Muffling the debate

In A Private Choice (The Free Press, 1979), his powerful analysis of abortion in America in the 1970s, Professor John T Noonan, Jr. argued that the press there “muffled” the abortion issue to a very large extent.

In part, this was through very biased coverage of what Professor Noonan called “the abortion liberty”. He argued that the press, including radio and TV, was for that liberty: “Virtually every major newspaper in the country was on its side, as were the radio stations, the news commentators, the disc jockeys, the pollsters, the syndicated columnists, the editorial writers, the reporters, the news services, the journals of information and the journals of opinion…. There was not a single large urban newspaper regularly carrying the anti-abortion viewpoint the way Horace Greeley’s Tribune had carried the anti-slavery viewpoint.…There was not a single national news magazine that was ever other than silent on the issue or favourable to the liberty” (pp. 69-70).

The muffling of debate also resulted from misleading and inaccurate reporting. Thus, the impression was repeatedly, and wrongly, given that the abortion liberty accorded by the Roe versus Wade US Supreme Court decision of 1973 applied only to the first three months of pregnancy. Moreover, opposition to abortion in America in the 1970s was presented as an exclusively religious/Catholic concern.

In Ireland, we have experienced a similar muffling of debate on abortion – from an extraordinary media bias going back to the 1980s and a failure to report on the reality of abortion law and practice in Britain and other countries to the partial and one-sided processes of the recent Citizens’ Assembly and Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

Terminology also provides a pointer to the muffling of debate here. For example, the Irish Times, which has long campaigned for the liberty of abortion and has described the pro-life term as “loaded”, refers in its news reporting to those in favour of that liberty as “pro-choice” whereas those against it are “anti-abortion”.

Given that “pro-life” and “pro-choice” respectively are the terms preferred by the various campaigning groups, one might expect the media to follow this usage; but the Irish Times instead has adopted the preferred terminology of one side of the debate (pro-choice) but not of the other side (pro-life). Not content with campaigning on one side of the debate, in other words, it also seeks to control the ways in which that debate is framed so that even pro-life initiatives must conform to its unbalanced house style.  One should add, in fairness, that the paper carries an excellent weekly column by the pro-life commentator, Breda O’Brien.

At one level, of course, “anti-abortion” is an accurate descriptor of those who are against the liberty of abortion. In press coverage, however, it has the advantage of suggesting a negative, rigid sentiment while “pro-choice” brings with it connotations of freedom and respect for the wishes of others.

In reality, however, the term “pro-choice” is problematic for many reasons. First, and most importantly, choice does not extend to the innocent baby peacefully growing in his or her mother’s womb. Second, the “private choice” of abortion is actually accompanied, wherever abortion is legalised, by enormous compulsion and lack of choice – for example, taxpayers who are totally opposed to abortion must nevertheless contribute to State funding of abortion “services” through their taxes; and, in many countries, medical and nursing professionals must participate in abortion procedures and referrals if they wish to progress in their careers and irrespective of any conscientious objections they may have.

Lack of choice is also a feature of public discussion – in countries like Britain, the media have arguably closed down the abortion debate since the Abortion Act of 1967 and pro-life speakers today may struggle to get a hearing even in student forums.  In France, the then Socialist Government passed a law in early 2017 sharply restricting the freedom of operation of pro-life websites.

Rather than being “loaded”, the term “pro-life” is highly appropriate because it conveys a sense of positivity and of support for women and their babies and for the future. It is a reminder that at the heart of the abortion debate is the question of whether a particular living being will live or die. Being pro-life also means having huge respect for pregnant women and their needs – a respect which is underpinned by the leadership role of women in the pro-life movement, in Ireland and elsewhere. It is also important, as Church leaders frequently point out, that Christians promote a pro-life ethos in all areas of life and not just in relation to abortion.

At the end of his book on “the abortion liberty” Professor Noonan concluded with his own appeal for a truly pro-life ethic: “There must be a limit to a liberty so mistaken in its foundations, so far-reaching in its malignant consequences, and so deadly in its exercise. There must be a surpassing of such liberty by love” (p. 192).

Tim O’Sullivan has degrees in arts and social policy and completed a doctorate on the subsidiarity principle. He is a regular contributor to Position Papers.