Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT
A recent episode of The New York Times’ podcast The Daily focused on Republicans’ invocation of so-called “partial-birth” abortion as an example of the type of social “wedge issues” that the party uses to drive support for their positions. In the episode, The Daily perpetuated anti-abortion misinformation by adopting the inaccurate frame that Democrats have taken an allegedly "extreme" position by supporting medically necessary later abortions -- which are distinct from the non-existent practice of "partial-birth" abortions. This wasn’t the first time The Daily inaccurately represented Democrats’ position on abortion as “extreme,” or used the conservative trope of “partial-birth” abortion as a dominant frame.
During The Daily’s October 24 episode, Times’ opinion columnist Jennifer Senior talked to Vin Weber -- a former Republican congressman -- about how it is necessary to “go back to the midterm election of 1994” to “understand the divisions that define this year’s midterms.” In particular, Senior and Weber pointed to the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act as evidence of the kind of “wedge issues” both parties had come to rely on to energize voters -- and, in effect, to polarize them. Before the act was finally signed into law in 2003, Republicans made it an issue in the 1994 midterm elections and attempted to pass the bill in 1995. The act defined so-called “partial-birth” abortion as a procedure “in which the person performing the abortion partially vaginally delivers a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery” -- despite no such procedure existing. By campaigning on the necessity of banning this imaginary procedure of anti-abortion groups’ own creation, Republicans were able to inaccurately paint Democrats as supporting an “extreme” position -- a phenomenon The Daily failed to fully contextualize for listeners.
As NPR’s Julie Rovner wrote in 2006, “partial-birth abortion” is a term “first coined” in 1995 “by the National Right to Life Committee,” an anti-choice group whose legislative director admitted in a magazine interview that the term was created to “foster a growing opposition to abortion.” The term made its way into the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, 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.
The October 24 episode of The Daily followed a 2-part series that also looked at “partial-birth abortions” in a report on an anti-abortion Democrat in Missouri who attempted and ultimately failed to add anti-choice language to the state party’s platform. In that episode, reporter Sabrina Tavernise framed the plight of anti-abortion Democrats in the 1990s around the blowback they felt for supporting the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in opposition to most members of the party. By treating anti-choice Democrats as victims of an uncompromising party position on abortion, The Daily entrenched misinformation about so-called “partial-birth" abortion and repeated a favorite right-wing media talking point about the alleged extremism of the Democratic Party.
The more recent episode was a slight improvement from the 2-part series, but still suffered from similar missteps. Senior, at least, correctly implied that “partial-birth abortions” is an invented term, saying that while it is in reference to a procedure called “intact dilation and extraction,” also called D&X, Republicans began to conflate it with the exaggerated concept of a "partial-birth" abortion. Singer also repeatedly identified the non-existent procedure as “so-called.” The most explicit pushback came from audio included from the 1995 debate on the bill, when then-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) said on the Senate floor that “the name partial-birth abortion did not exist until someone who wanted to ban an abortion procedure made up this erroneous and inflammatory term.”
Although Senior acknowledged the misleading nature of the term “partial-birth abortion,” the episode was still framed around Republicans’ political theater of using social “wedge issues” to rile up voters, rather than discussing the reality of abortion access or the specific situations in which someone may need to access medically necessary later abortion care. In doing so, The Daily failed to address how Republicans have wielded misinformation about abortion to sow division, and the negative health consequences people face as a result.
In the episode, Senior mentioned that Republicans in 1994 used so-called “partial-birth abortions” to “induce extraordinary discomfort in Democrats,” and the resulting debate meant Republicans “forced Democrats to articulate a position on abortion at its most extreme, which then painted them into a corner." However, Senior did not discuss how this invented wedge issue did not represent even half of the abortions actually performed in the United States. In reality, the procedure implicated in the 1995 bill was about a small minority of abortion procedures conducted for specific medical reasons. The Guttmacher Institute found that only “slightly more than 1% of abortions are performed at 21 weeks or later” -- the point at which this procedure would be relevant.
As Tara Haelle explained for Forbes, the “procedure is not conducted lightly,” but “nearly always when the fetus cannot live outside the womb and typically when the mother’s health is in danger, the fetus has a serious abnormality, or both.” Rolling Stone’s Bridgette Dunlap wrote that the procedure “was preferable” in these conditions and also “having one meant a patient who’d lost a wanted pregnancy could hold the fetus in her arms and say goodbye, which some would-be parents found comforting.” In 2016, Dr. Jennifer Gunter also wrote for HuffPost about some of the specific and very complex medical scenarios where a person might prefer to have a D&X procedure. People have later abortions for a variety of personal and medical reasons, which is why it's important to listen to the experiences of those who have had them, rather than stigmatizing them based on right-wing misinformation.
The Daily did not address this reality -- or the consequences of abortion care in Missouri becoming increasingly difficult to access. Instead, the episode was framed around Republicans’ political grandstanding about abortion to paint Democrats as “extreme” on so-called “wedge issues” like abortion. In the 1990s, anti-abortion advocates created the term “partial-birth abortion” to fearmonger and to paint all Democrats with an extremist brush. By failing to dive into the context and debunk long-standing lies about abortion, The Daily ignored the material consequences of losing access to this necessary form of health care and perpetuated anti-abortion talking points and right-wing misinformation.