National Partnership for Women & Families

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Media must 'report on the facts, not the sensationalism' of upcoming antiabortion-rights docudrama, op-ed states

"In a new docudrama titled Gosnell, ostensibly to be released in early 2017, the [antiabortion-rights] movement seeks to revive a long list of disproven claims and outright lies about abortion care in the hopes, it is assumed, that the growing market for falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and propaganda will help make their case for outlawing abortion altogether," Jodi Jacobson writes in a Rewire piece.

She warns, "Whether they succeed will depend at least in part on whether and how journalists cover the film and whether they report on the facts, not the sensationalism." According to Jacobson, "The problem, oftentimes, is less the dependence on lies and conspiracy theories by" lawmakers, but rather "the way in which the broader media treats the issues, either simply parroting far-right lies ... or expounding on abortion when they have no clue what they are talking about."


According to Jacobson, the documentary centers on Kermit Gosnell, a physician who was found guilty on three counts of murder for the deaths of infants born alive after illegal abortion procedures, as well as the involuntary manslaughter of a patient. Gosnell's crimes "were horrific and revolting," Jacobson writes, but she explains that given how "laws were already in place to prevent" Gosnell's actions, his crimes stemmed from "failures ... of law enforcement, not the law itself."

After Gosnell case, initial antiabortion-rights efforts failed

Jacobson states, "To date, Gosnell has failed to be the game changer hoped for by the [antiabortion-rights] movement." She continues, "This is evidently because people understand the difference between doctors who abide by the law and those who break it."

According to Jacobson, "One indicator that the public is not fooled is the fate of ballot initiatives before and after the Gosnell case." She explains that coverage of the lawsuit "did not achieve [abortion-rights opponents'] goals" of "so tarnish[ing] safe abortion and abortion providers that the public would rise up and join them in their quest to eliminate this reproductive health-care service entirely." For instance, Jacobson points out that voters in South Dakota soundly defeated proposed 20-week abortion ban ballot initiatives in 2006 and 2008, "well before Gosnell's case was brought to national attention," while voters in Colorado, Mississippi and New Mexico did so in the years that followed the case.

She writes that following those failed efforts, abortion-rights opponents "turned toward the highly gerrymandered conservative [state] legislatures across the country to pass an overwhelming number of restrictions against the will of the people."

Meanwhile, abortion-rights opponents in Congress "also sought to capitalize on the sensationalism of the Gosnell case to push abortion bans." For instance, she writes that conservative lawmakers in two congressional committees went on a "fishing expedition to find 'other Gosnells,'" an effort that according to a Rewire analysis, only demonstrated that "'abortion in the United States is highly regulated and overwhelmingly safe.'" However, "notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence of the safety of abortion care presented directly to Congress by the states, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) frequently made reference to the Gosnell case during a debate in which he supported a federal 20-week ban," Jacobson adds.

Abortion-rights opponents are 'now trying again'

Jacobson writes, "Irrespective of prior failures to use the Gosnell case to incite the public, the [antiabortion-rights] movement is now trying again" with the new film. According to Jacobson, speakers at a screening of the film "implied that the film aims to tie all abortion providers together with Kermit Gosnell." Citing a concurrent criminal case involving a physician who was convicted of pedophilia, she states, "This is directly akin to a group going on a public crusade claiming that since one pediatrician is a pedophile, all pediatricians are pedophiles, using a film about a pediatrician convicted for pedophilia as proof."

Jacobson explains, "Like any crudely made horror movie, the film seeks to achieve these ends by using the most gruesome aspects of an egregious crime to inflame passions." She notes that the film uses "[s]ensational footage ... to implicate abortion providers in the crimes of a felon whose practices were unquestionably and undeniably horrific and do not comport with standard or accepted medical practice of any kind, nor do they have anything to do with the clinics in which legal abortions are performed." Further, Jacobson points out that the film's "supporters also seek to shame the media by claiming that Gosnell's arrest and trial were not even covered by the press at all" despite the story having received "extensive press coverage."

Jacobson writes, "The reality is that it was not lack of law or regulation, but rather lack of enforcement that allowed Gosnell to carry on for so long." She adds, "Moreover, given the proclivity of the [antiabortion-rights] movement to stage protests in front of legal abortion clinics and make up problems intended to shut them down, I find it curious at best that protests were not a feature at Gosnell's office nor did reports to the authorities come from [antiabortion-rights] groups." Jacobson points out that "[i]nstead it was ethical, legal providers who kept after the government to do something."

Jacobson asserts, "The natural consequence of the deeply anti-medical, [antiabortion-rights] agenda will be to create more of the monsters they use to tar all providers."

She explains, "It is the network of evidence-based, medically trained abortion providers that prevents patients from seeking out clandestine services and the spread of back-alley tragedies like those for which Gosnell is serving time." As a result, according to Jacobson, "the very policies [abortion-rights opponents] espouse are the ones that create the conditions in which a rogue provider like Gosnell could thrive: limiting access to safe abortion care by closing clinics, requiring mandatory [delays] and unnecessary hoops, driving up costs, denying patients living in poverty public support for safe abortion care, all resulting in abortions happening later than they otherwise would." She writes, "These and other policies drive women to desperate circumstances, as a trip to any number of countries with high rates of maternal mortality from complications of unsafe abortion will make clear in graphic detail."

Given that abortion care "remains among the safest of all medical services in the United States and approximately one in three women of reproductive age will have an abortion at some point in her life," Jacobson states, "The agenda of the [antiabortion-rights] movement is to make abortion illegal, criminalize women and doctors, and endanger the lives of both, using the media in part as its tool."

She concludes, "That is the thing that should shock all of us. And it is up to journalists to continue to report the truth about how both media like Gosnell and policymakers use falsehoods to endanger the lives of real women in need of care" (Jacobson, Rewire, 12/20).