Thursday, April 26, 2007

On abortion and breast cancer, New York Times gets headline right, story wrong

How do I even begin to comment on all the fallacies, misuse of language, and out-and-out false dichotomizing of “Breast Cancer Not Linked to Abortion, Study Says” (4/24/07) by Nicholas Bakalar in the New York Times? Though the headline is accurate, the article itself offers false balance at its worst, both creating controversy where there is none and weighing ideology against scientific facts as though they were equal.

Perhaps I’ll just start with the one and only pull quote from the piece: “New findings and a new abortion ruling may sharpen a debate.” Excuse me, but isn’t the reportage in question yet another in a long and distinguished line of peer reviewed scientific studies — published by such credible sources as the New England Journal of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute — that collectively followed millions of women over a generation and consistently found no causal link between abortion, induced or not, and breast cancer? Shouldn’t the new information diminish the debate since there seems to be little or nothing to debate about?

The newest study was published by The Archives of Internal Medicine and tracked 105,716 women, almost 40,000 of whom reported having had an induced abortion or miscarriage. The lead researcher is Karin Michels, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard.

This builds on widescale and widely accepted scientific research that, according to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, induced abortions have no overall effect on the risk of breast cancer, based upon a review of the study in Denmark of 1.5 million women. (For more information, see the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy’s “Beyond the Cancer Myth,” which exlains the anti-choice movement’s use of this unproven and untrue breast cancer theory in court cases and legislation restricting access to abortion.)

Yet despite the weight of this newest, additional evidence, the reporter chose to give equal weight in the piece to Joel Brind, professor of biology and epidemiology at Baruch College , who opposes abortion and has long been trying to create the myth of a link between abortion and the incidence of breast cancer. This is clearly media seeking what I call false balance, and it is an example at its most harmful to women’s health. What the data actually shows is that full term pregnancy affords some protection against breast cancer. So the fact is that women who have not been pregnant at all also fail to get the protection against breast cancer that full term pregnancy confers—a very different conclusion which Brind turns on its head.

The Times quotes Michels as noting this very important point that illustrates the connection between state-mandated propaganda and your health: “There are still some states that require women to be informed about the risk of breast cancer if they get an abortion…that may not be justified based on the current evidence.”

Compounding his errors, Bakalar uses the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Gonzales v Carhart decision upholding a federal abortion ban statute as the take-off point for asserting the non-existent controversy. But in saying the court’s ruling is premised on the legitimacy of outlawing a procedure if it posed a threat to women’s health, when the ruling actually eviscerated a central and often-reaffirmed precedent that the woman’s health must be weighed more heavily than potential fetal life in abortion law, the New York Times went beyond false balance and head-standing to pure fiction.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Partial Truth Decision

"[The] partial birth abortion ban is a political scam but a public relations goldmine...The major benefit is the debate that surrounds it."

So said Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, a militant anti-choice group that blockaded abortion providers, in 2003.

Today's U.S. Supreme Court's Gonzales v Carhart decision upholding the federal abortion ban is based that pubic relations goldmine. It is a travesty of language bought and repeated endlessly by journalists who were sometimes uninformed and sometimes just too lazy to get it right.

Indeed, the travesty of language around abortion is so pervasive that even Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the decision for the Court's majority, in addition to using the term "partial birth abortion", also used the term "abortion doctor" repeatedly in the ruling. Opinion (Gonzales v. Carhart) Why did he not simply refer to doctors as "doctors", or if ob/gyns call them "ob/gyns"? If another surgical procedure were under scrutiny, would he have he referred to "tonsillectomy doctor" or "hysterectomy doctor"? Of course not. But those who want to take away a woman's human right to make her own childbearing decisions entirely have for so long used the term "abortion doctor" as an epithet that they have succeeded in getting even the highest court in the land to use their language.

But such bias is just the tip of the iceberg in the battle over what losing plaintiff Dr. Leroy Carhart has called "partial truth abortion". There is no such thing as partial birth abortion. The term will be found in no medical book. It was made up in 1995 by Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right-to-Life Committee, and former U.S. Representative and current Florida appeals court judge Charles Canady explicitly to confuse, horrify, and deceive--to manipulate language with the intent of sensationalizing the abortion debate. In particular, they intended to take the focus away from the woman and place the attention and the greater value on the fetus instead. The leading medical associations all agreed this was a misleading term, but the media never checked their language and by 2001, 90% of articles were using the term without so much as a "so-called" attached. As I reported in my 2004 book The War on Choice, an AP managing editor admitted when challenged that "partial birth abortion" was emotionally loaded, but said they continued to use it because it was instantly recognizable. Another major daily newspaper editor admitted it wasn't correct but said it was easier to use than alternatives.

Though an almost identical abortion ban was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the past, it was a different Supreme Court. Elections have consequences. Since then, President George W. Bush has had the opportunity to appoint two new justices to the Court, justices who are ideologically in synch with the biased language. That shift made all the difference to women today and tomorrow.

Now we have a landmark Supreme Court decision, built upon the counterfeit foundation of a made-up term that the media accepted and used uncritically, and that has propelled the highest court to issue a ruling allowing to stand a law which at a minimum:

1. Does not provide adequate exceptions for a woman's health, which means that a fundamental legal principle of the primary importance of women's health has been overturned.
2. For the first time upholds a federal law which steps directly into the physician's exam room and tells him or her what medical technique cannot be used even if the physician's judgment is that it is the safest to protect her health and future fertility.
3. Will not reduce the number of abortions but will over time, according to the doctors who know women's health best, cause an increase in medical complications, and possibly even deaths.

The public relations goldmine of those who aim for nothing less than to eliminate reproductive justice at all times from all women has paid off for them today. Language, after all, has consequences too.


Here's the Center for Reproductive Rights complete background on the ruling and the arguments in the case:

For a little more context, here's an article I wrote about a recent case that took another step backward for women's health; it will probably be the next thing to come back before the Court.
High Court Case Takes Aim at Heart of Roe

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Thank You, Imus, for a Teachable Moment

This is a Moment with a capital "M". The opportunity for fundamental social change doesn't come often, so let's take full advantage of it.

Shock jock Don Imus's racist and sexist remarks about the Rutgers University women's basketball team didn’t go beyond his typical bottom feeder discourse, but in this age of YouTube and internet rapid response capability, his sleazy pot shots against a target so clearly undeserving of epithets have captured the nation's attention. We’ve been riveted to the story and it has brought us together. Interest soon turned to outrage; the outrage continues to mushroom into new social expectations. Suddenly it is Imus who’s shocked. Even Oprah is talking about it, and when a story reaches that level, you know Imus had better head for rehab fast because the times, they are a-changing.

Racism and sexism are so pervasive that too often we allow them to wash over us without pricking our consciousness let alone our consciences. But Imus's little tete a te with his executive producer Bernard McGuirk-who is equally culpable-was so awful, so blatant, so gratuitous it created a tsunami that might just wash away the toxicity regularly spewed by destruction derby talk shows.

Some of the current media chatter addresses important principles such as free speech, the difference between political speech and hate speech, and the appropriate punishment for Imus given that many rappers--not to mention other Limbaugh-like talk show hosts--have said similar things. This is a useful conversation, but should not divert us from the opportunity afforded by this Moment to expose the consequences of racism and sexism in real people's everyday lives.

That’s why it is overall a very good thing for a man who is such a symbol of the last bastion of unfettered white male supremacy to get canned for so clearly overstepping the bounds of appropriate speech, legally protected or not, political speech or not. I say, pour it on and grab his employers by the short hairs while the public's short attention span is focused on that vulnerable spot.

At the same time, the Scarlet Knights will better serve the cause of righting the injustice done to them by playing the role of teachers rather than victims. Based on my own experience, I generally counsel people in these situations to toughen up and not take media attacks personally because it's never about them; it's always about power: the bully’s fear of losing his power over them. Goodness knows, during my 30 years in the public eye advocating for women’s reproductive rights, I received the gamut of such ad hominem attacks from picketers wielding signs at my home to being called unprintable names on the airwaves to having a political cartoonist caricature me as a Nazi. The last felt to me like the equivalent of Imus calling the Rutgers women "nappy headed ho's".

But toughening up does not mean that those who are attacked should isolate themselves and refrain from fighting back in a positive way, especially when we are in a Moment.

Imus unwittingly gave his would-be victims a bully platform from which to teach America the wrongness of mindless bigotry. He attacked individuals rather than ideas, actions, policies. Imus wasn't talking issues at all. He gratuitously disparaged young women who were just playing basketball. He did it because he thought he could. His power to do so had never been challenged. Perhaps now he will learn along with the rest of us that it's fine to rough up ideas, but not to rough up people simply because of attributes they were born with. The difference is in category, not just in gradation.

So let's give a big round of thanks to Don Imus for awakening the nation to this distinction. He created a teachable Moment in which we have the opportunity, if we act on the conversation we are now having with ourselves, to make change for the better, both in our culture and in our own hearts.