Mainstream Media Reinforces Unexamined Arguments Against Public Funding for Abortion

Amanda Marcotte

Will abortion be the magic bullet that kills off health care reform? Mainstream media seems to be doing its best to make it happen.

Will abortion be the magic bullet that kills off health care reform?  Certainly it seems that mainstream media sources—the same ones that are pushing the idea that health care reform is dead, in a classic “tell a lie until it’s true” maneuver—believe that abortion is an effective cudgel to beat health care reform to death.  (Why there’s strong motivation to kill health care reform is a topic for another day—my pet theory is that many pundits are angry with Democrats for making them cover complicated policy issues, when they’d rather be talking about what Sonia Sotomayor is wearing and whether or not Regina Benjamin is too fat.)  

Sunday afternoon, I plugged the word “abortion” into Google News to see what I got back.  Just the word “abortion”, with no other terms like “health care”, and the first hit was 13,000 stories about abortion and health care reform.  And sadly, there was rampant disregard, and in some cases, open contempt for the truth of the situation.

Here’s the unvarnished truth: There is no way that any kind of public health care plan will have elective abortion coverage.  Nor is there any real chance of abortion becoming mandated coverage.  It’s more likely that breast implants will be paid for by tax money.  It’s more likely that a public insurance option will provide everyone with an iPod Touch.  Believe me; even most pro-choicers gave up a long time ago on hoping that we could overturn the Hyde Amendment that bans women who are on federally funded insurance programs from getting elective abortions covered, and there’s no way that this will change if the number of women on federally funded health insurance grows. And even though it would only be fair and cost-effective to mandate coverage for elective abortion, in this country that’s sadly a pipe dream.

But you wouldn’t know it to read the media coverage of this issue.  Instead, we’ve got the toxic mixture of pants-on-fire lying anti-choicers and cowardly media outlets that give the opponents of health care reform an opportunity to lie about the potential for taxpayer-funded abortions. Fox News, of course, has been at the forefront of promoting the absolutely evidence-free assertion that there’s any chance of abortion becoming mandated coverage, but I’ve also been surprised to see NPR allow Douglas Johnson of National Right To Life lie, stating, “And there is no doubt whatever that abortion, elective abortion, would be among those services mandated.”  Though I shouldn’t have been surprised—the lazy reliance on “some people say X/some people say Y” journalism has created a situation where all sorts of people who view the truth as a mere obstacle get to go on TV and the radio and lie without being confronted about it.

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One thing that makes pushing back against the abortion narrative that’s forming in the mainstream media is that health care defenders— including President Obama—are so busy trying to shut down the misinformation about abortion coverage that we’re not having the more interesting discussion about whether or not abortion should be covered.  And by not having that discussion, we’re allowing the belief that some people’s moral objections to abortion should dictate federal policy lay unchallenged.

Jamison Foser of Media Matters wrote
a thought-provoking article about how the common wisdom has come to
support the idea of bans on federal funding of abortion coverage, and
the lapse of professional responsibility that allows journalists to
perpetuate this common wisdom.  He points to the privileging of
opposition to abortion over support for abortion rights as the cause:

Instead, Matthews has adopted the premise that taxpayer funds shouldn’t be used to pay for abortions, no matter how indirectly, because some taxpayers believe abortion to be immoral. On Wednesday’s Hardball, for example, Matthews asked Obama adviser David Axelrod: "[I]f the federal government spends money on abortions, that means people who believe abortion is evil would be forced to have their tax money go to pay for abortions. How do you justify that?"

That premise is only superficially compelling, and has no business underlying an impartial news report. After all, millions of Americans believe the death penalty and wars of choice are immoral. But the moral beliefs of pacifists and death penalty opponents are not granted the privilege the media grants opposition to legal abortion — and so you rarely see a news report premised on the idea that taxpayer funding for war or capital punishment is inappropriate.

The whole article beyond just this excerpt is compelling, so I highly recommend it.  I’m going to agree with Foser that the assumption that anti-choicers are the ones who have “morality” (as if putting yourself out there in defense of women’s lives, as pro-choicers do, isn’t moral) feeds this.  But I think there’s more to the story than that.  And I think it’s because war and the death penalty aren’t about sex, and so they aren’t as interesting to people.

Or, to put it another way, war and the death penalty are grim things that we like to pretend that proponents don’t enjoy.  (Not likely true in the case of the likes of Dick Cheney, but for the sake of the argument.)  Opponents of using taxpayer money to kill real people can’t get around the assumption that war and death penalty supporters are serious people who have at least considered the moral weight of taking human lives.

But I suspect that anti-choicers latched onto taxpayer-funded abortions, because they can count on a lot of the public to imagine the government funding female licentiousness.  Anger about (purely imaginary) taxpayer-funded abortion has more in common with anger about (also imaginary) “welfare queens”, who are also constructed as sexual deviants who use government money to fund their sex lives. I’m reminded of Bill O’Reilly’s rant against insurance companies covering contraception, where he compared covering contraception to paying for women’s dinner dates.  
Rarely do anti-choicers leaning on this stereotype of sexual women as frivolous and amoral need to actually say it as bluntly as O’Reilly did. 

But this ongoing belief that a woman who sees action between her thighs has none going on in her head is the constant fuel in the abortion debate fire, no matter what the flavor of the debate is this month. But the good news is that this contempt for female sexuality has receded enough that the media debate hasn’t—yet—turned to whether or not health care reform should cover contraception.

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