal with all cases. If someone claiming anti-abortion motivation threatens violence, then that goes to show how bad the entire pro-life movement is. If someone claiming pro-abortion motivation threatens violence, that goes to show how bad the entire pro-life movement is.

The article has a highlighted quote from Sherna Gluck, a member of the same group as Mendiola. "I just feel very badly for him. He is a very fine person, and I guess the worst one can say is he is just confused."

When he terrified the clinic staffs and cost police many hours, his purpose was to commit a slander against a group of innocent people. He was regarded as confused because he only succeeded in hurting people that he didn't mean to hurt. The fact that he was intending to hurt nonviolent people who don't make bomb threats didn't keep him from being a "very fine person." He missed the mark, but the idea that his mark was a slander and therefore embarrassing to her movement didn't seem to occur to her, nor to the newspaper. Nor did the newspaper suggest that he was using an unfair tactic in a political debate, thereby subverting democracy.

There is one documented instance when the bomb threats came from an abortion defender who wished to slander prolifers. The argument that there may be other times, times that couldn't be documented, becomes plausible.

Or, to restate, somewhere in Mendiola's falsehoods were verities about the abortion rights movement -- sometimes they lie for political gain.

ON THE OTHER HAND -- SCANDALS ARE SCANDALS

The seemingly unshakeable prop actually does have its wobbly points. From the Chicago Tribune to the Los Angeles Times to the Miami Herald, major series have been run on serious scandals at local abortion clinics. Articles on deaths, injuries, and appalling conditions are commonplace all over the country. Individual doctors are assailed fairly frequently. In fact, it's common enough that some abortion doctors have actually expressed that they believe the media is biased against them.

Even 60 Minutes has run a piece on the ghastly condition of Hillview, a clinic in Maryland. This report shows quite a bit about the dynamics of a situation in which a bias toward abortion interacts with knowledge of clinic corruption.

After detailed reports on several women who had been badly injured, and one who died, the journalist then wants to know what the others in the business think of this. "As a reporter, I found that many pro-choice leaders knew about problems at Hillview, but didn't want them publicized. National Abortion Federation head Barbara Radford admitted she was just hoping we would go away."

Radford was then shown. "Well, I think your first reaction from us was, this is the last thing we need. We had hoped that it wouldn't get national publicity, because of the political nature of all this."

Imagine the head of a major car company saying, "Listen, we really don't need this publicity. I know that some of our cars have been catching on fire, and that's killed some people and maimed others, but we were hoping the media wouldn't notice." Of all the miscreants who've tried to wriggle out of scandals on 60 Minutes, are there any others that were so blunt?

Knowing 60 Minutes reporters, you could expect a hard-hitting response to such an admission. This would be the kind of industry spokesperson that would make it too easy. Yet this is what the reporter, Meredith Viera, said on the report immediately after the above statement, "Pro-choice activists worry that clinics like Hillview will be used against them in the bitter political battle over abortion. They fear bad publicity will prompt state legislators to start regulating clinics, and that prolifers will then use those regulations as a back-door way to stop abortions. So even though those laws could make clinics safer, they usually fight them."

This would be analogous to the the reporter with the head of the car company saying, "Car manufacturers worry that knowledge that some cars are dangerous because of their own sloppiness in making them might be used against them. So of course it's entirely natural that they would want us to leave them alone. Regulating safety could do in the car industry, after all."

It's always expected of the media that they should present all sides to a question, and not show one-sided bias. Yet depicting Ms. Radford's view as simply another way of looking at the problem is a novel way of scrutinizing it -- especially compared with how other providers of goods and services would be treated.

The two cognitive elements we have here are: (1) We reporters have an obligation to uncover misdeeds and report them to the public; and (2) Prolifers are all ignorant religious fanatics without compassion, and if they said something, it's not true and we need to figure out how they're trying to deceive us.

That second element has done wonders for causing a screening out of information that one would normally expect under the first element. It must be the explanation for the fact that 60 Minutes was so soft with Barbara Radford.

On the other hand, they were still covering the scandal. That first cognitive element is, after all, very strong. It keeps getting exercised and strengthened in contexts that have nothing to do with abortion.

What we have called the "abortion distortion factor" may quell coverage of corruption in the abortion industry. But it hasn't worked completely, and is unlikely to do so in the future. That second element has had a lot of power, but it lacks the most important persuasive ability -- it's not true.

The scandals are true, but the stereotypes of prolifers are only stereotypes. Some people can be found to fit them -- such is the way of all stereotypes -- but most prolifers don't.

In the question of which bit of knowledge is most resistant to change, clear-cut facts tend to be more resistant. The facts involved in the incompetence at various clinics are documentable. The stereotype of prolifers is only an opinion, and therefore easier to change.

Furthermore, anyone can keep that stereotyped opinion of prolifers and still go after the scandals. The contradiction between the two elements is mild. If a reporter knows that there are environmentalists who believe we ought to dispense with cars completely, it doesn't matter if she regards this idea as nuts. She can still cover manufacturing defects without any sense that she's caving in.

In all of the scandals cited here, the reporters went to lengths to make it clear that they favor abortion availability. They made sure the public knew that they were perceiving no conflict between covering the scandal and defending legal abortion. It would never occur to anyone that a reporter opposes cars because she is reporting on problems with them, but in the case of abortion the conflict in the reporter's mind is at least great enough to find it important to state that there is no conflict.

There's no reason why there should be any conflict, if abortion defenders are correct about what should happen under legalized abortion. If that gets the back alley butchers out of business and makes it safer, and if it's much safer now than it would be were it to become illegal again, then there's no good reason for reporters not to go after the incompetent exceptions.

It's only if the exceptions become too common that anyone has any reason to be worried about press coverage of them.

If the explanations we're offering in this book are true, however, then those scandals are not only widespread, but inevitable. If performing abortions is traumatic, then the depersonalizing and psychic numbness which leads to an assembly-line approach will also lead to malpractice problems. If they cause stress, alcohol and drug problems among the practitioners will surely lead to more blundering.

If the abortion business is not cleaned up, and can't be cleaned up, these scandals will continue. Even if they aren't covered as much as is warranted, they will be covered occasionally. If they are numerous and outrageous enough, having even a small portion of them covered should still leave quite an impression on the public mind.

HELPFUL SUBVERSION

Even though the media has been a tremendous aid to the abortion business so far, there's a paradox they can't escape. They will participate in the downfall of the abortion industry.

They highlight "violence" of prolifers, they exaggerate it, they have even shown pro-abortion demonstrators being abusive and in the narration blamed it on the anti-abortion demonstrators. They pick up on the bullhorns and ignore the quiet picketers. They make prolifers look terrible. No other business has so much media support in making its opposition look so bad.

But all that coverage takes away from the abortion industry the two things it needs most: (1) an appearance of normalcy, and (2) abortion practitioners.

It adds to the stigma of clinics. It makes it clear to neighborhoods and landlords that they don't want them around.

The Kansas City Pitch ran an article which was unmistakably biased toward the interests of Planned Parenthood. It made fun of the neighborhood reaction and pro-life concerns about a new clinic opening up. It said it was just as ridiculous to call the place an abortion clinic as it was to call the local hospital an appendectomy clinic. But the headline was, "A Planned Parenthood in Johnson County? Quick, hide the kids!" This was accompanied by a cartoon of houses running away from a clinic with arms held high, a look of alarm on their faces.

The coverage advertises the undesirability of the field to anyone that might be considering going into it. Dr. Hern used the New York Times as a forum to complain about the lot of the abortion provider.

"The right to a safe, legal abortion is meaningless if no one is able or willing to perform it. A woman's power to control her own body does not bring with it a capacity for self-abortion without assistance. Yet for much of the last two decades, the public and the women's movement seemed to forget that doctors are a necessary -- and vulnerable -- part of this equation."[7]

He then goes on, at length, to say why doctors are vulnerable. They have been made to feel irrelevant, pro-choice support is lacking, and insurance and security costs are going up.

He's appealing for support. He knows this point is crucial. But he's doing a better job of discouraging any new doctors from considering the field than any prolifer could ever hope to do.

He's caught in a quandary that's impossible to escape. Seeking a solution is making the problem worse. He knew what the problem was, articulated it well, and then proceeded to exacerbate it. The problem can't be solved if it's not exposed. And it's made worse if it is.

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