Sullivan: Media fell for ‘pro-life’ rhetoric, creating a mess

The phrase allowed abortion opponents to unfairly claim the moral high ground and weaponize the debate.

By Margaret Sullivan / Washington Post

About three decades ago, an obstetrician and gynecologist named Shalom Press delivered my first child at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. My regular doctor was away, and while I didn’t know his substitute, the birth of my son went smoothly. Afterward, I was far too busy to give any significant thought to exactly who brought him into the world.

But I had reason to think about Dr. Press a great deal several years later, when Buffalo, a longtime abortion battleground, erupted into chaos. By 1998, I was the managing editor of the Buffalo News when another local OB/GYN, Barnett Slepian, was murdered in his own home by an antiabortion extremist, James Kopp; in 2002, Kopp made a jailhouse confession to two of our reporters.

In the aftermath, Dr. Press became one of the last Buffalo-area doctors willing to withstand the public pressure and continue performing abortions. At one point, protesters invaded his office and chained themselves together with bicycle locks; at another, local police informed him that a Canadian newspaper had received an anonymous warning that he was “next on the list.” These experiences were both alarming and eye-opening for Press’s son, Eyal.

“One of the great successes of the antiabortion movement was to stigmatize a very common medical procedure,” he told me this week, “and to put people who defend abortion rights on the defensive.”

And part of that, he thinks, lies in the power of language; and a failure of media.

An award-winning journalist and author, Eyal Press knows a thing or two about how words can be deployed, or weaponized. When journalists agreed to accept terms such as “pro-life” to describe those who oppose abortion, they implicitly agreed to help stigmatize those who support it. After all, what’s the rhetorical opposite of “pro-life”?

Press — whose 2006 book “Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America” was lauded by the New York Times for “bringing light to a political issue that for far too long has generated nothing but blistering heat” — told me that the media shares some of the blame, inadvertent though it may have been, for ushering our nation to its current moment.

“The right has been on offense and they have claimed the moral high ground,” Press said, making it more difficult for those who defend abortion rights to speak out without being attacked.

In the process, the issue of abortion has been “ripped out of context.” Too often, he said, the policies of those who oppose abortion fail to support life — including young life — in other ways. For example, the right has generally not supported strong gun-control measures despite the increasing prevalence of school shootings, nor has it shown much dismay over high infant and maternal mortality rates, especially for poor women and children.

Journalists need to do a better job of connecting these dots, he said. They should “unpack just what ‘pro-life’ means.”

He also objects to the term “abortion doctors,” since it concentrates on only one aspect of a doctor’s OB/GYN care. It would be like referring to orthopedic physicians as “ACL doctors,” except that it is much more negative. “This is a case where the media fell in line with a stigma label.”

Similarly troubling, he said, has been what’s happened in medicine itself, where medical schools and hospitals have been reluctant to train physicians to perform abortions, despite how common a procedure it is. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Press criticized “the passivity and silence of the medical establishment, of medical school deans and hospital officials, and of too many (privately) pro-choice physicians.”

By allowing themselves to be put on the defensive, they — like the media — have fed the culture of intimidation.

Press is also appalled by the media’s willingness to uncritically quote politicians such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who said this week that she felt betrayed by the promises that Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch issued as Supreme Court nominees to preserve abortion rights.

“If you are an elected official who claims to care about this right, you need to do better than to tell your constituents that you were given an assurance,” he told me. “The betrayal is what she did,” not what was done to her by the nominees.

I asked Eyal Press to give my regards to his 83-year-old father and to tell him that the baby he delivered long ago is now a public-interest lawyer.

Dr. Press is always glad to hear such reports, his son told me. The physician also deeply understands his role — perhaps even more important — in the lives of girls and women who needed his medical expertise to terminate a pregnancy rather than to bring it to term.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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