Washington Post: “The ban on the procedure that critics call `partial-birth abortion’ was already on hold temporarily as three courts heard legal challenges to it.”
According to Jacoby, this is problematic because reporters don’t do similar things with phrases like “the right to choose”:
To me, this seems to miss the point.
Typical news readers, in the context of an article about abortion, are not likely to misunderstand the term “right to choice” – or, for that matter, the term “right to life” (which, oddly enough, Jacoby doesn’t object to). These partisan terms have entered the public consciousness, and although they may not be literally accurate, they are well understood.
I doubt that the typical reader – or, for that matter, the typical reporter – has a clear understanding of what “partial birth abortion” means. How could they? The meaning of “partial birth abortion” changes in important ways depending on context. In reading media reports and the law, I’ve noticed three distinct, yet frequently used, definitions of “partial birth abortion”:
First definition: For many who oppose “partial birth abortion” – including many newspaper editorials and politicians – partial-birth abortion refers to a late-term abortion performed on a fetus old enough to be viable. As some ban proponants argue, if not for the fact that the “baby” is killed partway through the procedure, there would be no distinction between a partial-birth abortion and a birth. (“Partial-birth abortion is a barbaric procedure which literally kills a baby that is completely delivered except for the head,” according to Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America). This is presumably the meaning Patrick Moynihan had in mind when he called partial birth abortion “as close to infanticide as anything I have come upon.”
Second definition: Both pro-choicers and pro-lifers sometimes suggest that partial-birth abortion is the same as “intact dilation and extraction,” or “intact D&X,” which is also sometimes called “intact dilation and evacuation.” The Newsday article Jacoby quotes also suggests that the terms are interchangeable. However, most intact D&Xs are performed in the second trimester, before the fetus is viable – which contradicts with the first definition of “partial birth abortion.”
Third definition: Congress defined “Partial birth abortion” in the language of the partial-birth abortion ban. Congress’ definition contradicts with both of the previous definitions I’ve described. It is not in any way limited to late-term abortion or post-viability abortions, which contradicts with the first definition. Furthermore, parts of Congress’ definition make it clear that they are banning many procedures besides “intact D&X”; for instance, Congress’ definition bans some “head-first presentation” abortions, whereas according to medical definitions intact D&X abortions are always feet-first.
The point is, there is legitimate, substantial controversy over what the term “partial birth abortion” refers to. It’s appropriate for reporters to make that lack of agreement clear, not because they are partisan, but because doing so gives readers a more accurate understanding of the issue. In contrast, there is no serious controversy over what terms like “right to choose” or “right to life” mean, nor is there a serious gulf between what they mean and what readers think they mean. Demanding that all these terms be given identical treatment is ignoring substance in favor of a mindless evenhandedness.
However, while I approve of reporters indicating that “partial birth abortion” is a controversial term, I’m not convinced that current reporting really facilitates a greater understanding of what the term refers to. I’d prefer newspapers to publish context-dependant sidebars. For instance, in articles about a particular law, perhaps the sidebar could explain how “partial birth abortion” is defined in that law in particular, rather than relying on readers to know how the legal definition differs from popular understandings of the term.