Nearly twenty years ago, the judicious James Davison Hunter noted that journalistic reporting on abortion is “remarkable for its superficiality” since it rarely explores the “deeper issues and implications of the abortion controversy.” Maybe it is simply the partisan heat generated by a close presidential contest, but abortion coverage appears to be getting worse, not better. Just consider the mendacious, slash-and-burn New York Times Magazine story by Emily Bazelon on Charmaine Yoest, the director of Americans United for Life.
Bazelon begins by underscoring the truism that Yoest, a professional pro-lifer, is no moderate: “She leaves no room for exceptions in the cases of rape or incest,” for example. But what Bazelon didn’t say is that Yoest’s extremism is also the price of philosophical consistency. In other words, if one truly believes, as Yoest clearly does, that all human organisms possess a right to life, then one cannot make exceptions for hard cases, such as rape.
This is why no pro-life philosopher has ever accepted the view that the circumstances by which an embryo comes to be influences the rightness or wrongness of its destruction. If leaders such as Yoest publicly embraced these sorts of exceptions, then Bazelon and other journalists would rightly call them unprincipled. Given the inevitability of either charges of extremism or incoherence, leaders such as Yoest hardly can be blamed for being willing to accept the former.
And while Bazelon is correct to identify Yoest as a radical, she distorts the radicalism of American abortion laws at nearly every turn. For example, Bazelon correctly reports that many states passed new regulations on abortion clinics after the 2010 midterm elections, including mandatory waiting periods and informed consent laws. But Bazelon doesn’t tell her readers that these “hard-hitting” regulations still leave American abortions laws far more permissive than any other western democracy, with the possible exception of Sweden and the Netherlands. The vast majority of western democracies limit abortion access to the first trimester and many impose more onerous regulations.
In anti-Catholic France, for instance, abortion is legal only in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, and only after counseling and a one-week waiting period. Waiting periods range from 7 days in Italy, to 6 days in Belgium, 5 days in the Netherlands, and 3 days in Germany. By way of contrast, waiting period are generally 24 hours in the twenty-six American states that impose them. Given the relative conservatism of abortion laws in Europe, the New York Times might consider redirecting its concern abroad.
While Bazelon acknowledges the reality of abortion after the first trimester, she reminds readers that such cases are “rare,” since they account for only 10 percent of all abortions. It’s a figure that suggests American practices are not that extreme after all. However, she doesn’t tell readers that this works out to about 120,000 second- and third-trimester abortions every year. It’s odd to say that anything that happens every 4.4 minutes is rare. Pregnancy is uncommon if measured as a percentage of reproductive sex acts, but who would say that pregnancy is rare? The vast majority of sex is consensual, but who would say that renders rape rare?
In other places, Bazelon gives the false impression that the ban on partial-birth abortions ended late-term abortions altogether. She begins one paragraph: “Congress passed a late-term-abortion ban in 2003. The Supreme Court upheld the law 5 to 4 four years later.” In fact, the Supreme Court only upheld a ban of a particular procedure that was never very popular among abortionists, and only developed in the 1990s. Today, abortionists simply destroy second-trimester fetuses in the usual way: Physicians dismember fetuses one limb at a time while they’re still inside the womb.
Given such distortions, it is hardly surprising that few Americans actually know much about the uniqueness of American abortion law some four decades after Roe was decided. Usually Roe is described in ways that give the impression that its scope was rather modest, just as Bazelon does. The result has been “mass legal illiteracy,” as Hunter bluntly put it years ago.
Finally, Bazelon reports that Yoest’s woman-centered rhetoric represents a “deft reframing of the abortion debate.” It’s also a diversion since Yoest’s real goal, Bazelon tells us, has nothing to do with helping women, and everything to do with banning abortion.
Once again, Bazelon gets some facts right, yet misses the larger context. Yes, I’m sure Yoest’s main goal, as director of Americans United for Life, is making abortion access more difficult. But focusing on Yoest misses the ways the pro-life movement is genuinely woman-centered and has been so for a very long time. For example, the most popular wing of the pro-life movement is populated by thousands of pregnancy-help centers that provide material aid to pregnant women.
As the first survey of these centers by political scientist Laura Hussey demonstrates, these centers do a lot more for these women than provide diapers and baby wipes. And because the vast majority of the low-income women these centers serve never considered getting an abortion in the first place, it’s safe to conclude that their staffers and volunteers are actually interested in helping women, not simply ending abortion.
Moreover, it is certainly possible that modest restrictions on abortion would help women in ways that would please Bazelon. As the pro-choice economist Phillip Levine found in Sex and Consequences, modest restrictions on abortion reduce contraceptive risk taking and therefore the number of unwanted pregnancies. But to be attuned to these possibilities, one needs to look beyond the talking points of pro-choice activists.
“Yoest is especially good at sounding reasonable rather than extreme,” Bazelon charges. “She never deviates from her talking points.” It’s a truism that could be leveled against any capable cultural warrior. Sadly, it is also a good characterization of Bazelon’s essay and so many journalistic treatments of abortion politics.
Elite venues, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, can do far better. They should aim to raise the discussion of abortion politics above the sloganeering of jostling activists. More than ever we need a serious and elevated conversation in public fora that are as visible and respected as The New York Times.
Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton, 2009). His work on abortion politics have appeared in the New Republic Online, Public Discourse, The Weekly Standard, and Wilson Quarterly.
Emily Bazelon, “Charmaine Yoest’s Cheerful War on Abortion”
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