Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me? Wrong. Sharp instruments break the bones of unborn children, but words can also hurt-or help. As our story ("Speaking our language," May 12, 2007) shows, Anthony Kennedy of the Supremes belted out hard-hitting words: "pierce the skull and vacuum the fast-developing brain." And, in describing the soft target of abortionist terror, he used the Two Words That Must Not Be Uttered: "unborn child."
As I wrote in Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, the crucial change in American thinking about abortion came not with Roe v. Wade in 1973 but with the pregnancy of Sherri Finkbine in 1962. Up to then newspapers had referred to abortion's prime victims as babies or children- but when the pretty star of the Phoenix version of Romper Room, a nationally syndicated program for children, decided to abort a child who might have been born with severe birth defects, journalists were sympathetic. The word fetus soon took over.
Two score and five years later, the carnage from our current civil war has been enormous. We rightly mourn the 3,400 members of the American military who have died defending us in Iraq over the past four years: They're human beings. We largely ignore a number almost 15,000 times greater-close to 50 million killed since Sherri Finkbine's child in 1962-but that's OK: They're just fetuses.
Can words stop scalpels? Maybe not, and especially not if most people don't hear them. Plug "Anthony Kennedy" and "abortion" into the Lexis-Nexis database, add the date April 19-the day after the Supreme Court decision-and 190 articles pop out. But only three newspapers in the Lexis-Nexis universe-The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The (Newark) Star-Ledger-quoted Kennedy's honest words. Good for them.
The New York Times, often the worst, didn't do badly this time, not only quoting Kennedy but also showing some awareness of history: The decision was "a vindication for the strategic choice the anti-abortion movement made 15 years ago." That's when many pro-lifers turned from an all-or-nothing drive for a constitutional amendment to an all-or-something emphasis on incremental improvements that could save some lives and slowly bring more people to the pro-life side.
Associated Press stories often were the worst this time. One 900-word article had a bit of specific detail at the end but near the top trumpeted this biasing sentence: "Unlike in many developed countries, where abortion is considered a medical procedure beyond the reach of politics, it remains among the most politically sensitive subjects in the United States." (Unmentioned: that the United States has one of the least protective policies toward unborn children found in any developed country.)
Several newspapers, without quoting Kennedy, did include some specific detail: The Kansas City Star, for example, described "crushing or puncturing the skull of the fetus once most of it is already outside the uterus." The website Salon.com, on the other hand, not only lacked specific detail but used euphemistic language: "Healthcare providers [that is, abortionists] are going to have to hunker down and figure out how to both comply with the law and still provide healthcare."
Salon.com also used a lead that made gaining votes rather than saving lives the essence of the story: "In a decision that might as well have come with a gift card made out to President Bush's base, the Supreme Court voted Wednesday to limit abortion." The Chicago Tribune's lead was similar: "The U.S. Supreme Court handed conservatives a long-sought victory Wednesday."
The presence or absence of specific detail is what I most look for in stories related to abortion-but point of view is also important. For example, ABC reported that the decision "angered abortion rights supporters . . . abortion rights activists were devastated." ABC could just as well have led with pleased pro-lifers. Newspapers frequently bemoaned new restrictions on women, but a different POV would spotlight new protections for unborn children.
And fetus was still the word of choice for describing the unborn child. How long, Lord, how long?