Discredited Myths About Partial-Birth Abortion
Go of Them
By Douglas Johnson
NRLC Federal Legislative Director
September 15, 2003
[Note to reader: Copies of any of the articles or other documents cited
below, if not available on the internet at a location specified below, are
available on request to NRLC at 202-626-8820 or
Before long, Congress is expected to complete action on the Partial-Birth
Abortion Ban Act, a bill that National Right to Life helped to initiate in
1995. President Bush will sign the bill into law.
When these events occur, we can expect to see a new wave of news coverage
about partial-birth abortion. We can hope that this press coverage will be
accurate and balanced -- but based on past experience, there is reason to
fear that some of it will incorporate persistent myths about partial-birth
During the early years of the national debate over partial-birth abortion,
in 1995 and 1996, most major organs of the news media accepted the
fabrications of pro-abortion advocacy groups as unvarnished fact.
In recent years, much of the news coverage has been more accurate and
balanced. Still, some journalists are so attached to certain myths about
partial-birth abortion that they just won't let them go -- even after they
have been thoroughly discredited by other journalists, and even after they
have been forcefully repudiated by leading spokespersons for the abortion
industry. Worse, some of the offenders, when they are challenged for
disseminating long-debunked misinformation, simply restate the
misinformation without in any way addressing the substance of the challenge,
or fail to respond at all. This article describes several recent episodes.
From the time that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban
Act was first introduced in June, 1995, until early 1997, the leading
pro-abortion advocacy groups vigorously asserted that the abortion method
that the bill would ban was employed only hundreds of times annually, and
only or nearly only in medically acute circumstances.
Here are just two samples of such claims; innumerable others could be
"The procedure, dilation and extraction (D&X),
is extremely rare and done only in cases when the woman's
life is in danger or in cases of extreme fetal abnormality."
(Planned Parenthood of America news release, November 1, 1995).
"This particular procedure is used only in about
500 cases per year, generally after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and most often
when there is a severe fetal anomaly or maternal health problem detected
late in pregnancy." (National Abortion Federation
factsheet, downloaded February 27, 1997)
From the beginning, NRLC and congressional sponsors of the bill vigorously
challenged these claims and provided documentation -- mainly, statements by
abortionists in their own writings or in interviews with various
publications -- that showed that the partial-birth abortion method was
employed thousands of times annually, mostly on babies without health
disorders who were being carried by healthy mothers. The
very first NRLC factsheet sent to reporters on the issue, on June 21, 1995,
is posted on the NRLC website
(NRLC opposes the use of abortion -- whether
partial-birth abortion or any other method -- on
babies who have serious disorders. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act would
permit the partial-birth abortion method to be used only if it was truly
necessary to save a mother's life, and not
as a form of pre-natal euthanasia. However, in asserting that most
partial-birth abortions are performed only when either the mother or the
baby had a grave disorder, pro-abortion groups were clearly attempting to
undercut support for the bill among the sizeable group of lawmakers and
citizens who support abortion only in "hard"
beginning, NRLC and other bill supporters often cited the explicit
statements of Dr. James McMahon, who developed the partial-birth abortion
method, and Dr. Martin Haskell, who drew the method to public attention by
an instructional paper in 1992 that explained in detail how to perform the
For example, in 1993, Haskell told
American Medical News that 80% of his partial-birth abortions were
(He performed hundreds annually.)
McMahon submitted to the House Judiciary Committee a document that showed
that in one series of about 2,000 such abortions that he performed, only 9%
were performed for "maternal"
health reasons, and of that group, the most common reason was
said that used the method even during the final three months of pregnancy
on women who were physically healthy and whose babies were normal, if he
thought there were "psychiatric"
reasons, or if the mother was especially young.
Even though such straight-from-the-horse's-mouth
documentation was repeatedly made available to the media when the bill was
first introduced in 1995, the pro-abortion lobby calculated that many
journalists would readily accept the claim that the method was used only
very rarely and only in acute medical circumstances. They were not
disappointed. The abortion lobby's claims were
adopted and reported -- not as disputed claims, but as fact -- countless
times by major U.S. broadcast and print news outlets, including The New
York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Los
Angeles Times, Time, ABC News, National Public Radio, and many,
But by late 1996 and early 1997, this misinformation campaign collapsed
under the weight of journalistic and congressional investigations. I will
cite just a few of these sources here.
On September 15, 1996, the Record (Bergen-Hackensack, New Jersey)
published a report by staff writer Ruth Padawer, based on separate
interviews with two abortionists at a single abortion clinic in Englewood,
who independently told her that they perform over 1,500 partial-birth
abortions annually in that facility -- triple the nationwide figure given
out by pro-abortion advocacy and industry groups. As to why they performed
these procedures, the Record reported what the abortionists said:
"We have an occasional amnio abnormality, but it's
a minuscule amount,"
said one of the doctors at Metropolitan Medical, an assessment confirmed by
another doctor there. "Most are Medicaid patients,
black and white, and most are for elective, not medical, reasons: people who
didn't realize, or didn't care, how far along they were. Most are
The September 17, 1996 edition of the Washington Post
contained the results of an investigation conducted by reporters Barbara
Vobejda and David M. Brown, M.D., who interviewed several doctors (not those
in New Jersey), and concluded:
in most cases where the procedure is used, the physical health of the woman
whose pregnancy is being terminated is not in jeopardy. . . . Instead, the
patients tend to be young, low-income women, often poorly educated or naive,
whose reasons for waiting so long to end their pregnancies are rarely
Finally, the abortion lobby's
misinformation campaign imploded in February, 1997, when Ron Fitzsimmons --
who was then and is now the executive director of the National Coalition of
Abortion Providers (an association of hundreds of abortion providers) --
gave a series of well-publicized interviews. In those interviews,
Fitzsimmons said the claim that the partial-birth abortion procedure was
used rarely and mostly in acute medical situations was merely a
(his term) developed by opponents of the bill, and was false. Fitzsimmons
also expressed regret about his own previous (albeit minor) role in
propagating this 'party
lied through my teeth."
The truth was that "in
the vast majority of cases, the procedure is performed on a healthy mother
with a healthy fetus that is 20 weeks or more along, Fitzsimmons said."
York Times, Feb. 26, 1997)
After Fitzsimmons spoke, other representatives of the abortion industry also
refuted the mythology. Renee Chelian, the president of the National
Coalition of Abortion Providers, said,
spin out of Washington was that it was done for medical necessity, even
though we knew it wasn't so." For more such
quotes, see "Pro-choice
advocates admit to deception," by Ruth Padawer
(The Record, Bergen-Hackensack, NJ, Feb. 27, 1997).
Even before Fitzsimmons blew the whistle on the disinformation campaign, the
PBS program Media Matters (in January, 1997) devoted a segment to
examining how the news media had erred in accepting what turned out to be
wildly erroneous and self-serving claims from the abortion lobby. In this
program, Washington Post medical writer David Brown, M.D., was shown
saying that based on the Post investigation of the use of
partial-birth abortion, "Cases
in which the mother's
life was truly at risk were extremely rare. Most people who got this
procedure were really not very different from most people who got abortions."
The entire transcript of the Media Matters segment
is essential reading for anyone interested in the record of how the news
media initially showed an eager gullibility for pro-abortion propaganda
about partial-birth abortion.
For further documentation published in 1997 on the collapse of the
pro-abortion misinformation campaign, see:
an NRLC memo distributed to reporters in February, 1997;
submitted by NRLC to the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Judiciary
Committee at an investigatory hearing held in March, 1997;
article by Matthew Scully in the National Review giving many
examples of how the news media had accepted the abortion lobby's
manufactured claims about partial-birth abortion; ;
by John Leo in U.S. News & World Report showing how the truth
about partial-birth abortion was deliberately concealed; and
a column by noted political analyst Charles E. Cook
about the impact of the revelations on Capitol Hill, published in
Roll Call: The Newspaper of Capitol Hill.
What new information has come to light
since February, 1997, only confirms that the partial-birth method is usually
used in circumstances not involving any acute threat to the mother or grave
disorder of the baby.
For example, Kansas became the only state to enact a law that requires
reporting of partial-birth abortions separately from other abortion
methods. The first year the law was in effect (1999), Kansas abortionists
reported that they performed 182 partial-birth abortions on babies who were
defined by the abortionists themselves as
and they also reported that all 182 of these were performed for
(as opposed to "physical")
health reasons. See pages 10-11 of
the Kansas Health
In January, 2003, the Alan Guttmacher Institute --
an affiliate of Planned Parenthood --
published a survey of abortion providers that estimated that 2,200 abortions
by the method were performed in the year 2000. While that figure is surely
low (for reasons discussed by NRLC
is more than triple the number that AGI estimated in its most recent
previous survey (for 1996).
In March, 2003, Ron Fitzsimmons -- still the executive director of the
National Coalition of Abortion Providers -- was asked if he wanted to
withdraw the assessment he gave to The New York Times in 1997 (quoted
above). Fitzsimmons replied,
no, no, no. I'm
not recanting any of that stuff. In terms of when it's
done or how it's
done, nothing has changed, as far as I know."
Informed of a news story that asserted that the method is used mostly to
save a mother's life or in cases of fetal deformity, Fitzsimmons said,
amazing that a lot of people still think that, despite the evidence to the
SO, IS THE MYTHOLOGY DEAD?
summarize what appears above: The claim that the abortion method banned by
the pending bill, partial-birth abortion, is performed mainly or only in
medically acute circumstances, was definitely discredited by February, 1997,
if not much earlier -- disproved by congressional investigators and by
journalists for top newspapers, and repudiated by spokespersons for the
abortion industry itself.
So is the
mythology dead? Not by a long shot.
Even though it takes no more than a few minutes with the Google
internet search engine to easily find information such as that cited above,
and much more like it, some reporters, editorial writers, and pundits refuse
to let go of the blatant misinformation. They continue to propagate the myth
that most (or all) partial-birth abortions are performed because of grave
threat to the mother or major fetal disorders.
Worse, when such resurrected mythology is challenged, some of the
journalists propagating the myths engage in elaborate contortions to avoid
acknowledging error -- sometimes compounding their
original errors in the process of evasion.
The examples described below have all occurred within the past nine
months. This is not an exhaustive catalog, but only a sampling.
[Note: All of the quotations below were in the voices of the newspapers
themselves. That is, it is the newspaper, or the reporter or commentator,
who is making the assertion -- NOT some attributed source.]
GANNETT NEWS SERVICE
lobby counting on victories in 108th Congress,"
December 17, 2002, Gannett News Service reporter Pamela Brogan wrote:
"A so-called partial-birth abortion is defined
generally as a late-term abortion procedure in which the fetus is aborted
after it is partly outside the mother's body. It is usually performed in
cases when the mother's life is threatened or the fetus is deformed."
After the story appeared, I called Brogan to challenge this assertion. She
told me that she would not rely on information provided on such a point by
an organization that had "a
in the debate. After NRLC sent repeated written challenges challenging the
assertion, on February 20, 2003, Brogan responded with an e-mail in which
she purported to quote The Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) as saying that
the method is used "usually
if a woman's
life is threatened or because of fetal abnormalities."
AGI is an affiliate of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America,
largest provider of abortions, and has openly touted to its donors its
mission to oppose limitations on abortion
so it is curious that Brogan considered AGI to be an authoritative source
that is without a "stake"
in the debate. Nevertheless, in a later interview with CNSNews.com, Brogan
defended the original story on grounds that AGI and the Centers for Disease
Control (CDC) are "roundly
considered to be the authorities on this topic."
(The CDC has issued no information on partial-birth abortion.)
Certainly, if AGI actually made the statement that Brogan attributed to AGI
in her e-mail, then AGI itself would be open to criticism for attempting to
revive the mythology that was discredited in 1997
and Gannett would be guilty of gullibility and/or bias for adopting
misinformation from a pro-abortion advocacy group. But NRLC has seen
nothing along these lines from AGI since 1996. Remarkably, Brogan and her
editors ignored repeated requests from NRLC to show where or when AGI had
made the statement that she purported to quote. Thus, the claim that AGI in
fact made any such statement must itself be regarded as unsubstantiated.
In a March 11, 2003, letter to Gannett News Service Editor Caesar
Andrews, NRLC pointed out that Gannett had failed to produce a single
attributed source to back up it claim that partial-birth abortion
usually performed in cases when the mother's life is threatened or the fetus
This letter brought no response. (A copy of the letter is available on
a story headed "Senate
ban on a late-term form of abortion," March 14,
2003, Boston Globe reporter Susan Milligan wrote:
of fetal abnormalities or medical conditions threatening a woman, doctors
employ the technique between the 20th and 26th weeks of a pregnancy when the
head of the fetus is enlarged and unable to easily pass through a woman's
In contrast with the other media outlets discussed in this article, Globe
editors eventually --
after repeated communications from NRLC
took a remedial action.
On June 4, 2003, the Globe ombudsman, Christine Chinlund, wrote to
inform NRLC that new internal guidelines had been adopted, among these,
Globe would not say or imply that the procedure known as partial
birth abortion is used only when medically necessary -- thus recognizing
that [it] is also used by healthy women who carry a healthy fetus. I also
believe that any mention of the bill's
lack of an exemption for the health of the mother should be accompanied by a
mention of the exemption that does exist to protect the life of the mother."
(A copy of the full statement is available on request.)
Later, Chinlund was interviewed by
CNSNews.com for a story on the new guidelines. She said that the decision
was made after consultation with the top editor, Martin Baron, and with two
CNSNews.com story -- which also included quotes
from some of the other reporters discussed in this article
-- was released on June 16, 2003.
a story headed "California
abortion rights threatened,"
March 15, 2003, Chronicle reporter Bob Egelko wrote regarding the
abortion method that would be banned by the bill under consideration in
is generally performed late in pregnancy after discovery of damage to or
abnormalities in the fetus."
Repeated communications from NRLC to Egelko and various editors over a
period of nearly three months finally brought a one-sentence reply from
Egelko on June 5 --
"I believe my article was accurate,
notwithstanding your criticism,"
he wrote -- but without providing any authority for
the assertion or rebuttal to any of the documentation provided by NRLC.
NRLC renewed its requests to editors for a correction. Finally, on July 17
four months after the original article B
the Chronicle published the following:
An article March 15 about federal legislation to ban a certain type of
late-term abortion should have made it clear that fetal abnormality is only
one of the common reasons that the procedure, known as intact dilation and
extraction, is performed, according to medical experts."
Attempting to defend this statement, a Chronicle editor cited only a
-- Dr. David Grimes, a prominent defender and practitioner of
abortion, who was associated with the CDC many years ago, long before
anybody had heard of partial-birth abortion. The editor wrote that
reasons for which the procedure is performed
abnormalities or defects incompatible with life,'
but they also include other typical reasons for which women get abortions,
he [Grimes] said."
[italics added for emphasis]
Thus, the Chronicle failed to produce any authority to back up its
original statement that the method
generally performed late in pregnancy after discovery of damage to or
abnormalities in the fetus,"
or even for its new, narrower claim that such abnormalities are a
for using the method. At no point did Egelko or his editors acknowledge
any of the many pro-abortion sources (cited by NRLC) who have conceded that
the great majority of partial-birth abortions do not involve medical
problems at all. In short, the Chronicle chose the path of evasion
failing in its duty to clearly inform readers regarding how the original
assertion was wrong and of the truth of the matter.
On June 6, 2003, the British newspaper The Guardian published two
articles by its correspondent in Washington, D.C., Suzanne Goldenberg,
concerning certain pro-life issues currently under consideration in our
federal and state legislative bodies: "US
abortion ban sets stage for court battle,"
does life really begin?"
In the article "When
does life really begin?,"
Goldenberg wrote: "The
ban on 'partial-birth
-- which are
generally performed in the second or third trimester of pregnancy if the
fetus is so malformed it would die at birth, or if continued pregnancy puts
the woman's life at risk -- is a huge setback for the pro-choice lobby."
In "US abortion ban sets stage for court battle,"
Goldenberg wrote that the partial-birth abortion method
a last resort used during the final stages of pregnancy when the fetus is
fatally malformed. Rightwingers call it partial birth abortion, but the
procedure is only generally used for hydrocephalic babies and involves
collapsing their enlarged skulls."
NRLC immediately challenged these statements in correspondence with
Guardian editors. When initial replies failed to offer any substantive
response on the point being challenged, NRLC filed a complaint with the
Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a media umbrella group that reviews
complaints about inaccuracies in news coverage in the United Kingdom.
Contacted by the PCC staff, Guardian managing editor Chris Elliott
sent a reply letter which made numerous assertions regarding the laws and
practices pertaining to partial-birth abortion in the United States
most of which were off the point (and demonstrably inaccurate to
boot). However, the core of Elliott's
attempted defense was a claim that when the Guardian used the term
in the disputed stories, it had been referring only to abortions
performed after "viability,"
and (Elliott asserted) these were rare and performed only in the acute
circumstances described in the disputed Guardian stories.
This amounted to a rather breathtaking evasion by Elliott. Rather than
admit that the paper had nothing to back up its original statements, Elliott
preferred to retroactively rewrite the stories to say something very
different from what they had actually said. Apparently, he thought that
this sort of ground-shifting was preferable to acknowledging that the
original statements were indefensible.
In the actual stories under challenge, the Guardian had clearly been
talking about the abortions that would be banned by enactment of the
Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act -- in other words,
all partial-birth abortions.
There is nothing whatever in the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act that says it
applies only to partial-birth abortions performed after a baby can be proven
to have reached "viability"
(the point at which an unborn child's lung
development is sufficient to allow survival outside the mother). In fact,
most partial-birth abortions are performed in the fifth and sixth months
in the weeks shortly before
or during the weeks of possible
but before viability could be proven for a given baby. Far fewer are
performed in the seventh month and later.
(Elliott's retroactively revised assertion was
inaccurate, because the available documentation suggests that even when
partial-birth abortion is employed well past the point of
it usually does not involve any circumstances such as those described in
original stories. That, however, is an issue best debated at another time,
because neither the bill nor the disputed statements by the Guardian
were confined to abortions performed after
Following further communications through the Press Complaints Commission
staff, Elliott agreed to publish a letter submitted by NRLC, but he insisted
on severe editing that removed most citations to specific authorities that
contradicted the assertions made by the Guardian. Elliott also refused to
allow inclusion of the internet address of the NRLC website section that
includes the same documentation. He did, however, agree to include a link
to a transcript of the 1997 PBS "Media Matters" program on the subject.
In addition, Elliott refused to publish, as part of NRLC's letter, a
statement that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act would "ban any abortion in
which the fetus is mostly delivered before being killed, unless necessary to
save the mother's life." Elliott said that this phrase "is highly
tendentious and in our opinion accuses vast numbers of American doctors of
infanticide with no supporting evidence."
In reality, the statement merely
paraphrased the legal definition of "partial-birth abortion" that is
contained in the bill itself. Because of Elliott's revealing reaction to
this straightforward explanation, the published letter contains no
explanation of what a partial-birth abortion actually is.
edited letter was published by the Guardian on September 15, 2003.
MIAMI HERALD (EDITORIAL)
an editorial titled "A Flawed Bill", June 6,
2003, the Miami Herald said:
in the extremely rare situations when the procedure is used, extraordinary
circumstances are involved: The rape of a mentally incapacitated women
incapable of knowing even the consequences of the act; the brutal assault of
a 12-year-old child by a relative; a woman weakened by an illness whose life
would be endangered by carrying a pregnancy to full term."
The Herald offered to authority for these
beliefs -- none of which would have survived ten
minutes of competent research on the internet before the editorial was
published. On June 12, the paper posted a shortened version of a letter I
wrote critiquing the statement.
PROFESSOR GEORGE LAKOFF
Aside from journalists as such, mythology about partial-birth abortion still
crops up in commentary from various advocates and commentators. Many
examples could be given, but here is one.
On June 10, 2003, during a radio program titled
a program produced at KCRW-FM in Los Angeles and broadcast on various NPR
stations, George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at Berkeley and author,
was asked by the host, Warren Olney, to analyze the term
Lakoff replied (as transcribed from
the Real Player
recording of the program posted here:
abortion is not a medical description. The medical procedure, as I
understand it, is a procedure that applies in a quarter to one-half of all
cases [he apparently meant to say one-quarter or one-half percent of
all abortions], and these are cases too in where the fetus is not viable, is
not likely to live a life -- perhaps doesn't
have a brain -- and where the mother's health or life would be in danger . .
. You have an unviable child, one who can't really live. Also, there would
be a health and endangerment of the mother's life. So the term
sort of hides the issues that are really there in that operation."
When Prof. Lakoff was subsequently sent documentation that this claim
was erroneous, he dismissed it as
stuff of propaganda."
However, he offered no authority whatever to back up the claim he had made
on the program, nor did he offer any rebuttal to any of the documentation
that he was provided -
most of it consisting of quotations from abortion providers.
Most journalists believe that they try to offer accurate and balanced
coverage, regardless of their personal views on an issue, and many do. But
the history of media coverage of the partial-birth abortion debate also
demonstrates that too many journalists simply search out sources who they
expect will tell them what they already
to be true -- and then will anoint those sources as
authoritative even if their claims are contradicted by abundant contrary
Beyond this, the recent episodes described above illustrate how some
reporters and editors will go to remarkable lengths to avoid acknowledging
error, especially in response to a challenge from a group that they may find
ideologically unpalatable. Their tactics of evasion include simply ignoring
abundant documentation that contradicts their assertions, relying on the
authority of particular sources that are uncited and therefore not subject
to critical scrutiny, or even denying the plain meaning of the words they
The good news is that taken as a whole, news coverage of the partial-birth
abortion debate is far more accurate and balanced than during 1995-97. This
is due in part to ceaseless efforts by NRLC to challenge bad reporting and
to challenge journalists to do better.
As the examples above demonstrate, however, this job is never fully
accomplished. So, during the months ahead, if you read news stories or
editorials that make assertions about partial-birth abortion that you know
to be faulty, challenge them promptly. This can be done by letters
submitted for publication -- but where a story is
clearly in error, a correction should also be sought, persistently if
Also, please immediately send any such examples to NRLC, Federal Legislation
Department, by e-mail (preferred) at
Legfederal@aol.com, by fax at 202-347-3668, or by mail at 512-10th
Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20004.