The Acid Test

 We havent yet answered abortions challenge


When George McGovern sought the presidency in 1972, critics derided him as the candidate of “acid, amnesty and abortion.” Those words referred to the use of psychedelic drugs, forgiveness for Vietnam War draft dodgers, and the repeal of the laws which, for a century or more, had restricted or prohibited abortion in all the United States. [1]

The charges were a bit unfair when applied to the South Dakota Democrat, an old-fashioned gentleman with a distinguished war record. But they did pertain to some of the pet causes of the left-wingers who had made McGovern their champion.

McGovern’s opponent, Richard Nixon, was a man never much loved by the electorate. But voters showed they loved the radical Left even less when they buried McGovern under a Nixon landslide.

Twenty years later, two pro-choice presidential candidates, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, shared 62 percent of the popular vote, against 38 percent for the tacitly pro-life incumbent, George Bush. It was the first time “abortion rights” had ever prevailed in a presidential election. [2]

There are plenty of reasons for that result, but one of them has to be that Americans had become more tolerant of abortion than we once were.

How come?

Respect for the Supreme Court is one factor. Less than three months after McGovern’s drubbing, the court handed the radicals their most important victory ever: It announced in Roe v. Wade that the choice to have an abortion is a constitutional right.

Americans revere the Constitution, and we little suspect that our judges would lie to us. So when people in authority proclaimed abortion as one of our precious liberties, many Americans abandoned their former view of it as a revolting crime.

The people have overruled the high court before, however, and the fact that we haven’t done so in this case has much to do with the way the issue has been handled by the news media.

I’m glad to say there are some exceptions, here and there, to the notorious pro-choice bias of American journalism. Nationally, however, pro-choice bias is a powerful force. It works first of all in semantics. The Associated Press, for example, prescribes that pro-lifers be referred to as “anti-abortion” and that the pro-choice side be called “abortion rights.” The issue itself often receives the pro-choicers’ appellation, as in this lead sentence from a recent AP story: “Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, an unbending opponent of abortion rights during the Reagan administration, sought to provide assurances Friday that he would put his private views aside when it came time to rule on the issue.” [3]

But if “anti-abortion,” why not “pro-abortion”? If “abortion rights,” why not “right to life”? (Imagine reading wire-service copy that said, “Congressman Doe is pro-abortion,” or “Senator Smith is an unbending opponent of the right to life”!) If AP wanted to be impartial, it could give each side its preferred self-designation: “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” If it wanted to be objective, it could simply say that Congressman Doe supports/opposes legal abortion, and let the activists argue about whose side is upholding “rights.” But what AP wants to do is set the terms of the debate, and do it from a pro-choice perspective.

Besides using slanted semantics, the media’s pro-choice bias expresses itself in a habit of muffling some voices while amplifying others. As a newspaper copy editor, I’ve seen some egregious examples of that practice.

 Once, a multiracial Christian group organized a pro-life rally at which a speaker denounced the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, as a racist.

(The charge appears to be true. Sanger came to her enthusiasm for contraception and legal abortion by way of eugenics; she wanted to reduce the birth rate especially of “the unfit.” Ads for her First American Birth Control Conference in 1921 touted contraception as a way to eliminate “morons, defectives, paupers.” Her journal, Birth Control Review, frequently ran articles espousing “race betterment”; during the late ’20s, it shared 10 board members with the American Eugenics Society. In the 1930s, she and her contributors took a special interest in the compulsory sterilization policies of Sweden and Nazi Germany. With such preoccupations as these, her group undertook its “Negro Project.” Making plans in 1939 to recruit black clergymen for a birth-control campaign in their communities, Sanger cautioned a white associate: “We do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten that idea out if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”) [4]

The newspaper for which I then worked reported the group’s charge against Sanger in the lead paragraph and then turned to two pro-choice spokeswomen, who harrumphed “Nonsense!” at considerable length. Our readers didn’t get to hear the pro-lifers argue their case until we’d already given them the pro-choicers’ rebuttal; most of the comments in the story came from people who did nothing more than answer the phone and respond to the reporter’s softball questions. [5]

It goes without saying that the paper never let pro-life spokesmen dominate a story about pro-choice activities. Those stories sometimes had no “balance” quotes at all. [6]

Then there was the day in 1996 when The Associated Press’s Calvin Woodward reported on the adoption of an unqualified pro-life plank in the Republican Party’s platform. His story line was how “Bob Dole’s insistence on making the GOP platform specifically tolerant on abortion has dissolved under pressure from social conservatives,” who were “elated” by their success at keeping “pure” the “platform’s hard-line language.”  

Woodward reported a total of exactly four words uttered by the social conservatives involved in that fight: “We’re just absolutely thrilled,” said Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed. On the other side, Woodward had four paragraphs of angry broadsides from pro-choicers. At the end AP tacked on a rather equivocal comment by pro-life Sen. Jesse Helms, borrowed from another story. [7]

As the day progressed, AP updated Woodward’s report five times: once to give some new information about Sen. Dole’s economic plan, and four times to supply additional comment on abortion — all from pro-choicers. None of the story’s versions had anything more from the pro-lifers, and none of them relayed to us the actual platform language that Woodward characterized as “hard-line.” (It said: “The unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed.”)

Occasionally, pro-choice journalists don’t stop at finding a friendly source or three to shout pro-lifers down. They silence the pro-lifers themselves.

I was working at another newspaper when Operation Rescue laid siege to Dr. George Tiller’s abortion clinic in Wichita, Kansas. On Aug. 21, 1991, my paper ran an AP story about how the demonstrators suddenly rushed from their picket lines toward the clinic’s entrance, where 130 of them were arrested. The story quoted a pro-choice counterdemonstrator, a policeman on the scene, and — in its first version — a pro-life leader.

In the course of the evening, an updated version of the story came over the wire. We sent the new version along to the production department, and word came back that now the story was too short. We had to go back to the earlier version, find the missing paragraphs, and plug them in to fill out the space we’d allowed for the story.

Here is what The Associated Press had cut out of its own report:

 The Rev. Joseph Foreman, an Atlanta Operation Rescue leader, insisted the group’s actions Tuesday had been passive.

“Do you think what happens to babies in there is passive?” he said. “They get their heads and arms and legs ripped off. So, running to a place where you can block access to keep that from happening is passive. There is no law against running.” [8]

The AP routinely noted that the demonstrators had targeted Tiller’s clinic because he specialized in late-term abortions, but its reporters never went into detail about what such abortions involve. The excision in that story suggests that their reticence was purposeful.

In recent years, the emergence of the partial-birth abortion issue has posed a new challenge to pro-choice journalists who deal in truth-evading euphemisms. AP opted for a phrase — “a certain late-term abortion procedure” — that is neither precise nor accurate. (Most partial-birth abortions are done in the mid-term.) [9]  As a result, some people, befuddled by the AP circumlocution, have started referring to partial-birth abortion itself as “late-term abortion” — when the proposed partial-birth abortion bans would leave untouched that other, even more gruesome and painful late-term “procedure” that Joseph Foreman described.

The hostility of journalists goes far toward explaining why pro-lifers haven’t yet achieved the success enjoyed by the civil rights movement a generation ago. However, the most important reason for abortion’s continued legality lies not with the media or the courts, but with ourselves.

Millions of American women have had abortions. Millions of American men have instigated or connived in them. Those who haven’t done so probably know someone who has. And almost all of us, even among those who oppose abortion, have acquiesced in it. Only a handful have sacrificed their own freedom, comfort and security for the sake of other people’s unwanted, unborn children.

Popular culture invites us to recognize evil only when it speaks with a German accent and marches at the goose-step. We don’t want to think of evil embracing our agreeable, all-American neighbors, still less our own bones.

It’s much easier on the conscience, therefore, to consider the fetus a subhuman blob of tissue and the clinic protesters nuts. Because if the unborn are in fact human beings in need of protection, what does that make the rest of us?

'The Acid Test' is an excerpt from Yo! Liberals! You Call This Progress?, available at Amazon.com or directly from Fielding Press. Parts of it earlier appeared in the Chattanooga Free Press and are reprinted by permission.


[1]  Gordon Weil, The Long Shot: George McGovern Runs For President, pp.96-101. [back]

[2] Just how tacit the first President Bush’s pro-life stand was in 1992 is suggested by this report on his campaign. Eight years before, Ronald Reagan had preached the humanity of the unborn to the whole nation in his televised showdown with Walter Mondale, but such simplicity was not for Bush nor his people. “You can bet the honchos of the Bush campaign aren’t pressuring the president to broadcast his anti-abortion credentials for all to hear,” Fred Barnes wrote. “They not only disagree with him, they think his position is a loser politically, except with pro-lifers. So the strategy is to ‘narrowcast’ — a White House aide’s word — the issue for the anti-abortion crowd. … Bush speeches are models of narrowcasting. Bush, says an aide, is comfortable raising the subject of abortion at ‘only the forums where he’s sure it’ll be well received.’ ”     ———Barnes, “Pro, Er, Pro-Life,” The New Republic, May 18, 1992, pp. 10-11. [back]

[3]  David Espo, “Alito offers reassurances,” Associated Press report in Knoxville News Sentinel, Dec. 3, 2005. [back]

[4]  Robert Marshall and Charles Donovan, Blessed Are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood, pp. 5-33. [back]

[5]  Samuel Adams, “Black speakers denounce Planned Parenthood plans,” Waco Tribune-Herald, Feb. 10, 1992, p. 1B. [back]

[6]  Most of the Trib’s local news stories were properly balanced, with comments duly noted both from the local Planned Parenthood officials and from local pro-life activists. But in feature coverage and in wire stories, the editors’ pro-choice sentiments often came out. The 1992 Roe anniversary march, for example, drew 70,000 pro-lifers and 100 pro-choice counterdemonstrators to the National Mall in Washington. The Trib covered it on Page 4A with a 5-inch story and 2-column picture of the pro-lifers — and on the front page, with a 4-column color shot of the counterdemonstrators brandishing signs reading “American Women Deserve Freedom of Choice,” “KEEP Abortion SAFE and LEGAL,” and “Christian FASCISTS, Go HOME!”     ———Waco Tribune-Herald, Jan. 23, 1992, pp. 1A, 4A.

When 1,300 pro-lifers rallied in Waco on April 11, 1992, the Trib covered it on Page 1, while giving equal play to a lone pro-choice counterdemonstrator in an accompanying sidebar article. This care to include both points of view was no doubt conceived of as balanced reporting. But the next month, when the Trib offered a look inside a Houston abortion clinic similar to a proposed operation in Waco, news “balance” suffered. The lead article was given over to the comments of Planned Parenthood, the clinic’s proprietor, with no counterpoint from any pro-choicers. A sidebar told the story of “Teresa,” a 20-year-old mother of three, who said she felt “good,” “satisfied” and “relieved” after having her fourth pregnancy terminated. Another sidebar told how the clinic’s medical director enjoys his work “because I don’t know of anything else medically that I can do that helps people so much.” Finally, a third sidebar gave a bit of the other side: “the proud mother of two young sons” told how, as an unwed pregnant teenager, she had felt a Planned Parenthood counselor was “pushing” her to get an abortion; how her parents were shocked but supportive when she turned to them for help; and how they and she are so glad she chose to give birth. But nowhere in the four articles was there any comment from a pro-life activist, nor any suggestion that the law should intervene to protect the unborn children of those who would rather not give birth.     ———Bechetta Jackson, “1,300 take part in anti-abortion rally,” Waco Tribune-Herald, April 12, 1992, p. 1A; “Baylor student wants people to see all sides of issue,” April 12, 1992, p. 1A; Jackson, “A look through the door: Planned abortion clinic in Waco would be similar to Houston’s,” May 24, 1992, p. 1A; “One woman’s story: ‘I just got real scared,’ ” May 24, 1992, p. 1A; “Mother resisted abortion ‘pitch,’ ” May 24, 1992, p. 12A; and “Doctor enjoys his work,” May 24, 1992, p. 13A. [back]

[7]  “Pro-Lifers Win Platform Fight,” Associated Press report in Chattanooga Free Press, Aug. 6, 1996, p. A1; Emery P. Dalesio, “Helms Says He Opposes Abortion, but Understands ‘Pro-Choice’ View,” Associated Press dispatch, Aug. 5, 1996.  When Woodward’s story was committed to the AP archives, even the Helms quote was omitted, leaving Reed’s “We’re just absolutely thrilled” as the story’s sole pro-life comment.     ———Woodward, “Dole Rips Out Abortion ‘Tolerance’ Plank in Bid for Party Peace,” Associated Press dispatch, Aug. 6, 1996. [back]

[8]  “100 Demonstrators Arrested At Abortion Clinic,” Associated Press report in Killeen Daily Herald, Aug. 21, 1991, p.10-B. [back]

[9]  C. Everett Koop, “Why Defend Partial-Birth Abortion?” The New York Times, Sept. 26, 1996, p. A-27. [back]

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Copyright © 2006 by Karl Spence. All rights reserved.
Revised: 10/10/11 20:58:27 -0500.