FOX News toes GOP line, using the term “partial birth abortion”

With just one exception over the past year, FOX News has consistently used the Republican terminology “partial birth abortion” to refer to a recent law prohibiting a procedure commonly used in terminating later-term pregnancies. The bill, which Republican lawmakers titled the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, was signed into law by President Bush on November 5, 2003, but federal judges in New York, San Francisco, and Lincoln, Neb., have since rejected it as unconstitutional, as the Associated Press reported on September 8, 2004.

While the law itself has caused controversy, the term “partial birth abortion” -- used by supporters of the ban to purportedly describe the procedure -- is also highly politically charged.

According to a Nexis search of U.S. newspapers and wires, the term “partial birth abortion” was apparently first used in a major newspaper on June 4, 1995; a headline in the conservative Washington Times read: “Pro-life attack on partial birth abortions bears fruit.” The Times' use of the term coincided with the Christian Coalition's release of its “Contract With the American Family” and with the introduction of a bill by then-U.S. Representative Charles T. Canady (R-FL) that “would ban the procedure nationally,” as the Times article noted. The Christian Coalition's “Contract With the American Family” urged Congress to “end the practice of 'partial-birth abortions,' which it called a ” cruel and inhumane form of death."

“Partial birth abortion” then appeared in quotations in a June 12, 1995, United Press International report and a June 15, 1995, Associated Press report. According to a June 16, 1995, AP report, “A House Judiciary subcommittee began debating a new Republican bill Thursday that would make it a crime for doctors to perform procedures referred to in the legislation as 'partial-birth abortions.'” Notably, the AP reported: “During the hearing, one doctor told the panel he had never heard of a 'partial-birth abortion' in 40 years of practice.” Dr. J. Courtland Robinson, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Johns Hopkins University Hospital told the AP, “That, I suspect, is because the name did not exist until someone who wanted to ban an abortion procedure made up this erroneous, inflammatory term.” Between June 4, 1995, and December 31, 1995, the term “partial birth abortion” appeared in 632 US newspaper and wire reports.

Almost ten years later, as the Associated Press noted on April 21, 2004, “Inside and outside the courtroom, the two sides [of the abortion debate] often have differing vocabularies, beginning with the very name of the banned procedure.” According to the AP:

Congress and opponents of the procedure call it ''partial-birth abortion.'' Doctors and activists on the other side of the issue use the medical term ''intact dilation and extraction.'...The Bush administration has argued that the procedure is gruesome, inhumane, painful to the fetus, and never medically necessary. Abortion providers insist it is sometimes necessary to preserve a woman's health.

Despite the ideological dispute over the term itself, FOX News continues to use the term “partial birth abortion” without noting its controversial nature, and without noting that it is the preferred term for abortion opponents and is not used by medical professionals. In the past year, with only one exception, FOX News has referred to the ban as “partial birth abortion,” thereby falling into line with the GOP's strategic terminology. On the April 23, 2004, edition of FOX News' Special Report with Brit Hume, FOX News chief political correspondent Carl Cameron provided the one exception, referring to “a ban on late-term, or what critics call partial birth abortion.”

CNN, MSNBC, NBC, and ABC reporters have also used GOP terminology to refer to the ban -- in some instances without context or qualification. But in numerous other instances it was called a ban on “so-called partial birth abortion” ; “what [abortion] opponents call partial birth abortion” ; or “late-term abortion.” CBS was the only network to consistently describe the procedure in terms other than “partial birth abortion,” using instead “late-term abortion” or “what opponents call partial birth abortions.” Even the phrase “late-term abortion” is vague, as the law bans a procedure that is commonly, but not exclusively, used in performing late-term abortions. CNN has noted some of the problems with referring to the policy as a ban on “partial birth abortion.” On the August 26 edition of CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, CNN senior medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta explained that neither “partial birth” nor “late-term” are medical terms for the procedure:

GUPTA: Partial birth abortion, I should say first of all, is not a medical term, nor is late-term abortion. ... There are several different ways of inducing abortion, if you will, later in pregnancy, this [the procedure banned under the 2003 law] is one of them. The one that we're talking about here. Again, it's called the dilatation and extraction procedure, that's the medical name of it. Another way to induce abortion is to give certain medications that might induce abortion of a fetus that is no longer viable. There have been no studies to really show that one is necessarily safer than the other, but a lot of obstetricians that we've talked to and we've done a lot of reporting on this believe that the dilatation and extraction [the procedure that was banned] is actually safer over all, all things considered.

On the June 2 edition of CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown, Brown reported on the controversy over terminology: “In the first test of the so-called partial birth abortion ban, a federal court in California said it was unconstitutional. The law's very name has created controversy from the start. Physicians call the procedure intact dilation and extraction. Most medical organizations oppose the law because they believe sometimes it is the safest way to perform an abortion.”

On the October 25, 2003, edition of FOX News Watch, host Eric Burns acknowledged FOX News' use of “partial birth abortion” :

BURNS: FOX News Channel calls it partial birth abortion. The CBS Evening News has called it “a certain type of late term abortion.” The New York Times, in this article, calls it “a specific abortion procedure.” Whatever it is, Jim, it has been banned by the Senate.

Here are some examples of FOX News' usage of the term:

  • CHRIS WALLACE, FOX News Sunday host: “You [Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)] voted against banning partial birth abortions, against the Defense of Marriage Act.” (FOX News Sunday, 12/5/04)
  • WENDELL GOLER, FOX News White House correspondent: “And he [President Bush] said Kerry's votes against an amendment to ban gay marriage and a ban on partial birth abortion show a major difference in values.” (Special Report with Brit Hume, 10/22/04)
  • JANE SKINNER, FOX News correspondent: “A federal judge has ruled the ban on partial birth abortion is unconstitutional.” (The Big Story with John Gibson, 8/26/04)
  • ANDREW NAPOLITANO, FOX News senior judicial analyst: “How does more taxes, pro-abortion, pro-partial birth abortion, pro-gay rights, pro-regulation, how does that play in these crucial states in the South and in the West, coming out of the mouth of a Democrat?” (The Big Story with John Gibson, 7/7/04)
  • BRIT HUME, FOX News managing editor and chief Washington correspondent: "[Senator] John Kerry, who has voted against banning partial birth abortion and has campaigned for abortion rights, has now taken a position agreeing with the central tenet of the anti-abortion unit. Kerry, in an interview with the Dubuque, Ohio [sic: Iowa] Telegraph Herald said, quote, “I believe life does begin at conception.” And he said, quote, “I oppose abortion. Personally, I don't like abortion.” (Special Report with Brit Hume, 7/6/04)
  • GREG KELLY, FOX News correspondent: “These anti-abortion forces, of course, have a friend in the White House. President Bush, who campaigned on a pro-life platform and signed the partial birth abortion ban last year.” (Special Report with Brit Hume, 1/22/04)
  • MAJOR GARRETT, FOX News general assignment correspondent: “In another historic move, Congress approved a law to criminalize partial birth abortion. The president swiftly signed the first-ever federal restriction on abortion access in 30 years.” (Special Report with Brit Hume, 11/26/03)