What The New York Times gets wrong about the abortion debate

A pro-life sign is displayed during the 2018 annual March for Life rally in Washington. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn) 

The recent extensive New York Times series in support of legal abortion unfolds as if the last 46 years of the abortion debate following Roe v. Wade never happened and did not need to. Reading it, it was all I could do not to get out my legwarmers and Elton John albums to relive the full 1970s experience.

A Woman’s Rights,” a series of eight editorials published over the last month, almost completely ignores the nuanced and often intelligent debates between opposing sides that have taken place for nearly five decades about every topic raised by the editorial board of The Times. It rather suggests that the calculus is just so obvious: Respecting unborn human life enough to discourage or restrict abortion is manifestly anti-woman. Consequently, notwithstanding its film-noir photos, dramatic headlines and portentous title, the series is pretty much a nothingburger. The best way to unpack this is to consider first what the series does and then what it fails to do.

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Regarding what it does, the series focuses in on cases it occasionally admits are “rare,” in order to stoke fear about laws that would protect prenatal human life. It considers, for example, women who are kept alive on machinery until their child is born (“Can a Corpse Give Birth?”), a woman charged with abusing corpses when she put her stillborn twins into a suitcase and threw them beside a road (“When Prosecutors Jail a Mother for a Miscarriage”) and women charged with crimes for exposing their unborn children to illegal drugs or for trying to kill themselves and their unborn child simultaneously (“The Feticide Playbook, Explained”).

The New York Times series in support of legal abortion unfolds as if the last 46 years of the abortion debate never happened and did not need to.

Not only are these tragic cases far removed from the circumstances that commonly characterize the thousands of abortions per day in the United States that centrally concern pro-life activists, but they have also been the subject of nuanced medical and moral debates about how to respect both the mother and child simultaneously. None of these debates are treated in The Times. Some pro-lifers, for example, have proposed that treatment, as opposed to punishment, should be the first response to drug-addicted mothers.

Advocates on either side of the abortion debate have also dialogued about when a human being has “enough” value or “personhood” such that he or she cannot be killed and what factors should come into play to evaluate the case of a desperate and depressed suicidal pregnant woman. They have engaged in worthy debates about disability and the meaning of a “life worth living.” A lengthy and sophisticated literature on these subjects cannot be reprised here in its entirety. It is enough to point out that in The New York Times’ rush to characterize the pro-life movement and its supposedly woman-hating allies in government, none of these serious debates are reflected. And no piece in the series considers the possibility of solutions eschewing killing while simultaneously respecting distressed mothers.

Instead, The Times paints the abortion debate as a zero-sum game wherein giving the “fetus” any recognition or respect in the law is equivalent to the worst kind of patriarchy and punishment of women.

The series refuses to breathe a word about the women who experience genuine distress from their abortion.

I also fault The New York Times for what it does not do in its abortion series. While stridently asserting its feminist credentials—even titling the piece “A Woman’s Rights”—and predicting doom for women in a world without Roe, it completely overlooks the vast numbers of women who oppose legal abortion in some or all circumstances and who have done so steadily and for rational reasons for nearly half a century. It ignores the inconvenient fact that it is the supposedly “anti-women” movement that has set up thousands of homes and other centers to take care of pregnant women in distress.

The series also refuses to breathe a word about the women who experience genuine distress from their abortion. It is no longer possible to overlook their existence, not only in the United States but wherever abortions happen. And The Times fails to grapple at all with the incongruity of its championing female human beings while turning human “fetuses” and their allies into loathsome enemies. Whatever happened to the genius brevity of that old bumper sticker: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings”?

Forty-six years after Roe, there is no denying that I am a veteran of the U.S. abortion wars. I am getting old enough, in fact, that I am beginning to actually see that whole “arc of history” thing people are always talking about. But while I am a partisan in this debate, I am not so blind that I cannot acknowledge the serious and well-argued literature of my intellectual opponents.

I have also known enough abortion-minded pregnant women, post-aborted women and convinced advocates for legal abortion to understand “how they got there.” Maybe they were fired for being pregnant. Maybe their boyfriend or husband left while they were expecting. Maybe they were poor and desperate. Abortion advocates would be right to argue that these women’s circumstances, alongside the body of thoughtful literature in favor of legal abortion, merit our attention and serious reflection, at this possibly pivotal time in the abortion debate. The New York Times series merits neither.

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Nora Bolcon
7 months 1 week ago

Helen, I believe you are well intended but did you ever look into the evidence of how restricting abortions effects rates of abortion. There is no evidence indicating these laws lower rates in any country - they always raise abortion rates and maternal deaths - That constitutes a Lose - Lose scenario. Please see actual evidence below:

From Guttmacher: Abortion and Birth Control Stats.
(Notes from my other research on this topic - bottom)
REGIONAL INCIDENCE AND TRENDS:
• The highest annual rate of abortion in 2010–2014 was in the Caribbean, estimated at 59 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, followed by South America, at 48.
The lowest rates were in Northern America, at 17, and Western and Northern Europe—at 16 and 18, respectively.
• Across regions, Eastern Europe experienced the largest decline in the abortion rate, from 88 in 1990–1994 to 42 in 2010–2014. Despite this decline, there is a persistent gap in rates between Eastern and Western Europe (42 vs. 16) likely reflecting lower use of effective, modern contraceptive methods in Eastern Europe.
• The overall abortion rate in Africa was 34 per 1,000 women in 2010–2014. Subregional rates ranged from 31 in Western Africa to 38 in Northern Africa. There has been little if any change in abortion rates in these subregions since 1990–1994.
• For Latin America, subregional abortion rates range from 33 in Central America to 48 in South America. Rates have increased slightly since 1990–1994, but not by statistically significant amounts.
• Abortion rates in Asia have also fallen since 1990–1994, although not significantly. Asia’s subregions all have rates close to the regional average of 36 per 1,000 women.
• Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. When countries are grouped according to the grounds under which the procedure is legal, the rate is 37 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age where it is prohibited altogether or allowed only to save a woman’s life, compared with 34 per 1,000 where it is available on request, a nonsignificant difference.
• High levels of unmet need for contraception help explain the prevalence of abortion in countries with restrictive abortion laws.

What I have researched from other appropriate sources agrees with Guttmacher but also indicates the below information on this subject:
The World Health Organization Research agrees with the Guttmacher Research. Their results are almost identical.
However, neither the W.H.O. or Guttmacher can give us a solid conclusion, due to lack of evidence, as to what happens when countries offer easy access to quality birth control but make their abortion laws stricter. This is due to the fact that most countries either are lenient on both issues or they are strict on access to both abortion and birth control.
We could make some confident speculation, based on the global evidence that does exist, that in countries, currently, where laws are strict for both abortion and birth control or where both are criminalized, that were these countries to loosen up laws on birth control access alone and not on abortion, the abortion rates would come down more, and likely closer to where the Western and developed nations are at. However, these countries are not necessarily or likely to get quite as low as the western, industrialized, countries since there does exist evidence that the mere difficulty of access to abortion alone lends, especially in certain cases, to higher abortion rates by itself.
Unfortunately, in the countries where the laws for abortion become much stricter than in the past, such as may exist in the U.S. for the future, the amount of abortions could increase quite a bit even if birth control access remains easy and free. One of the reasons this is true is due to the fact that, in these countries, many women who get pregnant in their later years, 40s or older, often now seek to get an amnio to see if their fetus is healthy. They can only get this during the late part of the 3rd month or beginning of the fourth month of their pregnancy. With stricter laws, some of these women may decide they don't want to take the chance the fetus is unhealthy or has downs syndrome, and instead may opt to get an early abortion thru more easily, anonymously obtained, although perhaps illegally obtained, abortion pills. These pills become not an option in later months, and testing would put women in a position to not be able to deny they are pregnant, publicly, if they wait, so this puts the women at risk they could be charged with a crime if abortion becomes illegal. (Please note: I am not suggesting this is right or moral or Christian behavior but only that the reality exist and I personally know quite a few women who would fit this category, today, in the U.S. despite anyone's opinions or beliefs)
A horrible side effect of the above situation is this: 50% of all downs fetuses naturally miscarry in the first trimester, and 40% that make it to the 2nd trimester miscarry then. Fetuses that have other severe health issues often miscarry, naturally, within the first three - four months of pregnancy as well. The amount of downs fetuses that become born infants are very small amounts even for older women. This illness is still quite rare overall. This means many women could end up aborting perfectly healthy fetuses, by the thousands, each year, or more, to avoid the possibility of having an unhealthy baby, and this number increases if women already have other children. One way some western countries avoid this issue is that they keep early abortions legal and allow later abortions into the 4th and 5th month if the fetus has tested unhealthy or the woman's life is in real danger if she remains pregnant. Many married older women think they aren't fertile when they still are and stop taking birth control.
Lastly, there is no existing evidence that easy access to abortions, even throughout pregnancy, equates to more abortions, in any country, that has free and easy access to birth control. In fact, countries with easy access to abortion and also free easy access to birth control have the lowest rates in the world, and these rates lower even more when those countries offer mandated longer paid maternity/paternity leaves, free quality universal health care, and free, quality, public daycare. (The only exception to this seems to be Sweden. Despite Sweden's similarly ease of access to both abortion and birth control and it's offering many of the benefits listed above that other Western European Countries offer, it still has quite a high abortion rate. However, there is no evidence suggesting that tightening Sweden's existing laws would lower its rate for abortion and doing so would likely only raise it even higher.)
The evidence we do have seems to indicate, on a global scale, that despite what seems reasonable in theory, i.e., harsh abortion laws will lower abortion rates, is completely false when put to the test in reality. It just may be that easy access to abortion, and lenient abortion laws, help more to reduce abortion rates than having strict laws against abortion, in any country. Perhaps some morality issues simply cannot be solved by force or threat but must instead be dealt with by respecting the situation of the people involved and helping them out of their place of fear or desperation, with physical and material protections and emotional and spiritual support. We could do much more perhaps by encouraging a choice for good, and for life, without attempting to control women. We could choose to help women in real ways, instead of trying to corner them into doing the Christian thing.

Brien Doyle
7 months 1 week ago

What the religions have got wrong is minding their own business.
If you want to follow the rules of your religion - fine - feel free - BUT - Mind your own business.

What a woman does with her body is NOT your business!!

Valerie Finnigan
7 months 1 week ago

This is not a matter of what a woman does with her body, but what she does with somebody else's body. A fetus' body belongs to the fetus, not to the mother. And when someone chooses to harm or kill another innocent human being's body, it's our business as a society to prevent that, protect those at risk of being harmed, and provide justice for those harmed or killed. And opposition to killing innocent human beings is not just some religious view comparable to a preference for fish on Fridays. The view that a human fetus is a living human being with a body of his or her own is not religious, but scientific. And the view that abuse or murder of vulnerable human being, whether children at any stage of development, those with disabilities, or the aged is particularly heinous isn't just a religious view, either, but an ethical one shared by people of all religions and secular philosophies. Indeed, here in the US, if someone is aware that a child is being abused or is otherwise endangered by those supposed to care for said child, it's a crime to "mind our own business" and do nothing.

Lisa M
7 months 1 week ago

Wow, so well said Valerie!!!

Bev Ceccanti
7 months ago

Yes!

Jacqueline Baligian
7 months 1 week ago

When religious men urge their parishioners to vote for a "pro-life" candidate who ADMITTED to harassing/assaulting women ( not to mention has cheated on ALL of his wives) , yes.. the movement is more about anti-woman. When PRIESTS can go on Twitter and call a woman who they don't know, a "liar" when she made assault allegations against a then SCJ nominee, just because they want R v W overturned at any cost, and she jeopardized their agenda....then YES "pro-life" becomes Anti-woman. When "pregnancy crisis centers " that masquerade as clinics, give women ultrasounds and then tell these women that they aren't as far along in the pregnancy than they think they are with the hope that they will then feel free to take more time to make a decision and by the time they do, it's too late, yes, , it IS an Anti-woman movement. ( and BTW, that is just ONE deceptive practice at these places, which are ALL over the country. 6,000 of them.)

Joe Kash
7 months 1 week ago

I wish the pro-choice crowd would stop pushing their religion of when human personhood begins. Science can only tell us when a new distinct human life begins. This is at conception. Pro-choices should mind their own business and stop treading on the unborn human. Leave them alone already so that they can grow, mature and flourish!

Jacqueline Baligian
7 months 1 week ago

First off Joe, thank you for using the term. "pro-choice" because that is what many of us are. NOT "pro-abortion" which is a ridiculous term and does NOT at all help bring both sides of the debate together. And, I believe we are closer than most think. I am against abortion. But, I don't believe in making it illegal because it will ALSO endanger the lives of women. This is why many feel that "pro-life" is anti-woman. There are ways of decreasing the rate of abortion w/out making it illegal. To begin with, men can show a little more respect for women, in general, and actually be ok with waiting until marriage. In this day and age, those men are far and few between. So, yeah, you don't want a woman to have an abortion, keep it in your pants until marriage. That's just one way, there are many others. But, what you do have wrong is the fact that pro-choicers need to mind our business. We actually are. The pro-lifers are the ones trying to get law changes so maybe that's where people can mind their business.

Jacqueline Baligian
7 months 1 week ago

Oh here's another way to maybe decrease the rate of abortions. Doctors can maybe not prescribe Viagra without a sworn statement from the patient stating that " in the event that this medication results in the accidental pregnancy of woman, I swear to bear responsibility and not walk away." Now, this is meant of course, to be funny and it's extreme, but it takes two to get a woman pregnant and when the pro-lifers start to also hold men responsible, then maybe some of us will stop viewing it as anti-woman.

Bev Ceccanti
7 months ago

Sexual equality is a big lie that needs to be stemmed.. Women are the only ones who can get pregnant and they should remember that men, quite naturally , are not in the same boat.

Jim Lein
7 months 1 week ago

Good point. Men cause unwanted pregnancies. If we return to outlawing abortion, the man should be regarded as an accomplice, especially if he is one of those pressuring her to have an abortion. The discussion should not be just about pregnant woman and fetus. We are all accomplices to some degree, especially if we are for cutting services to pregnant women. These programs--such as TANF, WIC, SNAP and Medicaid--also provide for intrauterine nourishment and medical checkups and care for the unborn. Yet many who are "pro-life" are for such cuts; most Republicans are, especially our president.

Bev Ceccanti
7 months ago

Here we go again, Jim.........so the answer is to kill someone? Your sacrificial offering to the goddess of cognitive dissonance?

THE CHRISTOFFERSONS
7 months 1 week ago

Helen, the New York Times series was an account of injustices that arise when the legal system is bent to serve an aroused public opinion focused on the life of the unborn. It was just such a politics that the Supreme Court attempted to circumvent in the 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion. Justice Blackmun -- former general counsel to the Mayo Clinic -- wrote an opinion designed to assure that medical science was given due weight. The political battle in the years since Roe has essentially ignored Roe's wisdom in re-calibrating the logic of abortion so that sound medical judgment would bridge the gap between early pregnancy and later fetal viability. The problem is our politics, not Roe.

I hope -- and trust -- that the Supreme Court will survive the raw politics that misses Roe's point. I also hope that the dignity of women in such circumstances does not get lost in the struggle of partisans to use -- and abuse -- the law. The Times series raises doubt about that hope. I would credit the series for providing real life stories that raise this doubt and challenge the injustice to which overzealous pursuit of the law is prone.

Nonetheless, I found your article helpful and provocative.

Julie Andrew
7 months 1 week ago

I agree that to talk is not enough.I agree that we need to build consensus to really get anywhere on the issue of abortion.But in the last part of your article I think you shortcircuit a little.To presume that others have good faith is not so difficult .I believe that Hillary Clinton and Obama if they had their way would have no abortions in America or elsewhere.I also believe that Dick Cheney and George Bush would prefer Peace all over the world.There is neither Peace nor a lack of Abortions.The question is how far are you prepared to go to protect life?To avoid War?I would say that Republicans dont lose enough sleep over what happens on the streets of Baghdad or Palestine for that matter.Equally I would say that Democrats dont lose enough sleep over what happens in abortion clinics or in millions of American wombs .They can both live with these realities.A fully formed conscience can live with neither and so would never enthuse over a Bush or an Obama.The Lord spoke about the two sons with a different approach.One says he will do it and does not.The other says he wont do it but does it.Lip Sevice is what the Lord is speaking of.Catholics should be wary of it.People dont and nor do they muddy the water over the evils of War but are more than happy to with abortion.But this question will ring through history and God will judge as he has always done.I hope all catholics approach Him with a good conscience on this question.

Frank T
7 months 1 week ago

Personhood? What nonsense! A cell mass is not a person. Leave women to make choices about their own bodies.

Lisa M
7 months 1 week ago

Frank, that might have worked back in the 1970s, but a simple ultrasound proves to the contrary.

Crystal Watson
7 months 1 week ago

Your article is full of misrepresentations ...
- The US is not becoming more pro-life, it is becoming more pro-choice ... As of 2018, public support for legal abortion remains as high as it has been in two decades of polling.
- Pro-life people do *not* respect life. The pro-life movement has been responsible for assaults, bombings, and murders in the name of the "unborn".
- The vast majority of women, more than 95%, do *not* feel distress or regret about their abortions.

Bev Ceccanti
7 months ago

Wrong. We are becoming more Hispanic and Hispanics are largely Catholic and have deep respect for family and human life.

Crystal Watson
6 months 4 weeks ago

Hispanics: Not so Catholic anymore - National Catholic Reporter

Sister Lea Hunter
7 months 1 week ago

The Pro-Life Movement has gone to such extremes in getting numerous political figures including a president elected primarily because they were anti-abortion.

The NY Times Opinion series seem unfair and one-sided to Catholic magazine AMERICA author of “What The New York Times gets wrong about the abortion debate”.

Perhaps the Pro-Life movement’s political actions over the past decades have provoked the NY Times into its “one-sided” counter-reaction Opinion series out of realistic fear for future generations of children, their countries, and democracy everywhere.

Bev Ceccanti
7 months ago

If the Holocaust could have been stopped by voting for a misogynistic womanizer would you have been virtuous in refusing to vote for him? I am grateful I learned from a nun whom I used to think was mean, in the 8th grade, that priests and nuns could go to hell just as easily and perhaps easier than anybody else, given their precious responsibility. That warning has served me well.

Crystal Watson
7 months 1 week ago

Pro-life Catholics and other Christians elected a truly despicable person as president all for the sake of an issue not even mentioned in the bible. Trump has caused enormous damage to individuals, to minority groups, to our rule of law, to the very planet. And "pro-life" people still support him.

Jim Lein
7 months 1 week ago

The abortion rate is an indicator of how much a society values people more than money. Countries with strong family values, where a couple gets financial support for 18 months after a birth, all for one parent or 9 for each parent, where there is free or low cost medical care, and free education for children and college students, and food programs where needed, these countries have lower abortion rates. And in these countries abortion is legal. We do little and many or most pro-lifers favor doing even less for parents, pregnant women, children and students, and they want to legally force women to give birth regardless of her circumstances. They are concerned about spending tax dollars to help women and couples to feel able to bring a child into the world.

Barry Fitzpatrick
7 months ago

Helen Alvare certainly points out flaws in the New York Times' series in support of legal abortion. And she does so without the polarizing language that has characterized this debate for years. The RIght to LIfe movement, namely those who sponsor the March for Life and others, unfortunately have gotten in bed with the right leaning politicians and evangelicals for whom this is war, not debate. And consequently they have lost any of the leverage or authority they might wish they enjoyed when they trot out the latest elected official whom they think is their answer to prayer about this issue. Once again, the issue becomes the centerpiece at the exclusion of so much else.
A woman's choice in this matter occurs when she chooses to engage in the sexual activity that may result in pregnancy. Just like capital punishment, abortion is playing God, and we aresimply not very good at that game. I am afraid that what the Times does is often replicated by veterans of "the U. S. abortion wars." Namely, they reduce the issue at hand to an us vs. them ultimatum, leaving little or no room for serious reflection and change in practice. Some of the mindless pap that echoes from ecclesial authorities does not help the situation. We have to be much more careful of where we align our priorities, or we will be reduced to being bystanders in effecting meaningful change for the better in the behavior of our society.

lisa connolley
7 months ago

I appreciate that there is a difference of opinion between pro-life and pro-choice, however, there should be some STRONG dialog among women of those two views - and please exclude men. Why, because I became pro-life in a conservative small town where the doctor shamed so many women into abortions so they would not be seen as the "whores they were" - with no reference to the paternal contributor. That small town doctor made his living shaming women into abortions. But shaming women into pro-life is NOT OK! we need to dialog. This is not black and white issue either, as a woman who was raped at the age of 2, I was informed after my second child was born with complications, that no child I had later would probably live, and neither would I. To choose life for my family meant to choose surgical sterilization. Pro Life also needs to extend to war, to police excessive force, to drug misuse....we have a long way to go, and so much listening to do. We must listen before we judge one another.

Bev Ceccanti
7 months ago

error/repeat

Bev Ceccanti
7 months ago

. We’re starved of guidance and need a holy voice. Our hearts go to poor women constantly being told it’s irresponsible and nearly hopeless to give birth to their babies , that it's better to be dead than poor, etc. The din from the Planned Parenthood Party must be nearly overwhelming.… We must also acknowledge that the use of abortion and abortifacients are a popular means of birth control in the US. Compare pro-choice names here and check the same throughout this site. One can recognize where the comments come from and dismiss them with a shudder,....... Anti-Catholic impostors screech to an incessant drumbeat on this site that tacitly celebrates abortion, concupiscence, and heresy of all kinds including the trashing of Cannon law, the ordination of women, and a myriad of other ugly contortions that fly in the face of God.................................................................... What is particularly distressing is the Jesuit's ' lack of moral guidance. and a subtle encouragement of vendors of evil.. I believe the ' references' to altruistic missions pertaining to immigration, capital punishment, racism, concern for homosexuals, poverty, etc. to be mostly vehicles of distraction, serving to fraudulently ascribe the most abhorrent of traits to, and conflate a lack of compassion with, the pro-life movement. Even a so-called pro-life article by the editor and chief of this site is decidedly poetic. rambling and confusing with an obvious nod to the pro-choice camp. He says many women he loves, admires and respects are pro-choice and also says, in so many words, that, as a man, he' recognizes the limitations of his experience’, apparently as it pertains to his speaking on the subject. One pro-choice commentator states she admires his ability to straddle the issue, says she’s not sure what his position is & thinks she saw the same article last year.
…………………………………... Feminists have rendered half the population impotent to speak on this issue on the basis of gender. Voices like yours have much to confront. Half the population is afraid to speak up and our priests can't minister to the other half. Some Catholics need to be hit over the head with the Truth.,……………………………………………………………………:
………………This is the most imminent and critical issue of our time for the mortality rate alone. We have no choice but to support and vote for Trump this time around. It’s our last hope for generations to come to get Justices appointed who will begin to draw parameters around the abortion industry and our forced participation in it. And that' the plain truth.

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