Landmines in abortion reporting

landmineThe Washington Post has a religion-heavy article on Nicaragua's therapeutic abortion ban. Until a few weeks ago Nicaragua permitted abortions to be performed on women who had been raped, whose babies were abnormal or who faced medical risk, according to reporter N.C. Aizenman. Abortion opponents claimed that the loophole for therapeutic abortions was being abused. Stories about abortion and the laws that govern it are very difficult to write. Unfortunately, mainstream media don't have an excellent track record with handling the issue fairly. This could be because they are overwhelmingly supportive of abortion on demand. We've discussed this before, needless to say.

Our story today begins with a tragic anecdote about Jazmina Bojorge, a five-months-pregnant woman who died in a hospital there recently. Proponents of legal abortion say she died because the law forbade her from having an abortion to save her life. But the hospital director says that's wrong on two points:

Julio César Flores, director of the hospital, countered that the new legislation, which took effect Nov. 19, hadn't even been signed into law when Bojorge arrived for treatment. Her death, which remains under investigation by Nicaraguan medical authorities, "has nothing to do with the abortion law," he said. "These charges are being made by people who are taking advantage of what happened."

So the director of the hospital says the law wasn't even in effect when she was admitted and that Bojorge's death had nothing to do with the abortion law. So what does the caption that accompanies the story say? It says:

Rosa Rodriguez shows a photo of her daughter, Jazmina Bojorge, who died when denied a therapeutic abortion.

I mean, it's one thing to use an anecdotal lede extremely sympathetic to one side of a contentious debate. It's another thing to use an anecdote that fails to hold water. But to caption the piece with new information that is contradicted in the story takes it to a new level. Yes, some abortion advocates have diagnosed from a distance that the fetus should have been killed to save the life of the mother, but it's not backed up by the medical staff treating her. The caption shouldn't take sides, should it?

The rest of the piece discusses the influence of Roman Catholic and evangelical church leaders, including Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, in pushing for the ban on therapeutic abortion. Let's look at how it characterizes the debate:

On Oct. 6, Obando, [Archbishop Leopoldo] Brenes and various evangelical pastors led tens of thousands of citizens in a march to the National Assembly to demand a repeal of the exception for therapeutic abortions. Legislators obliged, fast-tracking consideration of the ban under procedures normally reserved for national emergencies.

Every major medical society in Nicaragua opposed the proposed ban. Their concerns were echoed by Nicaragua's health minister and a long list of foreign embassies and international organizations such as the U.N. Development Program.

Gee, I wonder what foreign service staff writer N.C. Aizenman wants us to believe here about which side should have been listened to. I love that the foreign agents are unnamed and the addition of the scare phrase "normally reserved for national emergencies." Just in case you didn't get the point that the pro-lifers were bad people. The legal analysis isn't substantiated by any source. You just have to trust the reporter.

nicaragprotestIt would be interesting to see how the reporter would handle the issue if the story were reversed. Let's say the abortion opponents were the foreign influences and the abortion supporters were citizens.

Do you think the story would similarly situate the two sides, nudging the reader to support listening to foreign embassies and ignore the voice of the people?

The Post story fits the pattern for much abortion reportage, though. Mainstream media, as was reported in a Los Angeles Times study 16 years ago, tend to use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates, quote abortion rights advocates more favorably and often than abortion opponents, and ignore stories favorable to abortion opponents. One last paragraph to highlight:

Advocates for greater access to abortion argued that even that law was too restrictive, prompting an estimated 32,500 women to get illegal and potentially unsafe abortions in Nicaragua every year and accounting for 16 percent of the more than 100 maternal deaths here annually, according to a 2002 ministry study. By contrast, the Health Ministry recorded only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year.

A law banning abortion prompts people to have illegal abortions in the same manner a law banning rape prompts people to rape illegally. You may personally think either action is fine, and you may personally think either action should be legal and protected. But that's not the point. Neither rape nor abortion is something an individual must do. Making either action illegal does not force the illegal action.

It's also interesting that Aizenman says there were only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year. A BBC report last week -- very heavy on the religious angles -- says there were 30,000 therapeutic abortions last year. I wonder if something was lost in translation.

Aizenman should follow the lead of other reporters who've successfully tackled the difficult subject: Keep personal opinions out, pick anecdotes carefully, quote liberally and describe situations in the sparest way possible. Otherwise these abortion stories will continue to be landmines.

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