In These “Times”

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. Read on…

Read the rest of Debbie Nathan's discussion of abortion politics at the New York Times here, on The New Republic's site.

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