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.