What follows is a release issued on November 29, 2004, by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) in Washington, D.C. For further information or documentation, call 202-626-8820 or send e-mail to Legfederal@aol.com, or go to the "Media Myths" page by clicking here.
ASSOCIATED PRESS AND OTHER MEDIA DISTORT ROE V. WADE
AND PUBLIC OPINION ON ABORTION POLICY
WASHINGTON (November 29, 2004) -- Nearly thirty-two years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand, some major organs of the news media continue to misreport key elements of what the Court has done, with the Associated Press being the latest offender, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) charged today.
The AP reported yesterday (November 28, 2004) that in an AP-sponsored poll by Ipsos-Public Affairs (Nov. 19-21), 59 percent of respondents said they thought President Bush should nominate Supreme Court justices who would uphold Roe v. Wade, while 31 percent wanted nominees who would overturn Roe. However, these results were obtained only after respondents were first presented by the pollster with the erroneous summary that Roe v. Wade made abortion legal "in the first three months of pregnancy."
NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson commented:
"It is way past time for the news media to stop distorting the real terms of Roe v. Wade. Today's AP story is another example of the news media using two forms of distortion to paint a greatly exaggerated picture of public support for the Supreme Court's abortion policy -- first by minimizing the actual scope of the Roe v. Wade ruling, and second by distorting what it would mean to 'overturn' Roe.
"The AP story used both devices. First, the AP's pollster described a mythical Roe v. Wade. Second, the interpretative story -- like countless earlier stories in major news media -- implied that overturning Roe v. Wade would be contrary to having abortion 'legal in at least some cases.'
"These distortions greatly stack the deck. The real Roe v. Wade allows absolutely no limits on reasons for abortion until nearly six months into pregnancy -- which is a policy that is supported by, at most, 20 percent of the public. Poll after poll shows that 70 to 80 percent of Americans say they favor limitations on abortion that are not permitted under the real Roe v. Wade. In order to permit these limits to be enacted, Roe v. Wade must be changed by the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the effect would be to allow elected lawmakers to place limits on abortion, including a ban on partial-birth abortion.
"The public deserves from the news media not the continued propagation of discredited myths, but a more candid discussion of the effects of Roe and the legal effects of changing Roe."
THE "FIRST THREE MONTHS" MYTH
In its new poll, the AP presented poll respondents with this highly misleading characterization of Roe v. Wade: "The 1973 Supreme Court ruling called Roe v. Wade made abortion in the first three months of pregnancy legal."
The real Roe decision legalized abortion for any reason up to "viability." "Viability" refers to the capacity of the baby to survive independently of the mother (with technological assistance), which is reached in the latter portion of the second trimester (about five and one-half months). Roughly ten percent of all reported abortions, or approximately 130,000 a year, occur AFTER the first three months. (The Court also required states to allow abortion for "health" reasons even AFTER "viability." The Court defined "health" to include "all factors -- physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age -- relevant to the well-being of the patient.")
The Supreme Court itself has emphatically repudiated the "first three months" misconception again and again. For example, in the 1992 Casey ruling, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, and explicitly held that the abortion "right" applied with equal force at every point prior to "viability," adding, "We reject the trimester framework, which we do not consider to be part of the essential holding of Roe."
In the Supreme Court's most recent abortion ruling, in 2000, the Court even struck down a state ban on partial-birth abortion, which is a method used in the fifth month and later, as inconsistent with Roe v. Wade. At least 68 percent of the public favors a ban on partial-birth abortion.
Characterizing Roe as legalizing abortion "in the first three months" or "in the first trimester" was formally declared erroneous in the early 1980s by senior news executives of the Associated Press, The New York Times, and other major organs of the news media. A directive by Louis Boccardi, then executive editor of the Associated Press, dated September 4, 1981, said, "The [Roe v. Wade] decision is often misreported, even now. . . . For summary purposes, you can say the court legalized abortion in 1973. . . . Thus, it's wrong to say only that the court approved abortion in the first three months. It did that, but more." (See http://www.nrlc.org/abortion/Roe_scope_Associated_Press.pdf)
The National Desk of the New York Times specified in 1982 that "brief references to the Supreme Court's 1973 decision on abortion should say simply that the Court legalized abortion," because "the phrase 'in the first three months of pregnancy' might be incorrectly interpreted to mean that abortions in the last six months of pregnancy remain illegal." (See http://www.nrlc.org/abortion/Roe_scope_New_York_Times.pdf)
The "first three months" error has appeared several times in the Washington Post over the last couple of years, and has been the subject of at least two corrections. On the other hand, a sidebar by a Washington Post medical writer summarized the real scope of Roe v. Wade with admirable clarity. Read it here:
THE OVERTURNING-EQUALS-TOTAL-BAN MYTH
This week's AP story implied that the effect of overturning Roe would be to make all abortions illegal, noting that "polling consistently has found a clear majority of people who think abortion should be legal at least in some cases," a statement which the story coupled with the majority expressing support for the AP version of "Roe v. Wade." Other recent press reports have incorporated this misconception in more explicit forms. For example, ABC World News Tonight on November 28 referred to the prospect of "a U.S. Supreme Court that will outlaw abortion."
In reality, however, even if the Supreme Court completely overturned Roe v. Wade, it would not "outlaw abortion." In fact, if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, that action alone would not make any abortion illegal. Rather, the effect of overturning Roe v. Wade would be to allow (but not require) elected lawmakers to decide what degree of legal protection should apply to unborn children. In September, 2004, the leading pro-abortion litigation organization, the Center for Reproductive Rights, issued a report ("What If Roe Fell?") that contained the following accurate observation: "A Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would not by itself make abortion illegal in the United States. Instead, a reversal of Roe would remove federal constitutional protection for a woman's right to choose and give the states the power to set abortion policy."
Pro-abortion groups fear this because polls consistently show majorities of 70 percent and more for limitations on abortion that are clearly not permitted by the real Roe v. Wade.
For example, a Wirthlin Worldwide poll conducted November 2 found that 10 percent said abortion should never be legal, 16 percent said abortion should be legal only to save the mother's life (the position of NRLC), and 29 percent said abortion should be legal only for life, rape, and incest. The total of these three groups -- favoring allowing abortion never or only to save the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest -- was 55%. Another 25 percent said they thought abortion "should be legal for any reason," but only "during the first three months."
"This 25 percent would presumably express support for the mythical Roe v. Wade described in the AP poll question -- but not for the real Roe v. Wade, if they were correctly informed about it," Johnson commented. "The AP poll found that 31% want to overturn Roe even when told it applies to the first three months. If you add the additional 25 percent who say abortion should not be permitted after the three-month point, you are already up to 56 percent. This illustrates how the AP pollster, among others, has stacked the deck and thereby exaggerated support for Roe."
Many other polls have found broad public support for limitations on abortion that are not permitted by the real Roe v. Wade. For example, an April, 2004 Zogby poll found a total of 56 percent who would limit legal abortion to cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest, and another 25 percent said abortion should be legal for any reason but not after three months, for a total of 81 percent support for limits clearly inconsistent with Roe v. Wade.
A large scientific poll of women only, conducted in 2003 by the Center for the Advancement of Women (an organization headed by former Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Faye Wattleton), found that 51 percent took the life-rape-incest-only position, and another 17 percent said they favored greater limits on abortion than currently exist, for a total of 68 percent. Only 30 percent said they thought abortion should be "generally available."
[NOTE: The current Supreme Court is divided 6-to-3 in favor of Roe v. Wade. Some news media continue to repeat that the division on Roe is 5-to-4, although this claim is demonstrably erroneous. Earlier this year, this myth was critiqued by the Annenberg Center's http://www.factcheck.org/. See http://www.nrlc.org/Judicial/FactCheckKerryFuzzyMath.mht ]
For further discussion of the persistence of these and other "media myths" about Roe, see:
|he Hot List Help Support NRLC Human Cloning Documents About NRLC Today's News and Views Abortion NRL News Federal Legislation Voting Records Pregnancy Help Euthanasia Will to Live RU-486 State Affiliates|