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Did woman really survive abortion?

Once again (shock!), a movie marketed to religious conservatives is making a splash at the box office. This time it's "October Baby," about a woman who survives a late-term abortion.

The subject matter drew the attention of The New York Times, which this week featured the film in a front-page news story.

From the start, the Times — in a passive-aggressive sort of way — shows its skepticism of the notion that someone survived an abortion attempt and lived to tell about it.

This is the headline on the online version of the story:

Film Inspired by 'Abortion Survivor' Is Quiet Hit

The quote marks scream: This may or may not have happened.

The top of the story:

As mass entertainment goes, the abortion debate does not typically count as good Saturday-night date movie fare; the subject rarely makes it to the mainstream multiplex. But at a time when the issue is once again causing agitation in political circles, a small film, “October Baby,” about a woman who learns she is, as the movie puts it, a “survivor of a failed abortion,” is making a dent at theaters across the country.

The movie, the first feature by a pair of filmmaking brothers from Birmingham, Ala., opened the same weekend as the chart-topping “Hunger Games,” but with the backing of evangelical groups and churches, “October Baby” managed to open at No. 8 and, through Sunday, had made $2.8 million, more than three times its production budget. It is expected to move to more than 500 screens on April 13.

Distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films and the Sony-owned Provident Films, which specializes in socially-conservative religious fare, it benefited from the kind of grass-roots religion-focused marketing (enlisting Bible and prayer groups and ministries) that has carried their other Christian-oriented movies, like “Fireproof” and “Courageous,” to box-office success.

Again, there are quote marks, this time around "survivor of a failed abortion."

Later, there's this intriguing paragraph:

It was inspired by the story of Gianna Jessen, who says she was delivered alive at a California clinic after a late-term saline-injection abortion. As a paid speaker at anti-abortion events she tells of her struggles and medical conditions. (The film doesn’t get into the science, but a 1985 study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology examined  33,000 suction curettage abortions and found a failure rate of 2.3 per 1,000 at the 12-weeks or earlier.)

Did you notice that phrasing? Who says she was ... 

My journalistic question is this: Are there facts to back up the woman's claim or not? Medical records? Is anyone claiming that her story is not true? Can any medical experts or journals speak to the question of whether, and how many, babies survive late-term abortions?

In the parenthetical statement, the Times gives a statistic on the abortion failure rate at 12 weeks or earlier. But how does that relate to a late-term abortion? On an anti-abortion website, one blogger noted:

Duh. Jessen was not “12-weeks or earlier.”

Later in the piece, the paper's skepticism extends to a reference to crisis pregnancy centers. Note the term placed in front of that phrase:

The Erwin brothers said they had earmarked 10 percent of the movie’s profits for a charity they founded, Every Life Is Beautiful, which supports adoption and so-called crisis pregnancy centers.

So-called, as in, "We ain't buying it."

There seems to be less skepticism in relaying a pro-abortion group's concern about the other side's extreme message:

Given the links to these groups, the abortion rights organization Naral Pro-Choice America contends that the film is tied to an extreme anti-abortion message. A spokesman, Ted Miller, added that his group was “concerned that some proceeds from this film could be going to organizations that may intentionally mislead women about their health-care options.” The film’s credits include a list of anti-abortion Web sites, some in the guise of therapeutic resources, Naral said.

It would be nice to know which websites appear in the credits, and what services they provide, so that readers can make their own judgment on their therapeutic benefit, or not.

Of course, the Times notes the timing of the film:

Though “October Baby” arrives at a moment when reproductive rights and women’s sexual health are again part of a robust national debate, its makers say they weren’t acting with a political agenda.

(That national debate, of course, does not include religious liberty concerns.)

All in all, however, this is not a terrible news story. In fact, it provides ample opportunity for the major players — including the filmmakers — to discuss their perspectives in their own words. That's always nice.

It's just that the piece, as the anti-abortion blogger referenced above put it, has the feel of an "anthropologist visiting some far place peopled by exotic natives."

I'd love feedback from GetReligion readers. Are the scare quotes used in this story appropriate or not? Did the Times handle the overall subject fairly? Was I too harsh in my assessment?

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