How Media Mistakes Fueled the High Court Abortion Ruling

Human Rights
[The] partial birth abortion ban is a political scam but [also] a public relations goldmine. ... The major benefit is the debate that surrounds it. -- Randall Terry

So said the founder of Operation Rescue, a militant anti-choice group that blockaded abortion providers, in 2003.

Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court decision (Gonzales v. Carhart) upholding the federal abortion ban is the fruition of that public relations goldmine. It is a travesty of language bought and repeated endlessly by journalists who were sometimes uninformed and sometimes just too lazy to get it right.

Indeed, the travesty of language around abortion is so pervasive that even Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the decision for the court's majority, in addition to using the inaccurate term "partial birth abortion," also referred to the "abortion doctor" repeatedly in the ruling. Why did he not simply refer to doctors as "doctors," or "ob/gyns"? If another surgical procedure were under scrutiny, would he have he referred to "tonsillectomy doctor" or "hysterectomy doctor"? Of course not. But those who want to take away entirely a woman's human right to make her own childbearing decisions have used the term "abortion doctor" for so long as an epithet that they have succeeded in getting even the highest court in the land to adopt their language.

Such bias is just the tip of the iceberg in the battle over what losing plaintiff Dr. Leroy Carhart has called "partial truth abortion." There is no such thing as partial birth abortion. The term will be found in no medical book. It was coined in 1995 by Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right-to-Life Committee, and former Congressional representative and current Florida appeals court judge Charles Canady explicitly to confuse, horrify, and deceive -- to manipulate language with the intent of sensationalizing the abortion debate. In particular, they intended to take the focus away from the woman in order to place the greater value on the fetus. Leading medical associations all agreed it was a misleading term, but the media never checked their language and by 2001, 90% of articles were using the term without so much as a "so-called" attached. As I reported in my 2004 book The War on Choice, an AP managing editor admitted when challenged that "partial birth abortion" was emotionally loaded, but said they continued to use it because it was instantly recognizable. Another major daily newspaper editor admitted it wasn't correct but said it was easier to use than alternatives.

An almost identical abortion ban was found unconstitutional by a different Supreme Court in 2000. Elections have consequences. Since then, President George W. Bush has had the opportunity to appoint two new justices who are ideologically in synch with the biased language. That shift made all the difference to women today and tomorrow.

Now we have a landmark Supreme Court decision, built upon the counterfeit foundation of a made-up term that the media accepted and used uncritically, and that has propelled the highest court to issue a ruling permitting a law that at a minimum:

1. Does not provide adequate exceptions for a woman's health, which means that a fundamental legal principle of the primary importance of women's health has been overturned.

2. For the first time upholds a federal law that steps directly into the physician's exam room and tells him or her what medical technique cannot be used even if the physician's judgment is that it is the safest to protect a patient's health and future fertility.

3. Will not reduce the number of abortions but will over time, according to the doctors who know women's health best, cause an increase in medical complications, and possibly even deaths.

The public relations goldmine of those who aim for nothing less than to eliminate reproductive justice at all times from all women has paid off for them. Language, after all, has consequences too.

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