CBS 60 Minutes on Partial-Birth Abortions: A Critique



June 10, 1996 

This memo is a critique of the CBS News 60 Minutes report titled “Partial-Birth

Abortion,” which was broadcast on June 2, 1996.  Amy Cunningham was the producer for the report.  Ed Bradley was the correspondent.

Ms. Cunningham originally contacted the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) on April 10, and requested that NRLC staffpersons be made available for an on-camera interview.  However, NRLC was acutely aware that past 60 Minutes stories on abortion-related subjects had followed pro-abortion advocacy groups’ “line” on each subject with almost complete fidelity, and had employed misleading interviewing and editing techniques to enhance these propagandistic presentations.  [Material on some of these past shows is available on request.]  Therefore, NRLC declined to provide any staffperson to speak on-camera for 60 Minutes.

Nevertheless, NRLC staff engaged in extensive and time-consuming efforts to make sure that Ms. Cunningham and her co-workers had the documents and experts they needed to present an accurate and balanced report on partial-birth abortions, if they wished to do so.   NRLC (1) in mid-April provided many key documents to Ms. Cunningham;

(2) subsequently, sent Ms. Cunningham seven issue-specific memoranda on various disputed issues, with pertinent documentation on those issues (some of these memos were in response to written inquires from Ms. Cunningham, some not); and (3) referred Ms. Cunningham to a number of medical authorities with expertise on the disputed issues.

[This critique refers to a number of the memoranda and documents sent by NRLC to Ms. Cunningham over a period of more than seven weeks during the preparation of the show.  Copies of any or all of these documents, and of the memoranda from Ms. Cunningham acknowledging their receipt and/or raising various questions, are available on request.]

Regrettably, the contents of the final 60 Minutes report confirms the validity of NRLC’s initial decision to regard 60 Minutes as an entertainment enterprise with journalistic trappings, with a strong proclivity for ideologically driven distortion. 

60 Minutes clearly approached the subject of partial-birth abortions with a pre-determined concept that the “white hats” in its story would be two specific women who obtained late-term abortions from the late Dr. James McMahon.  Every other aspect of the issue was twisted or distorted to “complement” the accounts of these two women (one of whom had not even received a partial-birth abortion). 

Certainly, 60 Minutes‘ framing of the issue dovetailed neatly with President Clinton’s line, attempting to cast the entire debate in terms of unusual cases involving women whose babies were afflicted with very grave disorders, while providing absolutely no information on the alternative forms of medical intervention with which the overwhelming majority of medical specialists would resolve such cases.  (60 Minutes began its report by noting that Bob Dole favors the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and that Clinton had vetoed it.)

In order to keep the apparently pre-determined story line “clean” and relatively uncomplicated, 60 Minutesignored highly pertinent documented statements by two physicians (Dr. James McMahon and Dr. Martin Haskell) who had, between them, performed thousands of partial-birth abortions.  60 Minutes also allowed pro-abortion spokespersons to make unrefuted statements that blatantly contradicted authoritative documents that were in 60 Minutes’ hands. 

We will now proceed to address some of the distortions in the 60 Minutes report.

!  One of the two women that 60 Minutes chose as centerpieces for its entire report on partial-birth abortions, Viki Wilson, in fact did not have a partial-birth abortion– and 60 Minutes knew it.

The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act would prohibit (except to save a mother’s life) performance of a partial-birth abortion, defined in the bill as “an abortion in which the person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery.”   [emphasis added]

Viki Wilson was in her ninth month of pregnancy when she received an abortion from Dr. James McMahon.  According to Ms. Wilson’s testimony, the death of her daughter Abigail was induced inside the womb (“my daughter died with dignity inside my womb”), after which the baby’s body was delivered head first.  In an April 24 memo to 60 Minutes producer Amy Cunningham, NRLC pointed out that the procedure used in this case was not a partial-birth abortion and would not be banned by the bill.  The NRLC memo also noted that “at the Nov. 17 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Hatch suggested to Ms. Wilson that her abortion was not a ‘partial-birth abortion’ as defined by the bill.  Ms. Wilson responded, “It is true if you take it verbatim.  You know, my daughter did die in the womb…”  This exchange from the Senate hearing record was attached to the NRLC memo.  [Senate hearing record, p. 167]  

60 Minutes never shared with its viewers the fact that Viki Wilson had a procedure different from a partial-birth abortion.  Indeed, Ed Bradley told them otherwise: 

BRADLEY [to Wilson]:  When did you become aware for the first time that the procedure you underwent might be–might be outlawed?  [transcript, page 3]

Why did 60 Minutes choose Viki Wilson as a subject when 60 Minutes knew that she had not received the procedure banned by the bill?  NRLC can only speculate that it may have been because Viki Wilson, a registered nurse, comes across as articulate and authoritative on camera, and it allowed the showing of a graphic close-up photograph of baby Abigail Wilson, whose brain had developed partly outside of her skull.

!  60 Minutes presented entirely one-sided medical information.  Multiple medical experts who offered perspectives inconsistent with 60 Minutes’ “story line” were excluded from on-camera interviews.

In what was ostensibly a journalistic examination of controversies surround a “medical procedure,” 60 Minutes put exactly one physician on camera:  Dr. Warren Hern, who makes his living performing late-term abortions (but not partial-birth abortions) in Boulder, Colorado.

60 Minutes ignored written and verbal information from highly credentialed medical authorities who argued that forms of medical intervention other than partial-birth abortion– alternatives that cause no added health risk to the mother, but which are non-lethal to the baby– are employed by the vast majority of medical specialists who encounter medical conditions such as those highlighted in the 60 Minutes piece.   The viewer was denied this information, which although highly pertinent, conflicted with 60 Minutes’ theme that politicians and pro-life activists are seeking to ban a form of medical intervention which some women desperately need.

(HR 1833 explicitly allows a partial-birth abortion to be performed if necessary to save a mother’s life.  It is doubtful that any such case exists– none has been produced by President Clinton– but the exception is written into the bill.  60 Minutes never mentioned the exception.)

Dr. Pamela E. Smith, an ob/gyn and director of medical education at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, testified in support of the bill before both the House and Senate committees.  Dr. Nancy G. Romer, an ob/gyn from Dayton, Ohio, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding several of her healthy patients who received partial-birth abortions from Dr. Martin Haskell.  Both Dr. Smith and Dr. Romer were interviewed by telephone by 60 Minutes Associate Producer Lisa Binns.  In response to inquiries from NRLC, Drs. Smith and Romer said they found their telephone exchanges with Ms. Binns to be quite unsatisfactory.  They felt that Ms. Binns had a “story line” she was working on, and that she was not receptive to their medical perspectives that the partial-birth abortion procedure is unnecessary and/or dangerous to women.  Dr. Smith sent Ms. Binns a memo, dated May 17, which is attached.  Dr. Romer sent NRLC a memo, dated May 28, summarizing her communications with Ms. Binns, which is also attached.  Both Dr. Smith and Dr. Romer were willing to be interviewed on camera, but neither was invited to do so.

60 Minutes producer conducted a lengthy telephone interview with Congressman Tom Coburn (R-Ok.), a family practitioner and obstetrician who was heavily involved in the congressional debate over the issue.   Dr. Coburn was willing to go on camera, but he told NRLC that the perspective that he offered to the producer on the telephone did not seem to be what she was looking for, and he was not invited to be interviewed on camera. 

Following the broadcast, Dr. Coburn sent a letter to 60 Minutes, in which he said, “From my experience as a physician and having delivered more than 3000 babies in my lifetime, I know that it is never necessary to take the life of a child in the process of being born…. I believe ’60 Minutes’ did a disservice to its viewing audience by declining to interview any doctor who opposed the use of partial-birth abortion.”

As far as we can tell, 60 Minutes never contacted any of several other highly credentialed medical experts who are frequently quoted in literature circulated by NRLC and other supporters of the bill, which were provided to 60 Minutes. 

For example, in mid-April NRLC gave 60 Minutes a letter in which Prof. Watson Bowes of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill addressed various disputed issues involving partial-birth abortions.    Prof. Bowes is a professor of both obstetrics and pediatrics, one of the world’s top authorities in fetal/maternal medicine, and the co-editor of the Obstetric and Gynecological Survey.  Prof. Bowes said he was never contacted by 60 Minutes. 

(Also recommended to 60 Minutes, to no avail, were Dr. Harlan Giles of the Medical College of Pennsylvania, who performs abortions up until “viability” but testified in favor of a ban on Dr. Haskell’s method; Dr. Anthony Levatino, an ob/gyn and lawyer who formerly performed late-term dismemberment abortions; and ob/gyn Prof. Bernard Nathanson, a founding director of NARAL and former abortionist who wrote a letter published in theWall Street Journal defending the bill on medical and ethical grounds.)

It was appropriate for 60 Minutes to interview Dr. Hern, who wrote the textbook Abortion Practice.  However, Dr. Hern is well known as a longtime activist against any limitations whatever on late-term abortions and as a vehement pro-abortion polemicist, so 60 Minutes was heavily stacking the deck by making him the sole voice of medical authority in its report.  And, as explained below, 60 Minutes misled its viewers by allowing Dr. Hern to disavow his most damning indictment of partial-birth abortions, without challenge from 60 Minutes.

!  Dr. Hern accused the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Helen Alvare of misquoting him.  60 Minutes knew better, but let Dr. Hern get away with it. 

On multiple occasions, 60 Minutes producer Amy Cunningham was provided with copies of  an article about partial-birth abortions that appeared in the November 20, 1995 edition of American Medical News, in which Dr. Warren Hern said:

“I have very serious reservations about this procedure”. . . . of the procedure in question, he says, “You really can’t defend it.  I’m not going to tell somebody else that they should not do this procedure.  But I’m not going to do it…. I would dispute any statement that this is the safest procedure to use.”  [emphasis added] 

But here’s what 60 Minutes viewers heard [transcript, page 6]: 

HELEN ALVARE:  As Dr. Warren Hern has said, he would dispute that it’s the safest procedure to use in any situation. 

DR. HERN:  What I said is that the medical community has not determined the safest way to perform late abortions. 

ED BRADLEY:  So when she [Alvare] says that you said it’s not the safest procedure, what would you say to her? 

DR. HERN:  Horsepuckey!  She’s misquoting me.  That is not what I said.

Ed Bradley then shifted to another subject, giving the viewer the impression that Ms. Alvare had invented the statement attributed to Dr. Hern.  60 Minutes made no reference whatever to what Dr. Hern actually said in the American Medical News interview– which was what Ms. Alvare quoted him as saying.

In response to an inquiry from NRLC, American Medical News said:  (1)  Dr. Hern made the quoted remarks in a tape-recorded interview; and (2) Dr. Hern confirmed the accuracy of the quotes before American Medical News ran the story.

60 Minutes’ performance on this point was completely unfair to Helen Alvare, and would warrant a failing mark in a high-school journalism class.

!  60 Minutes provided a distorted picture by adopting an ideologically dictated “filter” that excluded most data on typical partial-birth abortions.

One central theme of the 60 Minutes “story line” was that partial-birth abortions are never performed “in the third trimester” except on babies who are afflicted with grave medical disorders.  This theme was drummed home again and again by interviewees, and reinforced by correspondent Ed Bradley. For example: 

BRADLEY:  … Viki Wilson, who says the congressional debate over this bill has been full of misinformation. 

MS.  WILSON:  In terms of misinformation, the biggest one is that they are– there are thousands and thousands of these abortions being done in the third trimester on normal babies with healthy– or healthy mothers carrying normal babies.  Well, if that’s the case, where are they?  [emphasis added] 

BRADLEY:  Helen Alvare wouldn’t tell us where they are, but she insists they are there.  [transcript, page 4]

                                                         ******* 

BRADLEY:   Are there doctors in this country who would perform this procedure on a healthy baby in the third trimester?

DR. HERN:  I don’t know of any.  I don’t know of any.  [transcript, page 6]

This refrain was misleading in two respects.  First of all, as far as can be determined, the substantial majority of partial-birth abortions are performed late in the second trimester, before the 27-week mark, but usually after 20 weeks (42 months).   There is compelling evidence– recited in detail in other NRLC documents, and provided to 60 Minutes— that the overwhelming majority of these pre-week-27 partial-birth abortions are performed for “social” reasons.  (For example, regarding the partial-birth abortions he performs from 20-24 weeks, Dr. Martin Haskell said that 80% were “purely elective.”  60 Minutes quoted this single statement, only to immediately dismiss it by saying, “But Dr. Haskell doesn’t perform any abortions after the second trimester.”)

As NRLC cautioned producer Amy Cunningham in a May 28 memo, “Critics of HR 1833 are working overtime to artificially constrict the debate to ‘third trimester’ abortions, in order to evade discussion of the many partial-birth abortions performed– mostly for social reasons– during the late second trimester.  But a ‘third trimester’ demarcation, while in some respects convenient for the White House and its allies, is without legal or medicaljustification…. In short, whether the question is viewed in terms of the language of HR 1833, or the constitutional doctrine of the Supreme Court, or the capacity of babies born prematurely to survive, there is no non-ideological basis for focusing only on ‘third-trimester’ partial-birth abortions.”

Nevertheless, 60 Minutes adopted the pro-abortion lobby’s “third trimester” ideological construct, and then used that manufactured “filter” to justify virtually ignoring data on the greater number of partial-birth abortions performed after 20 weeks for social reasons.   Having narrowed its spotlight in this ideologically dictated manner, 60 Minutes then took statements made by pro-life sources regarding partial-birth abortions in general, and quoted them as if they had been made within “third trimester” framework adopted by 60 Minutes, in order to make it appear that the pro-life sources were making exaggerated claims. 

For example, when Viki Wilson referred to purported claims by unnamed supporters of the bill that “thousands and thousands of these abortions being done in the third trimester on… healthy mothers carrying normal babies,” Bradley added, “Helen Alvare wouldn’t tell us where they are, but she insists they are there.”  But Ms. Alvare has never said that “thousands and thousands” of partial-birth abortions had been performed in the third trimester on “healthy mothers carrying normal babies.”  As discussed in the next section, however, Dr. McMahon did indeed use the method to kill healthy babies of healthy mothers even in the third trimester– a fact concealed by 60 Minutes.

There is no legal justification for 60 Minutes’ adoption of the “third trimester” construct.  HR 1833 bans use of the partial-birth abortion procedure at any point in pregnancy; the bill  contains no reference to gestational age whatever.   Moreover, under the Supreme Court’s doctrine, “viability” is regarded as the constitutionally significant demarcation.  In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court explicitly disavowed any “trimester framework” of Roe, and reaffirmed that “viability” is (in the Court’s view) the constitutionally significant demarcation.  

According to the landmark 1991 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study by Heck, et al, at the neonatal centers covered in that study, babies born at 23 weeks had on average a 23% chance of survival, rising to 34% at 24 weeks.  Therefore, “viability” is now present in many cases a full three weeks before the “third trimester.”  Thus, as explained in NRLC’s May 28 memo to Ms. Cunningham, there is no medical justification for a “third trimester” demarcation.

Even at 20 weeks, the baby is seven inches long on average.  At a March 21 congressional hearing, leading experts testified that the baby at this point is very sensitive to painful stimuli– another issue left unexamined by 60 Minutes.  

!  Even with respect to third-trimester partial-birth abortions, 60 Minutes deliberately ignored documentation that conflicted with its story line.

Both of the women featured by 60 Minutes, and all five of the women who appeared with President Clinton at his April 10 veto event, received abortions from the late Dr. James McMahon.  In 1995, Dr. McMahon submitted to the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee a graph and explanation that explicitly showed that he aborted healthy (“not flawed”) babies even in the third trimester (after 26 weeks of pregnancy). 

This document was repeatedly called to the attention of 60 Minutes producer Amy Cunningham.  (See, for example, NRLC’s memos of May 9 and May 10.  Ms. Cunningham even faxed a copy of Dr. McMahon’s third-trimester graph back to NRLC on May 10, in pursuing an unrelated question regarding Dr. McMahon’s submission.)  But 60 Minutes viewers never learned about what Dr. McMahon actually said on this point– apparently because it conflicted with the 60 Minutes “theme” that “healthy” babies are never aborted “in the third trimester.”

The document (attached) was part of a submission by Dr. McMahon to the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee on June 8, 1995.  It consists of a graph showing the percentage of “flawed” (versus “unflawed”) fetuses aborted by Dr. McMahon, at each week of pregnancy.  (In Dr. McMahon’s lexicon, “flawed” covered fetal disorders from the most trivial to the most profound.)  The graph showed, for example, that at 29 or 30 weeks, one-fourth of the babies aborted by Dr. McMahon had no “flaw” however slight (as pointed out to Ms. Cunningham in a memo dated May 10).

Underneath the graph, Dr. McMahon offered further explanation, as follows:

After 26 weeks, those pregnancies that are not flawed are still non-elective.  They are interrupted because of maternal risk, rape, incest, psychiatric or pediatric indications.

In an interview with Constitution Subcommittee counsel Keri Harrison, Dr. McMahon explained that “pediatric indication” referred to underage mothers, not to any medical condition of the mother or the baby.   (There is substantial documentation that a large fraction of late-term abortions, by Dr. McMahon and others, involve healthy young teenagers who have concealed or denied the pregnancy until the baby is highly developed.)

Despite possession of Dr. McMahon’s graph and statement, 60 Minutes misled viewers into believing that the partial-birth abortion procedure would never be employed in the “third trimester” for anything other than acute medical necessity.

!  On other points as well, 60 Minutes ignored primary source documents in order to diminish viewer revulsion at the partial-birth procedure itself, and maximize sympathy for the women who obtained late-term abortions.

As 60 Minutes correctly noted, the controversy over partial-birth abortions really began with the distribution of paper by Dr. Martin Haskell, explaining step-by-step how to perform the procedure.  60 Minutes showed a picture of the Haskell paper, but never quoted from the paper, either as to the reasons for which Dr. Haskell performs the procedure (“the author routinely performs this procedure on all patients 20 through 24 weeks”), or as to the manner in which the procedure is done.

Ms. Alvare was allowed to briefly describe the procedure– but subsequently, 60 Minutes artfully left the reader in doubt that any real procedure existed such as that described by Ms. Alvare– primarily by allowing Dr. Hern to imply that the description and the term partial-birth abortion were somehow inaccurate, without ever being forced to explain how.

Of course, if 60 Minutes had been primarily interested in giving its viewers a fair picture of what the controversy is about, 60 Minutes could have quoted Dr. Haskell’s explanation of how the procedure is performed.  For example:

“[T]he surgeon takes a pair of blunt curved Metzenbaum scissors in the right hand.  He carefully advances the tip, curved down, along the spine and under his middle finger until he feels it contact the base of the skull under the tip of his middle finger…. the surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull or into the foramen magnum.  Having safely entered the skull, he spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening.  The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents.”

Indeed, if the subject had been, say, open-womb fetal surgery instead of late-term abortion, it seems likely that 60 Minutes would have utilized computer-generated graphics or animation to show how a partial-birth abortion is performed (as ABC News has done).

60 Minutes also chose to ignore the single most detailed document on the abortions performed by Dr. James McMahon:  Dr. McMahon’s own submission to the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee, which is published in the congressional hearing record and provided to 60 Minutes.    

Dr. McMahon’s submission contained a detailed breakdown of a “series” of over 2,000 of these abortions.   Of this 2,000-plus “series,” Dr. McMahon classified only 9% as involving “maternal [health] indications” (of which the most common was “depression”).   Another 56% were for “fetal flaws,” and these ranged from minor to grave; the most common was Down Syndrome.   Over one-third of McMahon’s 2,000-abortion “series” involved neither fetal nor maternal indications, however trivial.  As noted above, in a separate part of the submission, Dr. McMahon described the broad circumstances under which he used the procedure even in the third trimester. 

Despite extensive references to this material in NRLC’s memos to Ms. Cunningham, 60 Minutes made no reference whatever to Dr. McMahon’s submission to the House Judiciary Committee.

In an interview with American Medical News in 1993, Dr. McMahon admitted using the procedure for “elective” abortions.  He explained:

 

[A]fter 20 weeks where it frankly is a child to me, I really agonize over it, because the potential is so imminently there.  I think, “Gee, it’s too bad that this child couldn’t be adopted.”  On the other hand, I have another position, which I think is superior in the hierarchy of questions, and that is: “Who owns the child?” It’s got to be the mother.

60 Minutes made no reference to this interview or to any other published interview with Dr. McMahon.

                                                                    Attachments:

“Transcript of CBS 60 Minutes, June 2, 1996, Partial-Birth Abortion,” by Burrelle’s Information Services.

Memoranda from NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson to 60 Minutes Producer Amy Cunningham, dated May 10, May 28.  [Other dates available on request.]

“Percentage Flawed Fetus Vs. LOG [Length of Gestation],” graph and explanation submitted by Dr. James McMahon to the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee on June 8, 1995.

“Outlawing Abortion Method,” by Diane Gianelli, American Medical News, Nov. 20, 1995.

Contains quotes from Drs. Warren Hern, Martin Haskell, and James McMahon.

Memo from Nancy G. Romer, M.D., to NRLC Legislative Director Douglas Johnson, May 28, 1996, regarding two telephone interviews of Dr. Romer by 60 Minutes.

Memo from Pamela E. Smith, M.D., to 60 Minutes Associate Producer Lisa Binns, May 17, 1996, following up on telephone interview of Dr. Smith.

Letter from Congressman Tom Coburn, M.D. to 60 Minutes, June 7, 1996.