What The New York Times gets wrong about the abortion debate
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.
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.