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Wire Hangers: The Media and Abortion

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by Caryl Rivers

Do we need to bring back the wire hanger?

This ordinary household item was once a powerful symbol of the battle for choice. It represented desperate women who, before Roe V. Wade, died at the hands of back-alley abortions or in their own attempts to end an unwanted pregnancy.

For thirty years, women have felt secure in the knowledge that their reproductive rights were secure. But an aggressive pro-life movement has been more successful than choice advocates in swaying public opinion. And the news media have been less than scrupulous in examining pro-life propaganda.

This year, for the first time, more Americans said they were pro-life than pro choice. A new Gallup Poll finds 51% of Americans calling themselves "pro-life" on the issue of abortion and 42% "pro-choice." This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.

The new poll represents a significant shift from a year ago, when 50% were pro-choice and 44% pro-life. Prior to now, the highest percentage identifying as pro-life was 46%, in both August 2001 and May 2002.

The pro-life side was been very clever in using both language and symbols. For example, a popular anti-choice drawing featured on many web sites purports to depict "A Doctor's Illustrated Guide to Partial-Birth Abortion." This drawing portrays a healthy, viable, and whole toddler (not a fetus) being removed from a uterus.

But late abortions are not about perfect babies being dismembered, nor about young women who can't fit into their prom dresses rushing off to have abortions. The procedure most often involves pregnancies that have gone terribly awry. For instance, one woman was told that her late-term baby had a condition that made its bones extremely fragile, and that it would never take a breath, much less survive. The likelihood was that every bone in the baby's body would break during the passage down the birth canal.

The woman chose a more humane option--stopping the baby's heart in the process of an abortion.

Maybe the choice side ought to feature a recording of a baby's bones crunching, one by one, to make its polnt.

Other reasons for late abortions are babies that have no brains, or who have all their organs outside their bodies. None of these babies can survive outside the womb.

On a recent NPR show, one woman said she was told her baby had a genetic condition that was incompatible with life. She chose to carry the baby for four months longer, deliver it, and then pray over the baby until it died seven hours later.

Another woman might have chosen abortion, worrying that her baby might suffer at birth and during its brief life, and that her own health might suffer carrying a baby that could not live.

Both women made personal moral choices that should be honored. But only the latter would be called a "baby killer." Randall Terry, head of Operation Rescue, objects to women being allowed to abort even the most damaged babies who cannot live. He says it's like going g into a van filled with disabled people and shooting them all.

But babies with abnormalities inconsistent with life are not living people who are disabled. Would I, if I were pregnant with a baby who had no brain, opt for birth or abortion? My value system would argue for the latter. Should I be forced into adopting somebody else's values that I found inhumane?

Overall, we have to change the notion that every abortion is a "tragedy." The truth is that if every child conceived on the planet were to be actually born, overpopulation would cause famine, wars, disease and pestilence.

Since prehistory, women have tried to find ways to limit their fertility As anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy points out in her encyclopedic study "Motherhood," sickly babies were often left to perish. Why? "Because "Mothers who tended to be more discriminating about which babies they cared for fared better." Humane mothers helped their healthy offspring to survive, abandoning those who could not make it. "Choice" is an ancient principal.

In modern technological societies, women's choices are less stark. A pregnant women who believes she cannot bear and support a child (or another child) can terminate the pregnancy in its early stages, when the fetus has no brain or autonomous central nervous system.

Is it a tragedy when a poor teen-aged girl gets pregnant, and opts to continue her schooling after an abortion instead of having a child she can't support financially or economically? No. Is it a tragedy when an overwhelmed mother realizes she can't raise another child? No. In Massachusetts, the typical woman seeking an abortion is a Catholic woman who already has several children. Is it a tragedy when a woman chooses to finish her college education instead of dropping out to have a child? No. I know many women who had abortions when they were in college, who went on to have successful careers, marry and give birth to several children. Those children would not have existed if the women had not chosen earlier to abort. Which children get to exist? Abortion is a very complex moral equation, and women should not be stigmatized for the difficult choices they make.

Abortion is never going to be a cut-and-dried decision, except for
extremists for whom every abortion is murder. New technology--including the ability to discover grave abnormalities in utero-- make such decisions very complicated. As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy says, new technology "not to mention the increased care and staggering parental and societal investment required for the fetus to survive, are carrying us into novel terrain. There are no precedents--emotional, conceptual, legal or otherwise. This is total uncharted territory."

Roe, as imperfect as it may be, is probably the best solution for a decision that involves such moral ambiguity. In the earlier stages of pregnancy, a woman and her doctor should be allowed to decide with no input from the state. Late abortions must be done with the help of physicians who decide when they are medically necessary.

And "choice" needs to be defended as a moral good, not as an inevitable tragedy, or more dangerously, with terms like Baby Killer or Murderer.

Dr. George Tiller performed late abortions for women in desperate straits--such as those carrying brain-dead babies or those with terrible malformations. Some women, whose babies died in utero, report that they could not find a doctor to remove the rotting corpse from their bodies. Few doctors are trained in late abortions, and some have been frightened away from such procedures by fear of nuts with guns.

The media has done a miserable job of explaining such procedures, letting the religious right get away with unscientific terms like "partial birth abortion" and failing to explain the desperate straits of most women who opt for late abortion as a last resort. Dr. George Tiller helped such women in his Kansas clinic before he was gunned down by a fanatic.

Maybe Dr. Tiller, murdered in his church, would be alive today if the media had done a better job explaining what he really did.

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."