Abortion and the Anecdotal Lede

When reporting on abortion, the humanizing anecdote has political implications

In her syndicated column today, Ellen Goodman contrasts the relative success of the gay rights movement with the defensive crouch in which many abortion rights advocates now find themselves. “The fear-mongering of the ‘Gay Agenda’ is now the wedding registry at Home Depot,” she writes, arguing that the visibility of gay couples in the media helped bring about the Connecticut Supreme Court’s recent decision that same-sex couples have the right to marry. But the media seldom writes about women who have had abortions, she says, wondering, “Has the invisibility of these women made it easier to chip away at their rights?”

Goodman is primarily concerned with opinion, not journalism, but her argument raises an interesting question for journalists. If she is correct that humanizing these issues makes Americans more sympathetic to liberal policies, then the style in which we report on them may lend support to one side or the other. This is about more than terminology: by her logic, the humanizing anecdote has political implications.

Following the Connecticut decision, Lisa Charnoff of the Stamford Advocate offers this international take on what has become a cliche of gay marriage reporting. She leads: “In June, after Eniko Mikle entered into a civil union with Cheryl Hensel, her partner of 14 years, she had trouble explaining to her Hungarian mother what that meant. There were no words in her mother’s language to describe it.” Now Mikle has a simple explanation: she’s getting married. This vignette places the emphasis squarely on this couple’s joy, arguing that these human emotions should guide policy.

“[T]he narrative of same-sex marriage ends with the sound of a champagne bottle popping at a wedding,” Goodman writes. “An abortion, on the other hand, may be followed by an assortment of emotions, but certainly not joy.” So “we rarely see real women,” making it easier to forget the claim that one in three American women has had an abortion.

Such anecdotes are much harder to come by in abortion reporting, says journalist Jennifer Baumgartner, in part because reporters do no know how to handle stories that are more complicated than the shallow face-off between abortion rights advocates and abortion opponents. In 2004, Baumgartner launched a campaign to collect women’s stories, and she is currently promoting her new book, Abortion and Life. “In the ‘I Had an Abortion’ Campaign, I found hundreds of women willing to come forward,” Baumgartner says. “If it’s not out there, it’s because journalists aren’t asking about it.” Though pro-choice herself, she says pro-choice forces are partly to blame, because they worry an honest and complex debate might give ammunition to abortion opponents. (In fact, Kristen Fyfe of the conservative Culture and Media Institute, thinks the pro-life side would be helped if the press honestly reported the experiences of women coping with depression following abortions.)

Tait Sye, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, says there have been good stories that successfully incorporate personal anecdotes, like this one from the Associated Press. But from his perspective, there are two kinds of abortion stories: those that tackle abortion as a health story, and those that approach it as a policy debate. Health stories—which he says most often appear in women’s magazines like this one in Marie Claire—are more likely to ask who has abortions and why, and include personal anecdotes. But “for the vast majority of newspapers, a lot of it is around the politics of abortion,” he says. “If you’re talking about abortion as the policy/politics story, you’re less likely to include a personal example.”

Ellen Goodman ends her column by concluding that the “more private” the abortion conversation remains, the “more we think it only happens to someone else, someone ‘unlike us.’ The more unlike us she is, the less public support there is for the right. Abortion rights slip away as the woman slips out of sight.” Conservative critics disagree that humanizing reporting equals support for abortion, but both sides agree that how the issue is covered affects public sentiment.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.