The public conversation on later abortion:
Problems for advocates

simple, emotionally powerful claims about fetal pain, however unfounded, are dominating the public conversation on later abortion

Last week, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced to the Senate a nationwide ban on all abortions after 20 weeks. Since 2010, a dozen states have passed such bans. In the summer of 2013, the Texas legislature’s dramatic fight over its 20-week ban (among other abortion restrictions) and the US House of Representative’s vote to ban abortions at 20 weeks focused the national spotlight on later abortion. At ANSIRH, I took a look at how the leading US newspapers covered the issue, and discovered some concerns for reproductive health advocates.

In a “quick and dirty” analysis of 81 pieces on 20-week abortion bans published January 1 – September 12, 2013 in the New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, or in blog posts on these papers’ websites, I examined the frames articulated on either side of the debate. (Of course, the literature on framing in public discourse and on analyzing frames in news coverage is deep and rich. For purposes of this exercise, I’ve simplified the concept: I use the term “frames” to mean roughly “arguments” on a controversial issue.)

I found that opponents of 20-week bans are most often quoted making complex legalistic and political arguments, while pro-ban advocates rely on simple, emotionally powerful claims about fetal pain. The pregnant woman and her experience of decision-making are left almost entirely out of the picture.

Arguments opposing 20-week abortion bans:

Ban violates Constitutional rights. Dominating the arguments against the 20-week bans is the perspective that such bans represent an “unconscionable attack on our constitutional freedoms.” The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and Roe v. Wade are all mentioned in asserting that the bans are (or will be found to be) unconstitutional. These points are frequently made in language that is often legalistic and non-intuitive, for example:

  •  “The Supreme Court, including Justice Kennedy, has repeatedly affirmed viability as the point at which the state’s interest in protecting life outweighs a woman’s right to control her body.”
  • The bans “seek to interfere directly in personal, private medical decisions that the Constitution and more than 40 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent guarantee to women as a fundamental right.”

Ban represents Republican “war on women.” Another prevalent argument against the 20-week bans is the assertion that these measures represent another battle in the Republican “war on women.” This expressly political frame is reflected in statements like:

  • “Republicans think women are too immoral or too stupid to make their own choices.”
  • “Republicans treat women like children.”
  • Republicans are the “out of touch caucus.”

Ban is a slippery slope to more abortion limits. Another argument posits that the 20-week bans should be resisted not just on their own merits, but because they are part of a larger push to narrow abortion rights. By restricting rights slightly, such bans acclimate the public to the idea of abortion limits and make further limits more palatable.

  • “Politically, such laws are also dangerous because each decrease in the legal period for abortion is followed by another.”
  • The ban is “just one step in the direction of their not-so-secret ultimate aim: to ban abortions entirely.”

Women’s actual experiences of decision-making and abortion are rarely portrayed. In the 81 pieces in this sample, only three women’s stories of later abortion are described. However, when they are covered, women’s stories are told in ways that highlight the wrenching and personal nature of their experiences. As one piece points out, “In many cases, women are facing the need to terminate a desired pregnancy, not an unwanted one.”

This frame, found in a small minority of pieces, is the only one that brings women’s experience of abortion directly into the debate. Of course, this storytelling is problematic if it reinforces the belief that the only later abortions worthy of support are those of greatly wanted babies who cannot be carried to term for tragic reasons.

Arguments in support of 20-week bans:

The fetus feels pain. The dominant argument quoted in favor of the bans is the simple assertion that a 20-week fetus can feel pain and therefore suffers horribly during an abortion at this stage. Importantly, this idea is rooted in rhetoric, not science. One article notes that Mary Spaulding Balch (state policy director of the National Right to Life Committee, considered the architect of the 20-week bans) was inspired by a 1984 speech by Ronald Reagan, who said, “When the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain – pain that is long and agonizing.” She started collecting journal articles by “a small minority” of scientists claiming that pain was detected at 20 weeks of fetal development.

Editorially, the newspapers attempted to portray the science accurately; most of the pieces described the assertion that a 20-week fetus can feel pain as a “scientifically disputed” or “much debated” claim, with which only a “handful” of scientists agree. But these clarifications appeared briefly and at most one time in each piece, as opposed to the repeated assertions about fetal pain found throughout the sample.

Later abortions are barbaric. A common corollary to the fetal pain argument is the assertion that later abortions are “gruesome” and “inhumane,” for example:

  • “The Texas law is not unlike legislation all over Western Europe, where late-term abortions are rightly considered barbaric.”
  • The Gosnell case puts the “horror of abortion” in perspective.
  • Abortion is “our generation’s holocaust.”

It looks like we’re losing the battle of values

Many other frames showed up as well, and of course a casual analysis like this has many methodological and pragmatic limitations that moderate the conclusions. But in focusing here on the primary arguments quoted on each side, I hope to convey the overwhelming impression I got from newspaper coverage of the 20-week bans:

  • Proponents of the 20-week bans are concentrating their argument with a handful of direct, clear frames. Focusing on the vulnerable “child” and using emotional language, they are communicating a consistent, powerful message.
  • The pro-choice side tends to lead with legalistic and politically oriented arguments, dominated by jargon about rights and name-calling about Republicans. Women and their experience of serious decision-making are left almost entirely out of the picture.

At the moment, based on this analysis, proponents of these bans appear to be making the more compelling case in this battle of values.

  • mary dispenza:

    It seems to me that generally – somewhere in the middle is the best place to be. Issues must appeal to our emotions as well as our senses to move us to action. Thanks, Katie Woodruff for a ‘casual analysis’ to keep this very important issue going. Well done!
    Mary Dispenza

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