Five Ways to Ensure Scientifically Accurate Reporting on Reproductive Rights

It’s actually kind of sad how exciting this news is: The BBC, under fire from an external investigation from the independent BBC Trust, has been told its coverage of science issues should put more of a priority on scientific accuracy over “impartiality.” The BBC has been criticized for trying to give “both sides” of the climate change debate equal coverage, when one of those sides—the one arguing against climate change theory—is composed of a bunch of junk scientists making stuff up, while the other side has the force of scientific consensus behind it. It’s the equivalent of having a “debate” about whether or not gravity exists with a scientist explaining Einstein and Newton on one side and the other side headed by someone who claims to be a wizard who’s figured out how to fly.

While the decision of the BBC Trust to push for factual accuracy over giving every random person a shot at airtime was spurred by the problem of climate change denialism, the way scientific issues are covered more generally was called into question. Referencing a series of workshops that BBC senior staff members began attending after the review began in 2010, the BBC Trust reported, “The key point the workshops tried to impart is that impartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, which may result in a ‘false balance.’”

The report led some American journalists to wonder what, if anything, U.S. media might do to institute similar practices , since our news media is arguably a much more egregious offender when it comes to treating someone who is speaking fact as equivalent of someone spouting fantasy.

It’s hard not to wonder how different the debate over reproductive rights in this country would look if pundits were restrained from, or just felt duty-bound, to accept scientific fact—or facts in general! (If I hear one more right-wing pundit claim that the Hobby Lobby case is about “the government” buying women “free” contraception, I will scream. It’s about women using their own earned benefits to buy contraception, no government funding involved.) Likewise, what if every news story covering the issue made a point of correcting scientific misinformation spouted by anti-choicers? It wouldn’t do anything to change anti-choice minds, but it could go a long way toward clearing up some confusing issues and allowing the actual values debate to be understood for what it is.

Here are some simple fixes to media coverage of reproductive rights that would do wonders for improving audience understanding of the issue:

1. In stories about regulations on abortion clinics, remind audiences that abortion is very safe and that abortion clinics are already subject to the same regulations as other clinics providing similar services. Because of anti-choice misinformation, many viewers/readers may be unaware that legislative efforts to pass a bunch of regulations on abortion clinics have nothing to do with improving safety. What would go miles in clarifying what’s really at stake here? A statement like this: “Abortion clinics are currently regulated under the same rules as all other clinics, which medical experts believe is appropriate since abortion is an extremely safe outpatient procedure.”

2. Be clear on the difference between a zygote, an embryo, and a fetus. Even stalwart pro-choicers sometimes make this mistake, so I’m not pointing fingers. But invoking the word “fetus” when referring to abortion implies that most abortions happen later in pregnancy than they do. Most abortions terminate an embryo, not a fetus.

3. Birth control is not abortion. I’ve seen, in mainstream media, some improvement when it comes to reporters using the word “belief” to describe the claim that the pill or intrauterine device (IUD) is an “abortifacient.” This is a good first step. But for audience clarity, reporters need to be clear that this “belief” is 100 percent not true. “Hobby Lobby’s owners wrongly believe that emergency contraception is an abortifacient; in fact, emergency contraception works by preventing pregnancy through suppressed ovulation,” is a helpful sentence that will help audiences gain clarity.

4. Non-procreative sex is normal behavior in the United States. In every story about the battle over contraception access, it is important to put the battle into context. Here are two facts that should be in most—and ideally all—stories reporting on anti-contraception activism: 99 percent of Americans have sex in their adult lives, and 99 percent of women who have heterosexual intercourse have used contraception.

Here are some more stats, if you really want your audience to understand what, exactly, anti-contraception forces are attacking: The chance of pregnancy in a given year if you don’t use contraception is 85 percent. Married women use more contraception than single women, with 77 percent of married women using contraception and only 42 percent of never-married women using contraception.

People who paint contraception use as a weird, esoteric hobby instead of mainstream health care to address a normal part of everyday life are on the wrong side of science.

5. Abortion is also very common. Audiences should never be allowed to assume abortion is rare or something that only “some kinds” of women seek out. Three in ten women will have an abortion in her lifetime. One in five pregnancies end in abortion. A little over one in 60 women of reproductive age has an abortion every year. That abortion is a normal part of health care is a fact, not something up for debate. While not every story about abortion needs these stats in it, they should still be used regularly to prevent any confusion about what, exactly, is being debated here.

None of these scientific facts should be construed in any way as a slight against the value of impartiality. (After all, many anti-choicers know most of this and somehow haven’t changed their minds.) Indeed, part of the problem with the “debate” as it stands is there is so much conflict over facts that the actual philosophical arguments aren’t being heard. While it’s understandable that anti-choicers might chafe when put in a position where they have to trot out their real objections to widespread contraception use instead of spouting blatant lies about “abortifacients,” true impartiality requires not allowing one side to put their thumb on the scale by lying. More importantly, as the media is supposed to be there to help ordinary citizens understand the issues and how they affect them, having a clear picture of what is at stake in these debates over reproductive health care is critical.

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  • kitler

    So many pro lifers repeat the lie that zygotes and embryos have feelings and are rational.


  • StealthGaytheist

    It’s good to have facts, since the opposition only has lies and hysteria.

  • John H


  • BelligerentBruncher

    I thought abortions were just getting rid of a “clump of cells.”

    Why does Marcotte care if it is a zygote, embryo, or a fetus?

    • Chaosfeminist

      Are trolling or seriously ignorant of basic human biology?

      • fiona64

        He’s our resident teenaged dudebro MRA troll. Ignore him.

        • BelligerentBruncher

          flagged for personal insults. Please try to keep this website civil.

          • fiona64

            Cool story, dudebro.

          • Plum Dumpling

            Flagged for being a stone douchebag.

        • Perr5

          Nothing wrong with being a teenager or a dudebro. Nothing necessarily anti-choice either, I don’t think.

          As the existence of Heather Corinna’s columns on this site suggests, I think we want to make teenagers in particular welcome here.

          • fiona64

            This particular teenaged dudebro has been banned five times so far for trolling. You seem to imply that you see nothing wrong with trolling.

          • Perr5

            No, I just don’t think that “dudebro” and especially “teenaged” should be used as terms of disparagement.

            Why not call him simply “our resident [MRA] troll”? (I mean, if you want to go further with this, what does “teenaged dudebro” really add? It’s for the same reasons I oppose using “crazy” as a way of delegitimizing someone’s argument. Do you see what I mean?)

          • fiona64

            I guess we will have to agree to disagree. I do not take seriously any teenaged male who is trying to dictate the reproductive decisions of adult women … and most especially not one whose sole purpose is to troll.

          • Perr5

            It’s the “who is trying to dictate the reproductive decisions” part that I agree with you in opposing (whether the reproductive decisions of adult women, of girls, of trans men—of anyone who is capable of pregnancy).

          • Jennifer Starr

            No, I don’t think we need to. He’s an idiot.

          • lady_black

            This one has been banned numerous times. He’s not welcome.

          • Perr5

            To return to this, I think I mostly agree with you (plural): there is no need for anyone to be welcoming of behavior that is trolling or harassing, especially when it’s so obvious as what BelligerentBruncher tends to do.

            Where I disagree: I think it’s off-topic and ultimately harmful to aim so widely when calling out trolling behavior. First, it’s irrelevant: BelligerentBruncher isn’t acting like a teenager or a dudebro, he’s acting like an asshole—a troll. And as for the harmfulness, I don’t think insulting someone is worth making the implication, for example, that teenagers, as a class, tend to be harassers. That would be a harmful stereotype that, besides giving teenagers an undeservedly bad name, also excuses the behavior on the understanding that they can’t help it (“teenagers will be teenagers”) and will presumably grow out of it.

            (Same thing with dismissing anti-choicers in general as “crazy,” as I’ve argued on another thread: it gives mentally ill people an undeservedly bad name, and it excuses anti-choice behavior by attributing it to disease rather than to a sense of entitlement over other people.)

      • L-dan

        absolutely trolling.

  • fiona64

    The BBC has been
    criticized for trying to give “both sides” of the climate change debate
    equal coverage, when one of those sides—the one arguing against climate
    change theory—is composed of a bunch of junk scientists making stuff up, while the other side has the force of scientific consensus behind it.

    That was the basis of the Hobby Lobby case, as we all know: a bunch of “junk science” being taken as “sincerely held religious beliefs” … despite reality flying in the face of said junk. It’s past time to stop letting the anti-science nutters have their day in the sun.

  • P. McCoy

    CAF has a post about some ‘right to life’ organization ready to go to war over the challenge to the Hobby Lobby decision. Well, in war quarter is not asked and none is given so we pro choicers can out any anti choicer and call them trolls if we want to.

  • badJim

    Bad Amanda! You are such a careful writer – damned near perfect – and then you do this:

    “Birth control is not abortion”

    Say rather, “Contraception is not abortion.”

    The problem is the old, dishonest slogan, “Abortion should not be used as birth control”, which you’ve written about. Abortion is by its very nature birth control, so the slogan is deceptive by design. Sure, contraception is generally preferable to medical intervention, but that’s not an argument against abortion.

    Apologies for being so pedantic. It’s a great article, as usual.

    • mwdennett

      badJim: Thanks for reiterating this very vital point. It seems to many of us SO blatantly obvious, but it still can’t be said often enough, and is no more “pedantic” than puncturing that other “example” of something thought just too silly for words – “It’s like being a little bit pregnant!” Your point, in fact, is one of the central ones I tried to make in my 1969 analysis “Unfinished Business: Birth Control and Women’s Liberation” [Lucinda Cisler; in the anthology “Sisterhood Is Powerful”; ed. Robin Morgan; Random,1970], even making the implied idea part of the very title! This essay was a pretty early assertion of the “continuum” idea – perhaps the first in print? Take a look at the piece, if you can; horrible but little surprise that way too much of the bad stuff warned against there has come to pass. I’m hoping to be able at last to put together the paradoxical analysis/ chronicle/ history of what really happened in the abortion movement that hasn’t yet appeared, but really should. As with your point, a common thread I see when this tiny movement was Actually Moving Ahead was to steer clear of euphemism (like “choice”) and coyness. Keep on saying what you say! – Cindy Cisler

      [+ see Patricia Miller’s …+ the comments!]

  • crydiego

    I have no problem with abortion, no matter how or when it happens, or to what.
    However I think it is a “scientific” fact that the argument is over who will pay for it.
    Why doesn’t the government just cover these cost through a small tax on contraceptives. Also allow men a choice of being a parent or not but with a hefty tax to also be used fo contraceptives. That would make for true choice and minimal contraceptive prices.
    No one should be forced to be a parent if they don’t want to be one but there are no free lunches.

    • Jennifer Starr

      No one is talking about ‘paying for abortion’. Contraceptives are not abortion.

      • crydiego

        OK, I can see where it might sound like I’m talking about abortion but I was talking about paying for contraceptives. Let’s call it birth prevention or non-surgical contraception, include everything now and what may be developed in the future, even condoms. This would take any bias by an employer out of the picture. Flow around them because it is important that people are not forced into parenthood.
        The facts are: they don’t want to pay for it, the supreme court sides with them and although we may change the law in the future we need something for today.