5 things NY Times’ The Daily got wrong about abortion and Missouri's fight for reproductive justice
What The Daily missed in a recent report about Missouri Democrats’ adoption -- and rejection -- of an anti-choice amendment
Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT
The New York Times’ podcast The Daily claims to inform listeners about “the biggest stories of our time,” but in a recent two-part series about an anti-choice amendment to the Missouri Democratic Party platform, the coverage emphasized anti-abortion talking points, including misinformation about so-called “partial-birth abortion” and the alleged “extremism” of Democrats' views on abortion. Perhaps most concerningly, The Daily failed to contextualize the precarious nature of abortion rights in Missouri -- which currently has only one operational abortion clinic.
In June 2018, the Missouri Democratic Party adopted language into its platform seeking to “welcome into our ranks all Missourians who may hold differing positions on” abortion. The inclusion of this language was fraught from the start. As Riverfront Times reported, the amendment “was emailed to members one day before a scheduled vote on a new platform — and the vote ended up taking place on a day that many party activists had already committed to being at immigration protests.” In August, the party voted unanimously to remove the language from its platform and instead adopted language supporting “a woman’s right to choose.”
The Daily's two-part series covering this story focused on Joan Barry, a former Democratic Representative for the Missouri House who introduced the controversial language. The episodes were hosted by the Times’ Sabrina Tavernise, who also wrote an article detailing Barry’s attempt to add the language. Tavernise painted Barry as suffering under the weight of a political system deeply divided about abortion at the national level. But in emphasizing national views about abortion, particularly in the political context, Tavernise obscured how hard pro-choice advocates are fighting to maintain abortion rights in Missouri. Instead, the story gave anti-abortion misinformation a high-profile platform and sanitized the consequences of losing access to abortion care in Missouri. Here are five things The Daily got wrong about abortion, and in particular, abortion access in Missouri:
1. Treating “partial-birth abortion” as a real thing
During the two-part series, Tavernise argued that anti-abortion Democrats are fleeing the Democratic Party, both nationally and in Missouri. As evidence of this trend, Tavernise pointed to conversations around an attempt to pass the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in 1995. Although the bill was vetoed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, it ultimately became law under President George W. Bush in 2003, and was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2007 in Gonzales v. Carhart. The language of this law entrenched the false idea of so-called “partial-birth” abortion, despite no such procedure existing -- a linguistic trap that The Daily fell into often when covering the Missouri dispute.
In attempting to explain “partial-birth” abortion, The Daily relied on the description from the 1995 bill: “an abortion in which the person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery.” The Daily then talked to Lou Riggs -- who is currently running as a Republican for the Missouri House -- who described “partial-birth” abortion as something “Dr. Mengele on his worst day in the Nazi death camp did not conceive of” performing.
But “partial-birth” abortions are not real. As NPR reported in 2006, “‘partial-birth’ is not a medical term. It’s a political one” that was invented by anti-abortion extremists to incite feelings of disgust and stigma about abortion. As explained by NPR’s Julie Rovner, “partial-birth” abortion is a misleading reference to the previously used later-term abortion procedure known as a “‘dilation and extraction,’ or D&X.” Rovner continued that the term “was first coined” in 1995 “by the National Right to Life Committee,” an anti-choice group that admitted in a magazine interview that it created the term to “foster a growing opposition to abortion.” The term made its way to the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in 1995, and it is still used by right-wing media to both vilify those who have abortions and to erroneously conflate the nonexistent practice with safe and legal forms of later abortion.
Rather than exploring any of this, The Daily centered its reporting on anti-choice Democrats who adopted a common right-wing talking point pushed for years by anti-abortion extremists. In doing so, The Daily did not explain how this inaccurate understanding of “partial-birth” abortion manufactured tensions in the Democratic Party -- and ignored the consequences of allowing this misconception to be repeated, unchecked to this day.
2. Saying Democrats have become too "extreme" on abortion
Throughout the two-part series, Tavernise erroneously painted the national Democratic Party as moving from a moderate position on abortion to one that is more extreme -- ignoring popular support for abortion access. For example, Tavernise explained that after Clinton vetoed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act in 1996, “Democrats could no longer be pro-life; they had to pick a side. It was impossible to be in the middle.” She lamented that “local politics” had been replaced by “big national issues, like the question of abortion, the question of Roe v. Wade” which “only exacerbated Democrats’ difficulties in places like Missouri. It’s only made things worse.”
Framing the Democratic stance on abortion as “extreme” has long been a popular tactic in right-wing media and even among some more mainstream outlets. In Media Matters’ annual study of evening cable news coverage, Fox News dominated discussions about abortion in prime time with inaccurate statements about the so-called extreme abortion procedures allegedly supported by the left, but CNN and MSNBC also succumbed to this talking point far too often. For example, during Sen. Doug Jones’ (D-AL) run-off race against Roy Moore in Alabama, all three outlets portrayed Jones as “extreme” for opposing a ban on abortion after 20 weeks.
Calling Democrats’ views of abortion “extreme” is a vast mischaracterization of their positions, and misrepresents broader public opinion. As a recent Pew Research poll found, “a 58% majority of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. These views are relatively unchanged in the past few years.” Suggestions that Democrats should compromise or tone down their support for abortion are also unsupported by data. As the polling firm PerryUndem found, “Just 8 percent of Democrats would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes abortion,” but “31 percent of Republicans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights.” Tresa Undem, co-founder and partner at PerryUndem, told Vox, “By going after the 8 percent of Democrats who want a candidate who opposes abortion, the party risks losing the 71 percent of Democratic voters who want their candidates to support abortion rights.”
Beyond raw numbers, support for these allegedly “extreme” positions is grounded in the recognition that these types of abortions are done for a variety of personal and medical reasons and that those who need access to this vital form of health care should not be vilified.
3. Portraying the anti-abortion Democrat they talked to as a centrist on abortion
The Daily also extensively discussed Barry’s reasons for introducing the anti-choice amendment, including that she “felt the party no longer tolerated views like hers” and that the party had “drifted too far left on abortion” and “developed this hard edge with this activist language” that made her feel “excluded, looked down upon.” Tavernise explained that Barry felt adding the language “would be a real contribution” and “would mean more people would feel welcome” to the party. The Daily framed Barry as a sympathetic character who “took it hard” when the amendment was pulled. Tavernise called her “a good soldier,” for the party, and suggested that in spite of all her hard work she had only ended up with "people wanting her out.” Tavernise also said Barry “felt really misunderstood. Being pro-life didn’t mean she wanted to take choice away. It didn’t mean she wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
Setting aside anti-abortion organizations’ celebrations that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court spells the end of Roe, The Daily also failed to mention that Barry wanted to include language in the platform expressing support for the criminalization of abortion. As Rewire.News’ Ally Boguhn reported, “During the platform committee’s deliberations, Barry attempted to include anti-choice language regarding ‘life from conception until natural death,’ which ultimately did not make it into the platform.” As Boguhn explained, “Such phrasing uses so-called personhood rhetoric that, if implemented into law, could criminalize abortion and some forms of contraception.”
Boguhn also outlined how Barry supported various anti-choice restrictions during her time in the Missouri House of Representatives. In 2001, “Barry introduced a so-called informed consent bill requiring a 24-hour waiting period and mandating that doctors inform patients of risks associated with abortion,” a mandate that stemmed from an inaccurate anti-abortion talking point. She also “sponsored a ‘partial-birth abortion’ ban” and “co-sponsored another ‘informed consent’ bill to require a waiting period for patients seeking a medication abortion.”
Tavernise shouldn’t have relied on Barry’s assurances that she didn’t really want to end Roe. Instead, The Daily should have looked at Barry’s record of chipping away at abortion access while in the Missouri House and, in particular, her clear intention to criminalize abortion during the platform fight.
4. Omitting the legitimate reasons why pro-choice Democrats wanted the language removed
While Tavernise focused on Barry and her convictions about the platform language, there was little discussion about why other members of the committee were upset and voted to eliminate the anti-choice provisions. While Tavernise did talk to some pro-choice advocates on the committee, she did not give them much room to explain their position or dispute the harmful premise of Barry’s agenda. Instead, Tavernise framed them as merely “angry” with the decision or having “a furious reaction” because they “were pissed,” while failing to discuss why they were mad. Rather than discuss the misinformation behind Barry’s proposed language, or the tangible harms that the anti-choice amendment would have on Missourians, Part 1 ends on a dramatic cliffhanger with Barry’s daughter warning her mother to “get some mace or something” -- as if Barry would be under physical attack for proposing the language.
The Daily’s invocation of the "violent left" as a plot device plays into a rhetorical strategy commonly used by right-wing media and abortion opponents to suppress valid opposition to their harmful policies. For example, during anti-Kavanaugh protests prior to his confirmation, The Daily Signal called protesters “vicious mobs.” Meanwhile, the anti-abortion organization Priests for Life wrote that the “deeper roots of the rage and hysteria of the anti Kavanaugh protestors” stemmed from “the repressed grief of women who experienced abortion loss” -- another right-wing media myth about abortion.
Aside from the vote about the language being held on a day that many committee members had a prior engagement, The Daily also failed to consider the legitimate reasons many opposed Barry’s extreme additions. After the episodes aired, one of the pro-choice committee members interviewed by Tavernise -- co-founder and co-director of Reproaction Pamela Merritt -- wrote a blog post arguing that while Tavernise’s written article was “solid. … The podcast is slanted, and it seems that they want to cast the prolife Dem as a victim and all the rest of us as unreasonable.”
Merritt also outlined some additional points about why she wanted the language removed:
Access to abortion is not some insignificant wedge issue that politicians can chose whether or not to champion based on how they think their district feels about it. Reproductive healthcare is key to every single progressive issue Democratic claim to champion, so failing to support the full spectrum of services indicates a fundamental lack of understanding how policy works.
There can be no economic justice without reproductive justice. The ability to control whether or not you get pregnant, whether to carry a pregnancy to term, and the spacing between children is a big fucking deal. It means the difference between being able to make ends meet or not, being able to get an advanced degree or attend college/training or not. For some people, it is the difference between life or death. I’m passionate about access because IT FUCKING MATTERS.
You can’t claim to stand with Black women and then dismiss our leadership, ignore our demands, and support policies that promote reproductive oppression.
And you can’t say a platform is pro-choice if it includes language stating that the party will welcome people who do not support abortion access and see their presence as a strength.
5. Failing to contextualize the dire state of abortion access in Missouri and the consequences of losing abortion care
In the podcast, Tavernise decried that “local politics” have been replaced by “big national issues, like the question of abortion, the question of Roe v. Wade, the question of [Justice Brett] Kavanaugh.” This framing dangerously ignored how these “big national issues” are very much a part of “local politics,” especially given the precarious state of abortion access in Missouri.
Missouri currently has only one abortion provider in a state with more than 6 million people -- and Gov. Mike Parsons (R) recently signed a state budget blocking Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood. Missouri already has a plethora of abortion restrictions, including a requirement that women receive “state-directed counseling that includes information designed to discourage her from having an abortion,” and a 72-hour waiting period. Missouri’s legislature has an appetite for even further abortion restrictions -- Republican state Rep. Mike Moon told The Associated Press this year that the “time is right” to pass an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution.
Although Kavanaugh’s threat as a potential fifth vote to overturn Roe is briefly mentioned in both of The Daily’s episodes, neither one mentions that Missouri currently has both an anti-choice legislature and an anti-choice governor with no protections in place, leaving the state’s abortion rights “at the highest risk of loss if Roe is overturned” according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Missouri is one of seven states classified by the Guttmacher Institute as having “laws that express their intent to restrict the right to legal abortion to the maximum extent permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the absence of Roe.” Planned Parenthood described Missouri as one of 20 states “poised to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.” Far from Tavernise’s concern that all politics have become national, there is plenty of abortion-related legislation in Missouri -- and plenty of material consequences for the Missourians who are denied abortion access thanks to anti-choice lawmakers and advocates such as Barry.
As anti-abortion advocates no longer demur about Kavanaugh’s likely role in overturning Roe, The Daily’s coverage of the fight for reproductive justice in Missouri failed to present an accurate picture of what’s at stake. Instead, The Daily presented a sanitized view of an anti-abortion extremist, relied on anti-abortion talking points, and ignored the concerns of pro-choice advocates about the true consequences of losing access to abortion in the state and across the country.