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Discredited Myths About Partial-Birth Abortion — and Some Journalists Who Won’t Let Go of Them

Sep 15, 2003 | PBA

By Douglas Johnson
NRLC Federal Legislative Director
Legfederal@aol.com

September 15, 2003

[Note to reader:  Copies of any of the articles or other documents cited below, if not available on the internet at a location specified below, are available on request to NRLC at 202-626-8820 orLegfederal@aol.com.]

Before long, Congress is expected to complete action on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a bill that National Right to Life helped to initiate in 1995.  President Bush will sign the bill into law.

When these events occur, we can expect to see a new wave of news coverage about partial-birth abortion.  We can hope that this press coverage will be accurate and balanced — but based on past experience, there is reason to fear that some of it will incorporate persistent myths about partial-birth abortion.

During the early years of the national debate over partial-birth abortion,  in 1995 and 1996, most major organs of the news media accepted the fabrications of pro-abortion advocacy groups as unvarnished fact.

In recent years, much of the news coverage has been more accurate and balanced.  Still, some journalists are so attached to certain myths about partial-birth abortion that they just won’t let them go — even after they have been thoroughly discredited by other journalists, and even after they have been forcefully repudiated by leading spokespersons for the abortion industry.  Worse, some of the offenders, when they are challenged for disseminating long-debunked misinformation, simply restate the misinformation without in any way addressing the substance of the challenge, or fail to respond at all.  This article describes several recent episodes.

THE ORIGINAL MISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN

From the time that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act was first introduced in June, 1995, until early 1997, the leading pro-abortion advocacy groups vigorously asserted that the abortion method that the bill would ban was employed only hundreds of times annually, and only or nearly only in medically acute circumstances.

Here are just two samples of such claims;  innumerable others could be cited:

“The procedure, dilation and extraction (D&X), is extremely rare and done only in cases when the woman’s life is in danger or in cases of extreme fetal abnormality.” (Planned Parenthood of America news release, November 1, 1995).

“This particular procedure is used only in about 500 cases per year, generally after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and most often when there is a severe fetal anomaly or maternal health problem detected late in pregnancy.”  (National Abortion Federation factsheet, downloaded February 27, 1997)

From the beginning, NRLC and congressional sponsors of the bill vigorously challenged these claims and provided documentation — mainly, statements by abortionists in their own writings or in interviews with various publications — that showed that the partial-birth abortion method was employed thousands of times annually, mostly on babies without health disorders who were being carried by healthy mothers.  The very first NRLC factsheet sent to reporters on the issue, on June 21, 1995, is posted on the NRLC website

(NRLC opposes the use of abortion — whether partial-birth abortion or any other method — on babies who have serious disorders.  The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act would permit the partial-birth abortion method to be used only if it was truly necessary to save a mother’s life, and not as a form of pre-natal euthanasia.   However, in asserting that most partial-birth abortions are performed only when either the mother or the baby had a grave disorder, pro-abortion groups were clearly attempting to undercut support for the bill among the sizeable group of lawmakers and citizens who support abortion only in “hard” cases.)

From the beginning, NRLC and other bill supporters often cited the explicit statements of Dr. James McMahon, who developed the partial-birth abortion method, and Dr. Martin Haskell, who drew the method to public attention by writing an instructional paper in 1992 that explained in detail how to perform the procedure.

For example, in 1993, Haskell told American Medical News that 80% of his partial-birth abortions were”purely elective”  (He performed hundreds annually.)

McMahon submitted to the House Judiciary Committee a document that showed that in one series of about 2,000 such abortions that he performed, only 9% were performed for “maternal” health reasons, and of that group, the most common reason was “depression.”

McMahon also said that used the method even during the final three months of pregnancy on women who were physically healthy and whose babies were normal, if he thought there were psychiatric” reasons, or if the mother was especially young.

Even though such straight-from-the-horses-mouth documentation was repeatedly made available to the media when the bill was first introduced in 1995, the pro-abortion lobby calculated that many journalists would readily accept the claim that the method was used only very rarely and only in acute medical circumstances.   They were not disappointed.  The abortion lobby’s claims were adopted and reported — not as disputed claims, but as fact — countless times by major U.S. broadcast and print news outlets, includingThe New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles TimesTime, ABC News, National Public Radio, and many, many others.

But by late 1996 and early 1997, this misinformation campaign collapsed under the weight of journalistic and congressional investigations.  I will cite just a few of these sources here.

On September 15, 1996, the Record (Bergen-Hackensack, New Jersey) published a report by staff writer Ruth Padawer, based on separate interviews with two abortionists at a single abortion clinic in Englewood, who independently told her that they perform over 1,500 partial-birth abortions annually in that facility — triple the nationwide figure given out by pro-abortion advocacy and industry groups.  As to why they performed these procedures, the Record reported what the abortionists said:  “We have an occasional amnio abnormality, but it’s a minuscule amount, said one of the doctors at Metropolitan Medical, an assessment confirmed by another doctor there. “Most are Medicaid patients, black and white, and most are for elective, not medical, reasons: people who didn’t realize, or didn’t care, how far along they were.  Most are teenagers.”

The September 17, 1996 edition of the Washington Post contained the results of an investigation conducted by reporters Barbara Vobejda and David M. Brown, M.D., who interviewed several doctors (not those in New Jersey), and concluded:  Furthermore, in most cases where the procedure is used, the physical health of the woman whose pregnancy is being terminated is not in jeopardy. . . . Instead, the ‘typical’ patients tend to be young, low-income women, often poorly educated or naive, whose reasons for waiting so long to end their pregnancies are rarely medical.”

FITZSIMMONS DISPUTES “PARTY LINE”

Finally, the abortion lobby’s misinformation campaign imploded in February, 1997, when Ron Fitzsimmons — who was then and is now the executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers (an association of hundreds of abortion providers) — gave a series of well-publicized interviews.  In those interviews, Fitzsimmons said the claim that the partial-birth abortion procedure was used rarely and mostly in acute medical situations was merely a party line” (his term) developed by opponents of the bill, and was false.  Fitzsimmons also expressed regret about his own previous (albeit minor) role in propagating thisparty line,” explaining, [I] lied through my teeth.”

The truth was that 
“in the vast majority of cases, the procedure is performed on a healthy mother with a healthy fetus that is 20 weeks or more along, Fitzsimmons said.”  (The New York Times, Feb. 26, 1997)

After Fitzsimmons spoke, other representatives of the abortion industry also refuted the mythology.  Renee Chelian, the president of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, said, The spin out of Washington was that it was done for medical necessity, even though we knew it wasn’t so.”  For more such quotes, see “Pro-choice advocates admit to deception,” by Ruth Padawer (The Record, Bergen-Hackensack, NJ, Feb. 27, 1997).

Even before Fitzsimmons blew the whistle on the disinformation campaign, the PBS program Media Matters(in January, 1997) devoted a segment to examining how the news media had erred in accepting what turned out to be wildly erroneous and self-serving claims from the abortion lobby.  In this program, Washington Post medical writer David Brown, M.D., was shown saying that based on the Post investigation of the use of partial-birth abortion, Cases in which the mother’s life was truly at risk were extremely rare.  Most people who got this procedure were really not very different from most people who got abortions.”

The entire transcript of the Media Matters segment  is essential reading for anyone interested in the record of how the news media initially showed an eager gullibility for pro-abortion propaganda about partial-birth abortion.

For further documentation published in 1997 on the collapse of the pro-abortion misinformation campaign, see:

•  an NRLC memo distributed to reporters in February, 1997;

•  detailed testimony submitted by NRLC to the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee at an investigatory hearing held in March, 1997;

•  an article by Matthew Scully in the National Review giving many examples of how the news media had accepted the abortion lobby’s manufactured claims about partial-birth abortion; ;

•  a column by John Leo in U.S. News & World Report showing how the truth about partial-birth abortion was deliberately concealed; and

• a column by noted political analyst Charles E. Cook about the impact of the revelations on Capitol Hill, published in Roll Call: The Newspaper of Capitol Hill.

NEW INFORMATION:

What new information has come to light since February, 1997, only confirms that the partial-birth method is usually used in circumstances not involving any acute threat to the mother or grave disorder of the baby.

For example, Kansas became the only state to enact a law that requires reporting of partial-birth abortions separately from other abortion methods.  The first year the law was in effect (1999), Kansas abortionists reported that they performed 182 partial-birth abortions on babies who were defined by the abortionists themselves as viable,” and they also reported that all 182 of these were performed for mental (as opposed to physical”) health reasons.  See pages 10-11 of the Kansas Health Department report.

In January, 2003, the Alan Guttmacher Institute — an affiliate of Planned Parenthood – published a survey of abortion providers that estimated that 2,200 abortions by the method were performed in the year 2000.  While that figure is surely low (for reasons discussed by NRLC elsewhere), it is more than triple the number that AGI estimated in its most recent previous survey (for 1996).

In March, 2003, Ron Fitzsimmons — still the executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers — was asked if he wanted to withdraw the assessment he gave to The New York Times in 1997 (quoted above).  Fitzsimmons replied, No, no, no, no.  I’m not recanting any of that stuff.  In terms of when its done or how its done, nothing has changed, as far as I know.  Informed of a news story that asserted that the method is used mostly to save a mother’s life or in cases of fetal deformity, Fitzsimmons said, It’s amazing that a lot of people still think that, despite the evidence to the contrary.”

SO, IS THE MYTHOLOGY DEAD?

To summarize what appears above:  The claim that the abortion method banned by the pending bill, partial-birth abortion, is performed mainly or only in medically acute circumstances, was definitely discredited by February, 1997, if not much earlier — disproved by congressional investigators and by journalists for top newspapers, and repudiated by spokespersons for the abortion industry itself.

So is the mythology dead?  Not by a long shot.

Even though it takes no more than a few minutes with the Google internet search engine to easily find information such as that cited above, and much more like it, some reporters, editorial writers, and pundits refuse to let go of the blatant misinformation. They continue to propagate the myth that most (or all) partial-birth abortions are performed because of grave threat to the mother or major fetal disorders.

Worse, when such resurrected mythology is challenged, some of the journalists propagating the myths engage in elaborate contortions to avoid acknowledging error — sometimes compounding their original errors in the process of evasion.

The examples described below have all occurred within the past nine months. This is not an exhaustive catalog, but only a sampling.

[Note:  All of the quotations below were in the voices of the newspapers themselves. That is, it is the newspaper, or the reporter or commentator, who is making the assertion — NOT some attributed source.]

GANNETT NEWS SERVICE

In a news storyAnti-abortion lobby counting on victories in 108th Congress,”  December 17, 2002, Gannett News Service reporter Pamela Brogan wrote:  “A so-called partial-birth abortion is defined generally as a late-term abortion procedure in which the fetus is aborted after it is partly outside the mother’s body.  It is usually performed in cases when the mother’s life is threatened or the fetus is deformed.”

After the story appeared, I called Brogan to challenge this assertion.  She told me that she would not rely on information provided on such a point by an organization that had a stake” in the debate.  After NRLC sent repeated written challenges challenging the assertion, on February 20, 2003, Brogan responded with an e-mail in which she purported to quote The Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) as saying that the method is usedusually if a woman’s life is threatened or because of fetal abnormalities.”

AGI is an affiliate of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America,  the nations largest provider of abortions, and has openly touted to its donors its mission to oppose limitations on abortion  so it is curious that Brogan considered AGI to be an authoritative source that is without a stake in the debate.  Nevertheless, in a later interview with CNSNews.com, Brogan defended the original story on grounds that AGI and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are roundly considered to be the authorities on this topic.”  (The CDC has issued no information on partial-birth abortion.)

Certainly, if AGI actually made the statement that Brogan attributed to AGI in her e-mail, then AGI itself would be open to criticism for attempting to revive the mythology that was discredited in 1997  and Gannett would be guilty of gullibility and/or bias for adopting misinformation from a pro-abortion advocacy group.   But NRLC has seen nothing along these lines from AGI since 1996.  Remarkably, Brogan and her editors ignored repeated requests from NRLC to show where or when AGI had made the statement that she purported to quote.  Thus, the claim that AGI in fact made any such statement must itself be regarded as unsubstantiated.  In a March 11, 2003, letter to Gannett News Service Editor Caesar Andrews, NRLC pointed out that Gannett had failed to produce a single attributed source to back up it claim that partial-birth abortion is usually performed in cases when the mother’s life is threatened or the fetus is deformed.”  This letter brought no response.  (A copy of the letter is available on request.)

THE BOSTON GLOBE

In a story headed “Senate OK’s ban on a late-term form of abortion,” March 14, 2003, Boston Globe reporter Susan Milligan wrote:  Because of fetal abnormalities or medical conditions threatening a woman, doctors employ the technique between the 20th and 26th weeks of a pregnancy when the head of the fetus is enlarged and unable to easily pass through a woman’s dilated cervix.”

In contrast with the other media outlets discussed in this article, Globe editors eventually – after repeated communications from NRLC  took a remedial action.

On June 4, 2003, the Globe ombudsman, Christine Chinlund, wrote to inform NRLC that new internal guidelines had been adopted, among these, the Globe would not say or imply that the procedure known as partial birth abortion is used only when medically necessary — thus recognizing that [it] is also used by healthy women who carry a healthy fetus.  I also believe that any mention of the bill’s lack of an exemption for the health of the mother should be accompanied by a mention of the exemption that does exist to protect the life of the mother.  (A copy of the full statement is available on request.)

Later, Chinlund was interviewed by CNSNews.com for a story on the new guidelines.  She said that the decision was made after consultation with the top editor, Martin Baron, and with two other editors.

The CNSNews.com story — which also included quotes from some of the other reporters discussed in this article — was released on June 16, 2003.

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

In a story headed California abortion rights threatened,” March 15, 2003, Chronicle reporter Bob Egelko wrote regarding the abortion method that would be banned by the bill under consideration in Congress:  “Itis generally performed late in pregnancy after discovery of damage to or abnormalities in the fetus.”

Repeated communications from NRLC to Egelko and various editors over a period of nearly three months finally brought a one-sentence reply from Egelko on June 5  “I believe my article was accurate, notwithstanding your criticism, he wrote — but without providing any authority for the assertion or rebuttal to any of the documentation provided by NRLC.

NRLC renewed its requests to editors for a correction. Finally, on July 17 – four months after the original article B the Chronicle published the following:  Clarification:  An article March 15 about federal legislation to ban a certain type of late-term abortion should have made it clear that fetal abnormality is only one of the common reasons that the procedure, known as intact dilation and extraction, is performed, according to medical experts.”

Attempting to defend this statement, a Chronicle editor cited only a single expert” — Dr. David Grimes, a prominent defender and practitioner of abortion, who was associated with the CDC many years ago, long before anybody had heard of partial-birth abortion. The editor wrote that the reasons for which the procedure is performed include fetal abnormalities or defects incompatible with life, but they also include other typical reasons for which women get abortions, he [Grimes] said.  [italics added for emphasis]

Thus, the Chronicle failed to produce any authority to back up its original statement that the method isgenerally performed late in pregnancy after discovery of damage to or abnormalities in the fetus,” or even for its new, narrower claim that such abnormalities are a “common reason” for using the method.   At no point did Egelko or his editors acknowledge any of the many pro-abortion sources (cited by NRLC) who have conceded that the great majority of partial-birth abortions do not involve medical problems at all.  In short, the Chronicle chose the path of evasion  failing in its duty to clearly inform readers regarding how the original assertion was wrong and of the truth of the matter.

THE GUARDIAN (U.K.)

On June 6, 2003, the British newspaper The Guardian published two articles by its correspondent in Washington, D.C., Suzanne Goldenberg, concerning certain pro-life issues currently under consideration in our federal and state legislative bodies: “
US abortion ban sets stage for court battle, and “When does life really begin?”

In the article When does life really begin?,” Goldenberg wrote: The ban on ‘partial-birth abortions‘ — which are generally performed in the second or third trimester of pregnancy if the fetus is so malformed it would die at birth, or if continued pregnancy puts the woman’s life at risk — is a huge setback for the pro-choice lobby.  In “US abortion ban sets stage for court battle,” Goldenberg wrote that the partial-birth abortion method is a last resort used during the final stages of pregnancy when the fetus is fatally malformed.  Rightwingers call it partial birth abortion, but the procedure is only generally used for hydrocephalic babies and involves collapsing their enlarged skulls.”

NRLC immediately challenged these statements in correspondence with Guardian editors.  When initial replies failed to offer any substantive response on the point being challenged, NRLC filed a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a media umbrella group that reviews complaints about inaccuracies in news coverage in the United Kingdom.

Contacted by the PCC staff, Guardian managing editor Chris Elliott sent a reply letter which made numerous assertions regarding the laws and practices pertaining to partial-birth abortion in the United States  most of which were off the point (and demonstrably inaccurate to boot). However, the core of Elliotts attempted defense was a claim that when the Guardian used the term partial-birth abortion” in the disputed stories, it had been referring only to abortions performed after viability,” and (Elliott asserted) these were rare and performed only in the acute circumstances described in the disputed Guardian stories.

This amounted to a rather breathtaking evasion by Elliott.  Rather than admit that the paper had nothing to back up its original statements, Elliott preferred to retroactively rewrite the stories to say something very different from what they had actually said.  Apparently, he thought that this sort of ground-shifting was preferable to acknowledging that the Guardians original statements were indefensible.

In the actual stories under challenge, the Guardian had clearly been talking about the abortions that would be banned by enactment of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act — in other words, all partial-birth abortions.

There is nothing whatever in the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act that says it applies only to partial-birth abortions performed after a baby can be proven to have reached viability” (the point at which an unborn child’s lung development is sufficient to allow survival outside the mother).  In fact, most partial-birth abortions are performed in the fifth and sixth months – in the weeks shortly before viability,” or during the weeks of possible viability,” but before viability could be proven for a given baby.  Far fewer are performed in the seventh month and later.

(Elliott’s retroactively revised assertion was inaccurate, because the available documentation suggests that even when partial-birth abortion is employed well past the point of viability,” it usually does not involve any circumstances such as those described in Goldenbergs original stories.  That, however, is an issue best debated at another time, because neither the bill nor the disputed statements by the Guardian were confined to abortions performed after “viability.”)

Following further communications through the Press Complaints Commission staff, Elliott agreed to publish a letter submitted by NRLC, but he insisted on severe editing that removed most citations to specific authorities that contradicted the assertions made by the Guardian.  Elliott also refused to allow inclusion of the internet address of the NRLC website section that includes the same documentation.  He did, however, agree to include a link to a transcript of the 1997 PBS “Media Matters” program on the subject.

In addition, Elliott refused to publish, as part of NRLC’s letter, a statement that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act would “ban any abortion in which the fetus is mostly delivered before being killed, unless necessary to save the mother’s life.”  Elliott said that this phrase “is highly tendentious and in our opinion accuses vast numbers of American doctors of infanticide with no supporting evidence.

In reality, the statement merely paraphrased the legal definition of “partial-birth abortion” that is contained in the bill itself.  Because of Elliott’s revealing reaction to this straightforward explanation, the published letter contains no explanation of what a partial-birth abortion actually is.

The edited letter was published by the Guardian on September 15, 2003. 

MIAMI HERALD (EDITORIAL)

In an editorial titled “A Flawed Bill”, June 6, 2003, the Miami Herald said:  
Invariably, in the extremely rare situations when the procedure is used, extraordinary circumstances are involved:  The rape of a mentally incapacitated women incapable of knowing even the consequences of the act; the brutal assault of a 12-year-old child by a relative; a woman weakened by an illness whose life would be endangered by carrying a pregnancy to full term.”

The Herald offered to authority for these beliefs — none of which would have survived ten minutes of competent research on the internet before the editorial was published.  On June 12, the paper posted a shortened version of a letter I wrote critiquing the statement.

PROFESSOR GEORGE LAKOFF

Aside from journalists as such, mythology about partial-birth abortion still crops up in commentary from various advocates and commentators.  Many examples could be given, but here is one.

On June 10, 2003, during a radio program titled To the Point,” a program produced at KCRW-FM in Los Angeles and broadcast on various NPR stations, George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at Berkeley and author, was asked by the host, Warren Olney, to analyze the term “partial-birth abortion.”  Lakoff replied (as transcribed from the Real Player recording of the program posted here: http://nrlc.org///abortion/pba/index.html

“Partial
-birth abortion is not a medical description. The medical procedure, as I understand it, is a procedure that applies in a quarter to one-half of all cases [he apparently meant to say one-quarter or one-half percent of all abortions], and these are cases too in where the fetus is not viable, is not likely to live a life — perhaps doesnt have a brain — and where the mother’s health or life would be in danger . . . You have an unviable child, one who can’t really live. Also, there would be a health and endangerment of the mother’s life. So the term partial-birth abortion sort of hides the issues that are really there in that operation.”

When Prof. Lakoff was subsequently sent documentation that this claim was erroneous, he dismissed it asthe stuff of propaganda.” However, he offered no authority whatever to back up the claim he had made on the program, nor did he offer any rebuttal to any of the documentation that he was provided  most of it consisting of quotations from abortion providers.

CONCLUSION

Most journalists believe that they try to offer accurate and balanced coverage, regardless of their personal views on an issue, and many do.   But the history of media coverage of the partial-birth abortion debate also demonstrates that too many journalists simply search out sources who they expect will tell them what they already know” to be true — and then will anoint those sources as authoritative even if their claims are contradicted by abundant contrary authorities.

Beyond this, the recent episodes described above illustrate how some reporters and editors will go to remarkable lengths to avoid acknowledging error, especially in response to a challenge from a group that they may find ideologically unpalatable.  Their tactics of evasion include simply ignoring abundant documentation that contradicts their assertions, relying on the authority of particular sources that are uncited and therefore not subject to critical scrutiny, or even denying the plain meaning of the words they originally wrote.

The good news is that taken as a whole, news coverage of the partial-birth abortion debate is far more accurate and balanced than during 1995-97.  This is due in part to ceaseless efforts by NRLC to challenge bad reporting and to challenge journalists to do better.

As the examples above demonstrate, however, this job is never fully accomplished.  So, during the months ahead, if you read news stories or editorials that make assertions about partial-birth abortion that you know to be faulty, challenge them promptly.  This can be done by letters submitted for publication — but where a story is clearly in error, a correction should also be sought, persistently if necessary.

Also, please immediately send any such examples to NRLC, Federal Legislation Department, by e-mail (preferred) at Legfederal@aol.com, by fax at 202-347-3668, or by mail at 512-10th Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C.  20004.

Categories: PBA