September 5, 2022
To report the ‘other side’ of abortion, we have to lie – what if journalists decided to tell the truth?
By Megan Clement (follow me on Twitter)
Only have a minute to read this newsletter? Here it is in (very) brief:
Once upon a time in a previous life, back when abortion was legal throughout the United States, I commissioned an article from Nicaragua, one of the few countries on Earth with a total abortion ban. The story was as horrifying as stories from countries with abortion bans often are – it involved a fourteen-year-old girl who was forced to give birth to a child conceived after her grandfather repeatedly raped her over a period of years. When I filed the story for publication, my boss at the time called me to ask: could this article make our news organisation seem biased? Would we come across as pro-abortion? I told him I thought we would come across as anti-forced birth for incest victims, and that was probably fine.
Abortion is one of just a handful of issues that would provoke such hand-wringing about bias over what is clearly a flagrant violation of human rights, one that in this case surely amounted to torture. But I’ve had many similar interactions in my career, where the simple fact of reporting on the consequences of abortion restrictions seems to call journalistic objectivity itself into question.
I have long wrestled with the implications of being asked to provide space for the views of anti-abortion groups in cases where women’s lives have been put at risk by abortion bans. I have seen the results of those organisations’ direct lobbying of news organisations to provide their perspective. They are well-organised and they are good at what they do – even if an outlet doesn’t mind being seen as supportive of abortion rights, its editors understandably want to be seen as fair and objective, and so more often than not, they will give in to polite, reasonable-sounding demands from “the other side”.
Image: Gayatri Malhotra
Since the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, I’ve been thinking a lot more about how journalists can be fair and objective about abortion.
The issue of ethics in reporting on abortion recently crystalised around another one of those harrowing stories: that of a ten-year-old girl in Ohio, forced to cross state lines because she couldn’t get an abortion after being raped. The source for the story was the doctor who had assisted her. Anti-abortion politicians and news outlets immediately cast doubt on its veracity, and questioned the credibility of the doctor involved. But the story was true, and for anyone who has spent any time studying the issue, a foreseeable consequence of Ohio’s restrictions – just as the case of the 14-year-old in Nicaragua was a foreseeable consequence of her
Faced with cases like this, I have begun to ask myself the question: what if we reported abortion as a healthcare issue?
I started my career on the environment beat, at a time when we as a profession were beginning to realise that the old form of “he said/she said” journalism may no longer be equal to the challenges we faced as a species. More and more news organisations were vowing not to provide false balance between climate scientists – 99% of whom agree that human-induced global warming is taking place – and climate deniers. When we report on climate change in a way that takes the scientific consensus into account, the argument about whether it is happening evaporates, and instead more salient debates about how to respond come to the fore.
In health and science journalism, we understandably prioritise the voice of experts and specialists. We privilege the atmospheric scientist over the fossil fuel company representative, the doctor over the naturopath. When reporting on Covid-19, we do not (or should not) seek scientific input from anti-vaxxers. Yet in covering abortion, zealots too often get equal billing to obstetricians and gynaecologists, or, most importantly, the people who seek abortions themselves.
Anti-abortion perspectives, just like those of climate deniers, are based on junk science and obfuscation. So-called ‘heartbeat bills’ are based on cutting off access to abortion at six weeks, before an embryo is a foetus, and before it even has a heart. A post-Roe opinion article in the New York Times that argued for a pro-life approach to pregnancy complications used the phrase “delivering a baby who is ectopic”, a medical impossibility. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the embryo embeds outside the uterus, usually in the fallopian tube. In cases of an ectopic pregnancy that does not result in a miscarriage, the options are to terminate it using abortion medication, to remove it surgically, or for the tube to rupture, causing massive internal bleeding. One of the potential outcomes of an ectopic pregnancy is death. None of them is delivery.
As Erik Wemple wrote in the Washington Post, “the Times privileged the author’s linguistic preferences over the greater imperative to convey precise, factual information to readers.”
To put it more simply: to report the “other side” of abortion, we often have to lie.
In the medical realm, abortion, miscarriage, pregnancy complications and birth exist along a spectrum of care carried out by specialised professionals. The same drugs and procedures are often used, which is why, as we reported earlier this year, miscarriages and unviable pregnancies are often caught up in abortion bans. But in the political and religious realm, we put up dividing walls between these procedures: between the virtuous patient who wants their pregnancy, and the sinner who does not. It is important for journalism to make this distinction between the science and the politics clear, not paper over it with vague terms (“pro-life” comes to mind).
We cannot be credulous in the face of those who want to misrepresent the reality of abortion bans. Over and again anti-abortion activists have said that the warnings about the dangers of banning abortion have been overstated – that women won’t be prosecuted (they already are), that pregnant people’s lives won’t be in danger (again, they are), that miscarriages won’t be affected (they have been). On the other hand, there is a wealth of peer-reviewed scientific and real-world evidence both on the safety of abortion – which carries a risk of death 14 times lower than childbirth – and the consequences of abortion bans – more abortions. With those track records in mind, how much weight should we give each side of this issue?
In journalism, everybody should have the right of reply. If we report someone’s allegations against a person or organisation, they must always be offered the opportunity to respond. All claims should be tested to the most feasible extent based on evidence and the views of experts. But that is not the same as reporting “both sides” of the abortion debate equally. And at minimum, we have to be able to admit that people who lie about pregnancy are not experts on abortion, and that anti-abortion activism is based on the wish to deny people basic and essential healthcare.
At Impact, we take the editorial position that abortion is a human rights issue – that banning it endangers people’s lives and categorises women as second-class citizens. We will give anti-abortion organisations the right of reply where necessary, but not a platform to air their views. Not all news organisations can do that, but they can ask themselves about when providing an anti-abortion perspective is good journalistic practice, and when it is misreporting a healthcare issue.
Kenya’s election is being lauded as ‘historic’ for women – that’s not true (en)
Failure to cope « under capitalism » (en)
Between taboos and freedom: reproductive justice at the centre of pan-African resistance (en)
Sex in the brain (EN)
Appel à développer la contraception masculine : arrêtez de vous dorer la pilule ! (fr)
L’égalité se joue aussi dans les cours d’écoles (fr)
« Je ne fais que tendre la main à d’autres femmes » : le combat pour le droit à l’avortement de la Polonaise Justyna
This issue of Impact was prepared by Megan Clement and Anna Pujol-Mazzini.
Impact is financed by the New Venture Fund.
We are a production of Gloria Media – subscribe to our other newsletters:
Inscrivez-vous à la newsletter gratuite #Impact(English) pour accéder au reste de la page
(Si vous êtes déjà inscrit·e, entrez simplement le mail avec lequel vous recevez la newsletter pour faire apparaître la page)
Nous nous engageons à ne jamais vendre vos données.