Communications Department

Surgical Editing: A Case Study in Pro-Aboriton Media Bias

Dec 23, 2003 | PBA

Howard Kurtz, the highly regarded media critic for the Washington Post, reported the following item in his“Media Notes” column for December 22, 2003Surgical Editing

On Thursday, Ohio’s Dayton Daily News ran a story on a court ruling “that restricts partial-birth abortion” with one rather opinionated paragraph.

The paragraph was inserted, without the reporter’s knowledge, by Assistant Local Editor Hal Davis. He got it from an Internet site called — from a piece clearly labeled “Editorial” — that attacked abortion opponents for using the issue as “a smokescreen to ban all abortions.” The paragraph contained a gruesome description of the procedure and said it is designed primarily for fetuses “that are dying, malformed or threatening the woman’s health or life” — a contention that even some abortion rights advocates no longer endorse.

“It was a mistake and it shouldn’t have happened,” says Editor Jeff Bruce, who ran a correction Saturday. “It was an effort to make the story better that went awry. It was simply bungled.” He says the paragraph should not have been taken almost verbatim from an editorial but adds that Davis had no political motive. “It’s a surprising lapse, and he’s embarrassed by it,” Bruce says.

Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee says that “for an editor to present as fact an unsupported assertion, from a harshly strident polemical essay, written by an author with no apparent expertise, reflects a bias. . . . I call it quote shopping.”

[What appears below is a detailed account of the episode referred to in Mr. Kurtz’s column.]

“Surgical Editing” —
A Case Study in Pro-Abortion Media Bias

By Douglas Johnson
Legislative Director
National Right to Life Committee (NRLC)

December 23, 2003

SUMMARY: A Dayton Daily News editor inserted a polemicist’s paragraph, virtually verbatim and without attribution, into a news story, propagating the long-discredited myth that partial-birth abortions are used primarily because of grave fetal or maternal health problems. The episode provides an illustration of some often-seen patterns in the reporting and editing of abortion-related news stories.

WASHINGTON — On December 17, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit handed down a ruling with national significance. The court upheld an Ohio law that restricts partial-birth abortion, thereby rejecting a legal challenge brought by Dr. Martin Haskell, a prominent practitioner of this abortion method who is based in Dayton.

On December 18, the Dayton Daily News ran a news story on the decision. (The story has expired on the newspaper’s nonsubscription website, but I can provide it or any other document referred to in this article upon request.) The story was written by Dayton Daily News courts reporter Wes Hills, who has covered federal courts for 20 years, and who had covered two trials over two Ohio laws seeking to restrict partial-birth abortions.

For the most part, the story was a pretty straightforward and balanced account of the court’s ruling and reactions to it. However, near the end of the story, the following passage appeared — in the News’ own voice, not attributed to any source:

The procedure is designed primarily for 5- and 6-month-old fetuses that are dying, malformed, or threatening the woman’s health or life. The procedure involves pulling the fetus from the womb, except for the head which is too large to pass without injuring the woman. The head is then collapsed to allow removal.

When I read this paragraph, three things struck me.

First, the paragraph asserts as fact what is really a long-discredited myth about the reasons why the partial-birth abortion method is primarily used — a myth definitely exploded by journalists and congressional investigators more than seven years ago, a myth repudiated even by spokespersons for a major “trade association” of abortion providers. As documented below, it is well established that the vast majority of partial-birth abortions are performed on healthy babies of healthy mothers.

Second, the paragraph asserts that “the head . . . is too large to pass without injuring the woman.”

In fact, the partial-birth abortion method depends in part on deliberately avoiding dilating the cervix (the opening to the womb) past the point that the head can emerge — since this often could result in a what is legally a “live birth,” even in the fifth month. (Obviously, the same fetal head will be a lot bigger at full term.)

Third, I had read the same paragraph a few days earlier, in a strident editorial by an obscure author, attacking the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, posted on little-known website. The paragraph apparently had been lifted from that source and inserted, without attribution, into the News story.


On or about December 15, 2003, a website of which I had no previous knowledge,, posted what was clearly labeled as an “editorial” with the headline, “Ban on ‘Partial-Birth’ Abortion Would be a Blow to Women’s Rights.” It is here:

(If the piece expires on that site, it is also posted on the Miami Herald URL link that appears in footnote no. 3 in this e-mail.)

The editorial is replete with factual errors, but I will pass over those here, except for those contained in the following paragraph:

“Partial-birth” abortion, most commonly known as intact dilation and extraction (D&X), is designed primarily to be used in the case of 5- and 6-month-old fetuses that are dying, malformed, or threatening the woman’s health or life. The procedure involves pulling the fetus from the womb, except for the head which is too large to pass without injuring the woman. The head is then collapsed to allow removal.

Obviously, the paragraph in the December 18 Dayton Daily News story is verbatim the same, except that the phrase “designed primarily to be used in the case of” was shortened in the News to “designed primarily for.”

The editorial was written by somebody named Glenn Woiceshyn. Although I have been directly involved with the national debate over partial-birth abortion for the last 11 years, and have served as legislative director for National Right to Life for over 20 years, I had never previously heard of Mr. Woiceshyn. According to the information at the bottom of the editorial, Mr. Woiceshyn “develops curriculum materials for schools and home-schoolers, and is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif.” No other credentials were provided.

When I read the Daily News story on December 18, my immediate impression was that the reporter who wrote the story, Wes Hills, could not have been responsible for the paragraph in question. Mr. Hills had covered the trial in a federal district court dealing with the current Ohio law on partial-birth abortion, and he had also covered extensive litigation that ended in a previous (1995) law on the subject being invalidated. I felt that Mr. Hills was much too well informed to propagate the myth.

I promptly contacted Mr. Hills (, phone 937-225-2261), who confirmed that the paragraph had been inserted in the story by an editor who did not consult with him before doing it. The editor was Hal Davis, whose title is “Assistant Local Editor” (, 937-225-2162). I do not know exactly what effective authority this title connotes, but it was obviously sufficient to allow him to insert new material into a story written by a veteran courts reporter without consulting with the reporter.

(Mr. Hills also told me that, based on his coverage of trial testimony on the issue, he agreed with me that the abortion method was only rarely used by Dr. Haskell in the circumstances mentioned, that the “vast majority” of cases did not involve such circumstances, and that therefore the paragraph was inaccurate. However, understandably, he said that any request for a correction should be taken up with Mr. Davis.)

I then drafted a memo explaining why the statements in the paragraph were substantively in error, and making observations about the origin of the paragraph. Late on December 18, I e-mailed the memo to Mr. Davis and to several more senior editors, explaining that I intended to distribute the final version of the memo widely, but first wanted to give them a chance to offer any additional information if they felt I had something wrong.

In reply, I received a series of e-mails from Vince McKelvey, whose title is Public Affairs Editor at the Daily News (, 937-225-2166). [1]

In the first e-mail, Mr. McKelvey asked me to hold off distributing my memo while he further reviewed the matter, and I did so. In the second e-mail, Mr. McKelvey offered some words of explanation, and he also included the text of an e-mail from Mr. Davis in which he offered his own “explanation.” [2] In summary, Mr. McKelvey wrote that Mr. Davis was “attempting to present factual, objective information about the procedure . . .,” and thought he had found it when he came across the Woiceshyn editorial on EmpirePage.Com.

Mr. Davis himself wrote that when he found the website called, he felt that he had found “a reliable source of information.” [The complete text of Mr. Davis’s e-mail appears as footnote no. 2 below.] It is unclear to me how Mr. Davis reached such an assessment — the site appears to me to be not much more than a sort of Internet clipping service (the site says that it “invites anyone who wishes to express an opinion on a political issue of the day to submit a guest editorial of under 1000 words for consideration. . .”) — but anyone can visit the site and make their own judgment on that. The real issue is not the website, but the Glenn Woiceshyn editorial that Mr. Davis read there, and what he did with it. [3]

Consider the situation in which Mr. Davis found himself on December 17. He had on the screen before him a story on an important court decision, written by a reporter with 20 years of experience covering federal courts and eight years experience covering partial-birth abortion litigation. The story explained in a straightforward fashion the importance of the case, and it included reactions from advocates on both sides to the decision. But Mr. Davis felt that something was lacking, which was “a factual description of the procedure’s purpose” — in other words, an explanation of why this particular abortion method, which involves mostly delivering a living human fetus before puncturing her skull, was developed and is usually used.

My own interpretation is that Mr. Davis then probably used a computer search engine to find somebody who had said what he already believed to be true, or unconsciously thought OUGHT to be true.

Of course, if one goes looking for someone to assert what one already thinks is or ought to be true, then you can almost always find SOMEBODY out there who has asserted that very thing. This is a practice sometimes referred to as “quote shopping,” and it is one of the tools most frequently employed by journalists who consciously or unconsciously have an ax to grind on a given issue. It is one of the main things we are talking about when we talk about “pro-abortion media bias.”

On the website, Mr. Davis found what he was looking for — the paragraph as it appeared in the editorial by Mr. Woiceshyn.

In his December 18 e-mail to me, Mr. Davis wrote that the Woiceshyn essay seemed to him to contain “factual and straightforward” information on partial-birth abortion. In evaluating that assessment, I certainly hope that every reader will read the entire Woiceshyn editorial just as it appears on — all the way from the headline (“Editorial: Ban on ‘Partial-Birth Abortion’ Would Be A Blow to Women’s Rights”), down to the bottom (Mr. Woiceshyn’s credentials, such as they are). The many factual inaccuracies might not have been apparent to someone not well acquainted with the subject, but certainly the stridently polemical character of the piece could not have escaped Mr. Davis’s attention — for example, the reference to the human fetus as a “parasite,” the assertion that restricting abortion makes a woman a “breeding mare,” the defense of the absolutist pro-abortion position that “Once ‘fetal rights’ are granted to one stage of the pregnancy, nothing will prevent their extension to all stages,” and so forth.

Surely, Mr. Woiceshyn has every right to articulate his perspective with whatever vigor he can muster — but it is another matter for Mr. Davis, an editor for a mainstream daily newspaper, to say that he looked at Mr. Woiceshyn’s presentation and felt he had come across a source of factual, straightforward, objective information on the controversial subject of partial-birth abortion. That claim is, however, the heart of Mr. Davis’s defense — and it speaks volumes to the charge of bias.

Mr. McKelvey said in his e-mail to me that Mr. Davis “made a poor choice in using the material unattributed . . . it’s not good practice — nor our practice — to use information without citing our sources.” But of course, the paragraph really would not have met Mr. Davis’s need at all if it had been attributed — the whole point was to present the reader with an undisputed “fact.” Come now — how would it have appeared if the statement had been attributed? In the middle of a well-crafted story on a court ruling, suddenly the reader would have come across something like this: “Glenn Woiceshyn of Irvine, California, who develops curriculum materials for home-schoolers, has written that the abortion method is ‘designed primarily for 5- and 6-month-old fetuses that are dying, malformed, or threatening the woman’s health or life.'” The quote-shopping origin of the statement would have been glaringly apparent.

Mr. McKelvey wrote that Mr. Davis believed the statements in the paragraph to be “the most basic of information,” and Mr. Davis himself wrote, “The statement seemed factual and straightforward.” In reality, however, any competent high-school student with a computer could have determined, in ten minutes or less, that the “fact” asserted in the first sentence of the paragraph is a myth — a myth discredited by multiple mainstream journalists years ago, and repudiated years ago even by leading spokespersons for the abortion industry. Thus, it required highly selective perception for Mr. Davis to locate an obscure source that asserted the myth, and to carefully extract the unsupported assertions that seemed right to him.

I wonder what terms Mr. Davis put into a search engine in order to get a “hit” on this editorial. If he had used Google, for example, with the search term partial-birth abortion, the top hit in the resulting listing would have been the National Right to Life archive of documentation on partial-birth abortion, which is here:

In mentioning this, I emphatically do NOT mean to suggest that Mr. Davis would have been better advised to lift or quote some unsupported assertion by me or by somebody else on our staff. But in our archive, he quickly would have found dozens of reproductions of published reports on the subject from sources NOT identified with the right-to-life movement. If he had studied a fraction of this material for perhaps 10 minutes, he would have been forced to conclude that the vast majority of partial-birth abortions are performed on healthy fetuses of healthy mothers, as even prominent pro-abortion advocates such as Ron Fitzsimmons (head of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers) has told everybody who has asked since early 1997. Really, that is not even a disputed issue anymore.

Even in a cursory search, it is hard to avoid coming across evidence that this is so, either in the primary sources reproduced on our website, or in countless references to those sources in columns by nationally syndicated writers defending the bill, statements by prominent lawmakers who support the bill, statements by President Bush, etc.

If Mr. Davis had been “trying hard” to find the truth, here are a few of the many items that were arrayed on our page, many of which are also readily available from other sources:


In February 1997, Ron Fitzsimmons — the executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, a trade association of hundreds of abortion providers — repudiated what he called the “party line” that until then had been asserted by groups opposed to the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and adopted as undisputed fact by many major organs of the news media. Fitzsimmons estimated that the partial-birth abortion method is used up to 5,000 times annually, and, as he told The New York Times (Feb. 26, 1997), “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.” Mr. Fitzsimmons also expressed regret about his own previous (albeit minor) role in propagating the “party line,” explaining, “I lied through my teeth.” The Times article appears here:

An American Medical News interview with Mr. Fitzsimmons is here:

Once Mr. Fitzsimmons spoke out, other prominent abortion providers admitted that he was correct. See, for example, this interesting piece on the rise and fall of the abortion lobby’s “party line”:


Ohio abortionist Martin Haskell, the plaintiff in the litigation that was the subject of the December 18 Dayton Daily News story, first touched off the national debate on partial-birth abortions in 1992 by writing a detailed instructional paper on how to perform this method, for which he coined the term “dilation and extraction.” (Haskell has done many hundreds of partial-birth abortions.) The paper is posted on a congressional website at

In the paper, Dr. Haskell explained why he adopted the method which he later popularized. It was not for any of the reasons claimed in the paragraph presented to Dayton Daily News readers on December 18. Rather, he wrote, it was because the “toughness of fetal tissues” (this includes bones) makes dismemberment of the baby difficult after the mid-point of pregnancy. Dr. Haskell wrote that he used the method on “all” clients who want abortions from 20 to 24 weeks (four and one-half to five and one-half months), except those with various health problems.

In a 1992 interview in Cincinnati Medicine, Dr. Haskell further explained how and why he adopted the “extraction” abortion method in preference to the dismemberment method he had used earlier (it was faster and easier for him). It is here:

In a tape-recorded 1993 interview, Dr. Haskell told American Medical News (the AMA newspaper) that 80% of the partial-birth abortions he performed in the 20-24 week range were “purely elective.” See the transcript posted here:


In 1996, Washington Post medical writer David Brown, M.D., conducted an in-depth investigation of the issue which included interviews with numerous abortionists. Dr. Brown concluded, “[I]n most cases where the procedure is used, the physical health of the woman whose pregnancy is being terminated is not in jeopardy.” Dr. Brown also said, “Most people who got this procedure were really not very different from most people who got abortions.” (The latter quote is from the transcript of a January 1997 PBS documentary in which prominent journalists criticized their professional colleagues for widespread gullibility, in 1995 and 1996, in accepting claims that partial-birth abortions were performed mostly in dire medical circumstances, since there was always considerable evidence to the contrary. The documentary also examined how when the claim was belatedly subjected to serious journalistic scrutiny, it collapsed. The PBS transcript is here:


In 1996, two abortionists in New Jersey told a reporter for the Bergen-Hackensack Record that they together performed 1,500 partial-birth abortions annually, and commented, “We have an occasional amnio abnormality, but it’s a minuscule amount. . . . Most . . . are for elective, not medical, reasons: people who didn’t realize, or didn’t care, how far along they were.”


The examples cited above are only a sampling — there is much more of the same sort of documentation [4] at


Early in the afternoon of December 18, one Dayton pro-life activist called Hal Davis to complain about the offending paragraph. When she cited Dr. Haskell’s 1993 statement to American Medical News that 80% of his partial-birth abortions, performed from mid-fifth to mid-sixth month, were “purely elective,” Mr. Davis reportedly dismissed this as “out of date” information. However, Wes Hills told me that his best recollection of the testimony in the most recent Ohio litigation supported the view that most partial-birth abortions performed by Dr. Haskell are performed on healthy fetuses.

Moreover, nothing has happened since 1997 to change the nationwide picture. On the contrary, evidence gathered subsequently by congressional and state legislative bodies and by journalists since 1997 only reinforces the conclusion that some practitioners use the method routinely during the fifth and sixth months of pregnancy, and even later, and that the vast majority of partial-birth abortions do not involve any acute medical circumstances.

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 full 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 recent months, journalists for the Boston Globe and other papers who have called Ron Fitzsimmons (who is still the head of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, a “trade association” representing hundreds of abortion clinics and abortionists), to ask if he still stands by his 1997 statements, say that Mr. Fitzsimmons has responded affirmatively. Moreover, on March 4, 2003, I personally asked Mr. Fitzsimmons whether it is still true that “in the vast majority of cases, the procedure is performed on a healthy mother with a healthy fetus,” as he told the New York Times in 1997. Mr. Fitzsimmons replied, “I’m not recanting any of that stuff. In terms of when it’s done or how it’s done, nothing has changed, as far as I know.” I then read him this unattributed assertion in a Gannett News Service story: partial-birth abortion “is usually performed in cases when the mother’s life is threatened or the fetus is deformed.” Mr. Fitzsimmons replied, “It’s amazing that a lot of people still think that, despite the evidence to the contrary.”

It sure is.


After reviewing some of the material cited above, Dayton Daily News editors published the following correction on December 20, 2003:

In Thursday’s editions, Page A1, an editor inserted into a story regarding a court ruling on late-term abortions a paragraph taken from an article found on the Internet. The intent was to provide a definition of a late-term abortion method. This use of material from another publication without attribution is neither standard, nor acceptable practice and should not have taken place. The National Right to Life Committee contacted the newspaper and objected to the definition as inaccurate and biased. The Dayton Daily News acknowledges the mistake and apologizes for the error. The story should have said the procedure was developed for abortions in the second trimester of pregnancy, with fetuses around 20 to 24 weeks old. Defenders of the procedure have acknowledged that in most cases, the fetus and the mother seeking the abortion are healthy.


There should be more scrutiny of the prevalence of the assumptions that cause many reporters and editors to propagate pro-abortion propaganda and mythology.

It is no longer even seriously disputed that the vast majority of partial-birth abortions are performed on healthy babies of healthy mothers (as is also true of abortions performed by other methods in the fifth and sixth months). Yet, some journalists seem to feel a continuing need to “assure” readers and viewers that partial-birth abortions are performed only rarely and in medically dire circumstances — and so the mythology lives on in the news media.

Hal Davis’s action was unusual only in that he lifted an entire paragraph from an obviously polemical and non-authoritative source virtually verbatim — but there are many other examples in the recent past of journalists presenting essentially the same claim in the voice of their papers, but after paraphrasing an unknown source or simply picking the claim out of the air.

It is also not uncommon to encounter a journalistic mindset that is ready to accept as fact essentially unsupported assertions from attributed pro-abortion sources, even obscure sources, while dismissing as biased contrary information from pro-life sources, no matter how densely supported with documentation.

Among those who manifested these patterns of bias with particular obstinacy during 2003 were Gannett News Service, the Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle, and CBS News. [5] [6]

Thus, in not bothering to paraphrase, Hal Davis was a bit lazier than some of his journalistic colleagues — but regrettably, the I-already-know-what-must-be-true mindset with which he approached an abortion-related issue is all too common.

— Douglas Johnson


[1] Mr. McKelvey’s wife, Noreen Wilhelm, previously was on the staff of the local Planned Parenthood affiliate for many years, until about a year ago, holding such positions as “interim director” and “director of external affairs.” The lobbyists for Ohio’s Planned Parenthood affiliates lobbied the legislature in opposition to the bill restricting partial-birth abortion, but it became law — and the law was upheld in the court decision which was the subject of the December 18 Dayton Daily News story under discussion in this memo. Mr. McKelvey’s superiors presumably were aware of these relationships, and presumably they did not believe that it posed any sort of conflict to assign Mr. McKelvey to review this episode and to be the point of contact for the National Right to Life Committee on the matter.

[2] The complete text of the e-mail from Hal Davis, forwarded to me by Vince McKelvey on December 18, 2003, follows :

Mr. Johnson: Thank you for your letter. Wes Hills shared with me your earlier correspondence with him. As I was editing Mr. Hills’ story, I was seeking a factual description of the procedure’s purpose to introduce the paragraph describing the method. I found a version of the statement you quoted at a Web site called The Empire Page, which says it provides “news and information on politics and government.” The statement seemed factual and straightforward, as did the rest of the paragraph, which describes the procedure. In a separate part of the Web site, the Empire Page describes itself as “an on-line news source that provides multiple sections including New York headlines, national headlines, business links, media links, book reviews and guest editorials. Subscribers include local, state and federal employees, elected officials at all levels, journalists, academics, lobbyists…” The Web site seemed to be a reliable source of information. I was unaware the statement in question had appeared in the Miami Herald. The goal was to present, as you put it, a “straightforward and balanced account of the court’s ruling and reactions to it.

[3] The Glenn Woiceshyn piece was also published in a few other papers, including, in a slightly different form, as an op-ed in the Miami Herald on December 13, here: However, Hal Davis says that he took the paragraph from the version, and says he did not see the Miami Herald version. The paragraph at issue appears in both versions identically, except for one comma.

[4] Other documents and commentary posted at, relating to the collapse of the original pro-abortion misinformation campaign on partial-birth abortion, include:

•• detailed, documented 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.

[5] In some cases, when documentation such as that cited above is brought to the attention of such journalists or their editors, clear acknowledgments of error corrections are promptly issued. In other cases, the response to such documentation is silence, or evasiveness that can approach the comical at times, and/or “corrections” that further obscure rather than acknowledge error. Some examples from the past year are documented here:

[6] For a more comprehensive treatment on various disputed issues and myths regarding partial-birth abortion, see “The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act: Misconceptions and Realities,” at:

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