Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Importance of Language in Media Coverage of Abortion Bans

In the wake of the Supreme Court's recent decision, some commentators are faulting the media for helping to shape public opinion on abortion by accepting the politically charged terminology of the anti-choice movement (like "partial-birth abortion"):

See also this post, from January of this year, by David Cohen on the Feminist Law Professors blog regarding the New York Times's prominent coverage of the discredited theory of a "post-abortion syndrome."  I've been thinking about that Times article a lot in light of Justice Kennedy's alarming adoption of the theory in Gonzales v. Carhart.

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Of the women I've met who have had abortions, most feel liberated. However, I have also met women who are convinced that they experienced post-abortion stress syndrome. The latter tend to have been coerced into their decision or experienced particularly traumatic events during the course of their abortion; and some just made hasty or ill informed decisions. Many of these women choose to label their sadness, regret, or depression as PASS.

It is not unreasonable to say some women have more trouble than others when coping with their abortions and I don't particularly have a problem with some women self-identifying with PASS (of course, I think their conceptualization of PASS differs from that of that politicized debate). In my mind, the problem has to do with the definition of PASS and the way that pro-life groups tend to leverage PASS to justify their own position. The women I know who have had a difficult time coping in the days/weeks/months following their abortions and self-identify with PASS do not argue that other women should be barred from choosing abortion. Instead, they tend to say that abortion was not the right choice for them. People make ill-informed or regrettable choices all the time but the Supreme Court doesn't feel compelled to restrict rights in order to protect them from doing their own decision-making. It seems paternalistic for the Supreme Court to do so in the case of abortion.

Posted by: Jenny | Apr 22, 2007 11:50:21 PM

Hi, Jenny. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I very much agree with you that the conception of a "post-abortion syndrome" you articulate is quite different from what is suggested in the debates, which is why I hestitate to use that term -- it's what those who oppose abortion rights want us to use, in order to fuel a perception that these reactions are the norm. While I don't doubt that some women experience stress or regret after an abortion, I think it is very hard to separate the abortion as a cause per se from the fact of an unintended pregnancy. It is also hard to separate out other, external factors that may contribute to those feelings, factors which may include the judgmental views of society regarding abortion. To deny that there is a "post-abortion syndrome" is not to deny at all the difficulty some women experience. But to label it a "syndrome" implies a problem that is widespread and typical, and one that is definitely caused by the abortion and that would not have occurred had there been no abortion. I think the summary of the research on this issue offered on NAF's website is very helpful:

Posted by: Caitlin Borgmann | Apr 23, 2007 2:38:12 PM

I couldn't agree with you more. Although I would never suggest my own experience as representative, the feelings of remorse that I experienced immediately following my abortion had much to do with the circumstances of the pregnancy and little to do with guilt regarding the exercise of choice.

After culling threads generated in response to the NYT article on a PASS discussion board, I discovered that many women responded by interpreting the claim that PASS does not exist to mean that their regret or sadness was not justified. Interestingly, they tended to misconstrue the NYT's position as one in furtherance of society's judgmental views of women who choose abortion. I think the confusion regarding the meaning of the label that is associated with their feelings does a disservice to not just these particular women but the abortion debate on the whole.

On an unrelated note, I find this blog incredibly provoking. If only interest in reproductive rights were as prominent at my own law school!

Posted by: Jenny | Apr 23, 2007 11:37:58 PM

Your points are a good reminder of how careful one has to be in articulating positions in the abortion debate so as not to be misunderstood. Emotions run so high (understandably!) that it seems important to bend over backwards to make sure women do not perceive even the pro-choice views to be casting judgments on them.

I'm glad you find the blog interesting!

Posted by: Caitlin Borgmann | Apr 24, 2007 1:52:09 PM

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