Bethany Mandel | Media Matters for America

Bethany Mandel

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  • Right-wing media can't stop mis-citing a 2013 abortion study -- and other outlets are repeating the error

    Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    As part of the escalating rhetoric surrounding abortions later in pregnancy, right-wing media and anti-abortion media have consistently -- and erroneously -- pointed to a 2013 study from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health as a piece of “gotcha” evidence allegedly disproving arguments about the dangers of restricting later abortion access. The study doesn't support the purported argument about the frequency of later abortions; that hasn't stopped anti-abortion groups (which repeatedly argue that being "pro-life is pro-science") from touting it -- nor has it stopped other outlets from uncritically allowing or repeating these assertions.

    In 2013, Diana Greene Foster and Katrina Kimport authored a study published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (though it is sometimes inaccurately cited as a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a disclaimer at the bottom clarifies that “the views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Guttmacher Institute”). This study examined the potential impact of legislation banning abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy and attempted to assess the reasons why someone would choose to have an abortion around that time period.

    This January, as state legislatures in New York and Virginia began considering measures to protect abortion access or to remove unnecessary anti-choice barriers, right-wing media continually cited this 2013 study out of context to allege that Democrats had an extreme position on later abortion access. In particular, anti-abortion and right-wing media have cherry-picked language from the introduction of the 2013 study as proof that third-trimester abortions are not performed due to fetal abnormalities or dangers to the life of the pregnant person. In reality, that is not the time period analyzed by the study and those reasons for seeking an abortion were explicitly excluded from its scope.

    The crux of this disingenuous allegation relies on a misinterpretation of a sentence in the study’s introduction stating that “data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.” Right-wing and anti-abortion media have taken this sentence as evidence that few, if any, people seek abortion care in the third trimester due to fetal abnormalities or dangers to the life of the pregnant person. There are several issues with this interpretation.

    First, as the study’s co-author Foster confirmed on Twitter, the study “was about abortions at 20 weeks up to the end of the second trimester [around 27 weeks]. It has no relevance to third trimester abortions.” She continued, “My article was intended to increase understanding of the circumstances of women who have abortions after 20 weeks and within the second trimester,” however, “that doesn’t mean that women seeking abortions in the third trimester are just like those in the second trimester.” In addition to focusing on abortions in the second trimester, the 2013 study also explicitly excluded people who had abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality or dangers to the pregnant person’s life from the analysis altogether. As the authors wrote: “Our study has several important limitations. Our data are limited by the exclusion of women who sought later abortions on grounds of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”

    Despite this, abortion opponents have alleged the study’s findings about common reasons why people seek abortion care -- “they were raising children alone, were depressed or using illicit substances, were in conflict with a male partner or experiencing domestic violence, had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and nulliparous” -- were all evidence that pro-choice advocates’ claims about the medical necessity of access to third-trimester abortion care were inaccurate. In reality, there are many personal and medical reasons people choose to have abortions in the second and third trimester. As Foster further clarified to Rewire.News after a 2018 congressional report inaccurately referenced the study, “I wouldn’t state that fetal anomaly and life endangerment are a small minority of later abortions because nobody has statistics on this.”

    While right-wing media and anti-choice advocates have erroneously cited this study before, faux outrage spun up in reaction to state abortion measures spurred an uptick in the mischaracterizations and misuse of this study -- mischaracterizations that are now spurring inaccurate coverage from other outlets.

    After New York and Virginia’s abortion measures, anti-abortion and right-wing media cited the 2013 study to counter arguments about the necessity of later abortion access

    • Anti-abortion advocate Abby Johnson wrote in Townhall that the 2013 study showed “the most common reasons why women chose abortion late-term” and claimed that it refuted pro-choice claims that people need to be “able to terminate so late in their pregnancies because of fetal abnormalities.”
    • In February, Hillary Clinton tweeted that abortions later in pregnancy occur “almost always” because a pregnant person’s “health or life is at risk, or the pregnancy is no longer viable.” Townhall’s Lauretta Brown disagreed, claiming that “the Guttmacher Institute cited a study from 2013 that found ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’”
    • In a series of posts, National Review writers cited the 2013 study to question the necessity of Virginia’s abortion measure. The most explicit example came from senior writer David French, who opined:

    So, why do these babies die? The Guttmacher Institute has looked at the reasons for late-term abortion, and the reasons are chilling. First, the top-line finding is clear: “[D]ata suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”

    Interestingly, even in some of the anecdotes chosen by Guttmacher, the women describe their decision to have a late-term abortion as “easy” or “very easy.” They didn’t find out they were pregnant until later in the pregnancy, didn’t want the child, and aborted it. Their only challenge was raising the money or finding the clinic. The thought that they were killing a viable infant — a person who would could be raised in a loving home if the mother didn’t want her child — apparently doesn’t factor into their decision-making. It’s treated as casually as an early-term abortion.

    This is the reality of late-term abortion in America.

    • The New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat cited the 2013 study on Twitter to claim “most third-trimester abortions are not performed for reasons of fetal or maternal health.”
    • The Federalist’s David Harsanyi:

    • The Federalist also published several articles incorrectly citing the 2013 study. Ben Domenech wrote that those “seeking 3rd trimester abortions” are not doing so “because of the non-viability of the fetus or fetal abnormalities.” Instead, he claimed, “A 2013 Guttmacher study – no friend of anti-abortion activists – found this was not the case at all.” In another article, Kenny Xu wrote that the 2013 study allegedly “revealed that out of 272 women surveyed who had received an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, none of them received it for any kind of clinical endangerment to the health of the mother.”
    • The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh incorrectly cited the study and then tweeted about how it was further evidence that so-called “pro-aborts” are “damned dishonest” and “everything they say is a lie”:

    • Breitbart published two articles using the study to allege that “research does not support the common pro-abortion-rights narrative that late-term abortions are performed primarily in cases of ‘severe deformities’ or when the unborn baby is determined ‘non-viable,’” and to claim that it “found that ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’”
    • Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, tweeted that the “pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute” refuted pro-choice advocates’ “claims about ‘tragic’ circumstances of most/all late abortions” involving fetal abnormalities or the health of the pregnant person, again citing the 2013 study.
    • Micaiah Bilger of the anti-abortion media outlet LifeNews.com:

    • Bilger repeated this claim in an article for LifeNews.com, writing, “The truth is that many late-term abortions are elective.” The assertion was repeated in another LifeNews.com article and on the outlet’s Twitter account:

    • Anti-abortion group Live Action published a piece citing the study as evidence that pro-choice advocates were misrepresenting why people have abortions later in pregnancy:

    Abortion supporters will claim, “No one’s going to abort so late in pregnancy unless there’s something wrong with her or the ‘fetus’!” They’re wrong about that. A Guttmacher study points out the reasons why women seek “later” abortions — to use their terminology — and it’s not for the reasons they publicly claim. Instead researchers found that most “were raising children alone, were depressed or using illicit substances, were in conflict with a male partner or experiencing domestic violence, had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and nulliparous.”

    No mention of the mother’s life or health being at risk, or of a fetal anomaly.

    • The Washington Examiner published a “fact check” of a CNN article about abortions later in pregnancy. However, the Examiner’s so-called “fact check” cited the 2013 study to allege that most people do not seek later abortions due to fetal abnormality or risks to the health of the pregnant person. An additional Examiner article said that the 2013 study actually showed “most late abortions are elective, and done for socio-economic reasons.”
    • Americans United For Life’s Catherine Glenn Foster used the 2013 study incorrectly in a thread on Twitter:

    A major anti-abortion movement “research” organization often uses this study erroneously to support inaccurate conclusions

    The Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) is the research arm of the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List, and attempts to brand its members as impartial scientific experts, when in reality the organization has an explicit mission to oppose abortion access. Unfortunately, while right-wing media and anti-abortion groups often cite CLI to support inaccurate claims about abortion, other outlets sometimes rely on them without sufficient context or disclosure about the organization’s ideological purpose. CLI has adopted an inaccurate reading of the 2013 study to support anti-abortion positions, using it in both a “report” and “fact sheet” on their website. Although in each instance, CLI included a note that the 2013 study does have “significant” limitations, such as excluding those participants seeking an abortion for health risks or fetal abnormalities, both documents still inaccurately conclude that the study is an effective bludgeon for refuting arguments about the reasons people have abortions later in pregnancy.

    However, CLI’s Twitter account did not mention the potential “limitations” of the 2013 study, and instead repeatedly promoted it to further the popular misinterpretations of the findings:

    Other outlets have allowed anti-abortion advocates to erroneously cite this study

    As the hyperbolic “controversy” over the measures in New York and Virginia unfolded, The Atlantic and The Washington Post both gave right-wing misinformation about the 2013 study an uncritical platform in each outlet’s opinion section.

    The Atlantic published a piece by National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis in which she wrote, “Research from the pro-abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute contradicts the claims that abortions after 20 weeks are most often necessary in heart-wrenching medical emergencies. One study summarized the available data as suggesting that ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’” A note on the piece stated that it was “updated to clarify that the claim quoted from the Guttmacher Institute study came from its survey of existing research, and was not a finding made by the study itself,” but failed to address DeSanctis’ inaccurate primary claim that she had mockingly pushed on Twitter as well:

    Similarly, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Bethany Mandel, where she said that “according to research from the Planned Parenthood-affiliated Guttmacher Institute, ‘data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’” Mandel also continued promoting this claim on Twitter:

    Right-wing and anti-abortion media will continue to erroneously cite this 2013 study, and it will likely be rehashed by anti-abortion lawmakers in any number of reports or hearings. Other outlets have a responsibility not to repeat this inaccurate characterization of the study -- or else they're helping abortion opponents spread further misinformation with potentially dire consequences.

  • Two anti-LGBTQ websites dropped a writer for being too homophobic. She's right to be surprised.

    What she tweeted would have looked perfectly at home on their sites

    Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Two right-wing websites won minor praise over the weekend when they parted ways with a freelancer after she went on a homophobic tirade against a gay journalist.

    On Saturday night, journalist Yashar Ali replied to a nearly day-old tweet by conservative writer Denise McAllister. Her tweet read, “Trying to talk to my husband while Carolina is playing. He looks at me and says, ‘Woman, you know better than this. The game is on.’ He’s right. I slipped. Commercial comes on. I fetch him a beer. He grabs me. Deep kisses. Patience and timing, ladies. That’s the lesson.”

    While there was no shortage of people making jokes about the tweet’s retrograde views on gender, Ali’s comment was one of genuine concern.

    “It made me genuinely sad,” Ali tells me, explaining that he was disappointed and frustrated by some of the jokes people were making at McAllister’s expense. “At that moment I thought to myself, ‘This makes me so sad that she thinks she slipped simply because she spoke,’ and I actually felt terrible that she was living in that kind of marriage. No one should be treated that way.”

    Likely interpreting Ali’s tweet as sarcasm or scorn, McAllister unloaded on him in a series of now-deleted tweets, writing, “A gay man commenting on a heterosexual relationship is just. Sad. Pathetic really,” “I think [Ali] has a crush on me. Maybe I’m making him doubt his love of penis,” and “Oh so sad. [Ali] is lost. He doesn’t know his purpose as a man. He doesn’t know his purpose as a human being. He doesn’t know his purpose as an Individual. So he wallows and tries to find himself in another man’s asshole. Sad.”

    Within hours, The Federalist and The Daily Wire cut ties with McAllister, who had previously written for both outlets. Federalist co-founder and publisher Ben Domenech tweeted that McAllister “will not be writing for us at The Federalist any more.” The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro confirmed to The Washington Post that he’d asked McAllister to take the reference to the site out of her Twitter profile, calling her tweets “gross” and “self-explanatorily beyond the boundaries of decency.”

    In all fairness to McAllister, it’s not exactly clear how her tweets were any more incendiary than what gets published on both of those sites regularly.

    When it comes to LGBTQ issues, both Domenech and Shapiro have abysmal track records.

    Early in his journalism career, following a plagiarism scandal that cost him a job writing for The Washington Post, Domenech made waves when he called Elena Kagan “openly gay” (she isn’t) in a blog post. Three years later, he launched The Federalist, and it quickly became a hub for anti-LGBTQ screeds in favor of discrimination and against marriage equality.

    Today, The Federalist is rife with articles arguing against allowing gay couples to adopt, some of which frame the issue as akin to child abuse. Articles such as “Dear Gay Community: Your Kids Are Hurting,” “What It’s Like To Face The LGBT Inquisition,” “Same-Sex Marriage Won’t Bring Us Peace,” and “The Kids Are Not Alright: A Lesbian’s Daughter Speaks Out” warn that “if people cease to take thinking seriously, the LGBT lobby wins,” that it’s “not natural” to grow up living with two women, and that “redefining marriage undermines freedom of speech and conscience, parent rights, and good home lives for children.”

    The Federalist is also home to a host of articles eager to blame gay people for the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, with articles bemoaning that the church isn’t putting a focus on “the link between sexual abuse and homosexuality among the clergy.” Similarly, Federalist writers have argued repeatedly that “Christianity that endorses sexual license isn’t Christianity” and that “there have been a disturbing number of people who claim the name of Christ who would like us to believe that God and the Bible are totally cool with homosexuality. They are not.” It also hosts op-eds extolling the virtues of “the traditional Christian teaching on sex and marriage” while denouncing “homosexual practice” and “sex-changes as an answer to gender dysphoria.”

    Most of all, The Federalist is regularly, virulently transphobic in a way that makes McAllister’s tweets seem downright polite by comparison.

    “Transgender identity is a symptom of mental illness,” writes Jon Del Arroz, an opinion shared by other writers at The Federalist who’ve warned of “the contagion of mass delusion” that is the acceptance of trans people and asserted that “transgenderism is a legal fiction.” Authors have compared being transgender to having anorexia on more than one occasion and labeled it “a war against reality.” They have advocated for pulling children out of school to avoid “trans indoctrination,” something they believe is rampant within the public school system. The end goal, one writer surmises, is “to groom children towards gender change.” Perhaps trans people are simply raging narcissists, one writer wonders. Another thinks that it’s perfectly fine to bully trans people because he’s pretty sure that there’s no link between the trans suicide attempt rate and discrimination (there is).

    Conservative commentator Bethany Mandel has tried to blackmail the broader LGBTQ community into turning its back on trans people by threatening to withdraw whatever support she was supposedly willing to offer. In one piece for the The Federalist, “How The Transgender Crusade Made Me Rethink My Support For Gay Marriage,” Mandel calls trans people’s fight for basic human rights and legal recognition “totalitarian,” writing:

    With every tweet aimed at publicizing and shaming my position on transgenderism, the progressive Left is solidifying my decision to call Bruce Jenner by his given name instead of the name he has chosen because of a condition that mental health professionals once took seriously. Playing along with delusions isn’t a kindness to those suffering from other psychological conditions, and it isn’t a kindness for those with gender dysphoria either.

    In another, “Man-splaining Is No Excuse For Invading Girls’ Locker Rooms,” she defends the bullying of a trans student, writing:

    While I’ve been told I should use a pronoun of one’s choosing out of respect and kindness, I decline to do so because I refuse to play along with the delusion. We don’t play along with the delusions of schizophrenics, and I won’t play along with the notion that someone with a penis is somehow a woman.

    Mandel remains in the good graces of both conservative and mainstream media (The New York Times published an op-ed she wrote as recently as March 2018), even though she once tweeted that trans people have “a mental illness and pair it with genital mutilation.”

    The Daily Wire is also chock-full of rampant homophobic and transphobic sentiments. Headlines serve as jabs of their own, with titles such as “CDC Finally Acknowledges: Homosexual Behavior Can Lead To More STDs. Duh,” “Homosexual Christians Doing Just What Jesus Wants By Waiting to Have Homosexual Sex Until After Homosexual Marriage,” “Trans Woman Demands TSA Ignore Biological Sex” (neither the headline nor the story accurately depicts what happened in that situation), and “FDA: Screw The Public, Let Gay Men Donate Blood.”

    Like The Federalist, The Daily Wire is also very concerned about “LGBT school indoctrination,” the potential negative effects of letting same-sex couples adopt children (even going so far as to claim that adoption agencies have a “right to deny children to homosexual couples”), and the rise in acceptance of “activity typically gauged as immoral” such as being gay. Columnists are quick to remind you that if you don’t accept that “the homosexual act is a grave sin and abortion is an abomination,” you are not a “real Christian.”

    You’ll also find a number of articles bemoaning the support of “same-sex ‘marriage’” from people “pushing homosexuality, ‘transgenderism’ and other pernicious perversions down everyone’s throat.” Right-wing commentator Erick Erickson has written a number of inflammatory anti-LGBTQ articles with lines such as “homosexuality is a perversion and sin” and California is “hellbent on forcing children into the latest religious craze: transgenderism.” Other Daily Wire writers warn that the United Nations is trying to “push homosexuality” on the rest of the world, that Pope Francis is wrong for saying that being gay isn’t a choice, and that people who disagreed with the intensely anti-LGBTQ “Nashville Statement” are basically heretics.

    Shapiro’s own writing is broadly anti-LGBTQ, but he is extremely hostile when it comes to trans people (a group he’s mocked relentlessly on Twitter). Shapiro has warned that “the gay marriage caucus” was “utilizing the law as a baton to club wrong-thinking religious people into acceptance of homosexuality,” calling for state-level resistance. He claimed that legal protections for gay and trans people would be “discrimination” as they would “override religious objections to homosexuality and business objection to hiring the mentally ill” (by which he means trans people), calling them “downright fascistic.”

    Based on what these outlets publish, McAllister was understandably surprised that she lost her freelance gigs.

    Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is the norm in articles published at both The Federalist and The Daily Wire, but when McAllister tweeted the same venom at a relatively high-profile, respected journalist, she was cut loose.

    “I was fired when I criticized a gay man who mocked my heterosexual relationship,” she tweeted. “Yet no one defended me when I stood for masculinity and God’s design for sexuality despite outlets saying they represent Judeo-Christian values about sexuality, identity and purpose. What is truth?”

    She’s got a point: This all seems extremely hypocritical. Maybe Domenech and Shapiro now realize how bad their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric sounds once it reaches an audience outside of the conservative media bubble. Maybe this will inspire real change. But more likely, Shapiro saw the negative attention coming and dropped McAllister at the first sign of trouble. Domenech was probably just looking for a reason to cut McAllister loose after she insulted his wife, Meghan McCain, last week (McCain’s response to that insult, “You were at my wedding, Denise,” became a meme).

    They should not get kudos for doing the bare minimum under the glare of the public spotlight while also regularly publishing content that is just as reprehensible. She wrote for your sites, Bens.