The newspaper of record's squeamishness about abortion.

What is The New York Times’ problem with abortion? The editorial page consistently supports sex education, birth control, and the right to legally end unwanted pregnancy. The rest of the Times, however, often seems uncomfortable with concrete applications of these principles. Not a season goes by that a news item or magazine feature doesn’t imply that women who get abortions are acting with egotism, unhealthiness, and cruelty.

The most recent instance of this is Annie Murphy Paul’s “The First Ache,” in last Sunday’s Magazine. “When does the experience of pain begin?” the subtitle asks. “Anti-abortion activists aren’t the only ones to argue that it may be in the womb.”

Paul’s article, which runs over 5,000 words, begins with a doctor in Arkansas claiming that fetuses as immature as 20 weeks after gestation suffer agonies when prodded and cut during, say, prenatal surgery. And--the point of the piece--when they’re aborted.

But then other doctors start discussing the Arkansas physician’s claim, and their opinions are all over the map. One insists that fetuses feel no pain until at least 29 weeks. Another pushes the pain date all the way forward to 18 weeks. Someone else says that even born babies can’t feel pain until they’re one year old. Clearly, there’s no consensus on the issue. But the lack of agreement is lost amid the article’s looming intimation that women who end their pregnancies are hurting their fetuses. Paul never specifies that the vast majority of abortions--more than 96 percent--are performed before 18 weeks’ gestation, the earliest date being claimed for the beginning of fetal pain. Nor does she mention that American women are getting abortions earlier and earlier in their pregnancies: The rate occurring in the first eight weeks has increased sharply in recent years, with many now done in the sixth week of pregnancy or earlier. Without these statistics, the article’s main effect is to make female readers feel guilty and confused about abortion.

Paul’s is not the only problem piece to run in the Sunday Magazine. Another, by Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon, appeared last January and looked at “post-abortion syndrome” (PAS). A takeoff on PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), PAS is not recognized by the psychiatric or psychotherapy establishment because there’s no scientific evidence it exists. But moral conservatives out to overturn Roe v. Wade have popularized the purported malady among women who’ve had abortions. And last year, the Supreme Court cited affidavits submitted by people claiming they’ve suffered from PAS. The court said the risk to women of contracting the risk of “severe depression and loss of esteem” was one reason to ban “dilation and extraction”--better known as “partial birth” abortion. If for no other reason than this politicking, PAS is well worth exploring.

Problem is, Bazelon skips lightly over politics, focusing instead on fuzzy profiles of self-described PAS sufferers. One is Rhonda Arias, an evangelical minister who runs PAS-support groups in Texas women’s prisons. Bazelon follows Arias as she holds forth in one facility, reading from the New Testament, playing gospel music, and handing dolls to inmates who weep as they mourn their aborted offspring. Then Arias asks these prisoners to send her testimonies about their PAS to her so she can submit them to places like the Supreme Court.

To be fair, Bazelon spends a long time discussing the piled-up scientific evidence showing that PAS doesn’t exist, with many interviews from respected researchers illustrating the consensus that it’s just a right-wing talking-point. Still, Bazelon writes that Arias’s audience members “drink in [her] preaching,” and about how Arias “ministers from the heart” with her face “alight.” We read that Arias conducted a study with data culled from prisoner reports of psychological trauma from abortion (which she later sent to the Supreme Court). But Bazelon does not remind us that prison inmates are considered a terrible source of data for psychology studies. They are a captive population at great risk of saying whatever they think people in authority--including researchers--want to hear. Nor are we told that one facility where Arias does her PAS data collection has been cited by inmates as lacking access to work and substance abuse programs. Another prison houses all nine women on Texas’s death row and is among the state’s ten most violent prisons. No wonder inmates might exchange PAS testimonials for hugs and music.

And Bazelon only glances over the Justice Foundation, a Texas group that funded the collection of those PAS affidavits for delivery to the Supreme Court. The article calls the foundation “a conservative law center,” but doesn’t say that it was founded by, and gets its money from, James Leininger, a Christian right winger and one of the richest people in Texas. Leininger has used the Justice Foundation and other groups, also funded by him, to pack the Texas school board with members who oppose sex education and favor censoring textbooks. He has bankrolled political campaigns in which candidates who don’t toe his line have been smeared with charges that they promote illegal drug use and homsexuality to school children. And he is staunchly anti-choice: Using the Justice Foundation, he almost single-handedly has enabled the gathering of PAS affidavits to erode Roe v. Wade. Rhonda Arias would be a nobody without this man’s fortune and political designs. He’s as important as she is--if not more so--to understand the PAS push.

Magazine articles aren’t the Times’s only problem. News stories also sometimes issue strange and conflicting messages about abortion. Last spring, for instance, a long piece appeared on the front page: “Today’s Face of Abortion in China is a Young, Unmarried Woman,” by Jim Yardley with Lin Yang contributing. The article’s point seemed to be that, back when China coerced married women to have only one child, it wasn’t their fault they had to get abortions--but now, single young women are obtaining them voluntarily. And this is bad.

Why bad? The article reeks with veiled references to selfishness and irresponsibility. The first paragraph says, “it was her second abortion in 18 months.” Indeed, most patients sitting at a clinic with this woman have already had an abortion; one is on her sixth! And how did they find the clinic? The article notes that private abortion clinics proliferate in China now, and newspapers there run “sensational” ads promising “Painless Abortions.” (The reporters seem unaware that ethnic papers in New York City, such as El Diario, are stuffed with identical ads, and that most abortions in this country are done at private facilities.)

Again, numbers are used out of context. The Times cites the number of abortions per year in China, and the number in this country: 7.1 million there, 1.29 million here--an alarming differential until you recall that China’s population is over four times that of the US. The article never mentions this basic data.

A headline was the problem in another front page story, which ran on January 31. The article reported that Shanghai Hualian, a big pharmaceuticals manufacturer in China, made a contaminated leukemia drug that sickened patients in that country. The same firm produces all the RU-486 distributed in the U.S. (the drug is used to induce non-surgical abortions). But the FDA said the company's RU-486 factory had passed many inspections and is safe. The Times reported this at length. So why was the articled titled "Tainted Drugs Linked to Maker of Abortion Pill"?

To be sure, Times stories are not always pursed-lipped about abortion. Spring 2006 saw a national scare about a deadly bacterial infection associated with RU-486 abortions. In a follow-up article in May, reporter Gardiner Harris pointed out that infection with the same bacteria might be a risk for pregnant women who intend to have their babies. Harris even quoted two New York woman who'd had multiple abortions, some done surgically and some with RU-486. They discussed the pros and cons of each procedure, and one woman allowed publication of her name: Anne Hawkins. The whole thing was refreshingly matter of fact and devoid of cryptic moralizing. But the article was buried near the back of the A section.

Then there was the disturbing flap at the Magazine two years ago, after a cover piece about illegal abortion in Latin America reported on a woman in El Salvador who supposedly was criminally convicted for aborting her 18-week fetus. Post publication, it turned out the woman was actually judged guilty of murdering her newborn, full-term baby. The reporter had never bothered to read the court records, and the Magazine’s factcheckers hadn't either. In its eagerness to champion abortion rights in a country that has none, the paper had gotten sloppy. And on its own national turf, where long-established rights are being chipped at, sloppiness runs in the other direction.

So, what's going on at the Times? Maybe only what's happening in the whole culture.  Liberals and even feminists have bought into the reasoning that abortion is basically immoral, and if women could just be educated and dosed with birth control, we wouldn't have to terminate any pregnancies. Bill Clinton’s famous formulation, that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” has become conventional wisdom.

It's the line on the Times editorial page. In other sections, awkward reality intrudes, making reporters and editors skittish. Women--particularly young and poor women--don't take their contraceptives, and when they get pregnant many wait to go to the abortion clinic. Then they get pregnant again. Their behavior seems mysterious and threatening. They become scapegoats, not just for the Right, but for older and more educated liberals, too. That's the demographic who work at the Times, and a good percentage of its readership. But the Gray Lady is powerful way beyond New York liberal circles. And by making anti-woman moral judgments and obsessing over "problems" with no good evidence they exist, she's abusing her nation and the world.  

Debbie Nathan is a New York City-based journalist. Her latest book, Pornography (Groundwood Press), explains the subject to teenagers and young adults.

By Debbie Nathan