Privileging opposition to abortion

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Millions of Americans believe the death penalty and wars of choice are immoral. But their moral beliefs 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.

Most people waiting anxiously for real health care reform probably haven't thought much about whether insurance covers abortion. They're too busy thinking about how great it would be to have insurance in the first place, or to not have to worry about losing it if they change jobs, or if their premiums stopped skyrocketing.

But some reporters seem to think the most important aspect of health care reform is whether or not insurance plans cover abortions. And dealing with that question, they have skewed their reports in favor of those who oppose such coverage. (It should be noted that anti-choice activists not only want to prevent a public insurance plan from covering abortion, they want to prevent private plans from doing so as well.)

MSNBC's Chris Matthews is illustrative of the approach to the topic some have taken. Matthews, who acknowledges his approach to this topic has been shaped by the conservative Weekly Standard, has made his opposition to coverage for abortion clear, claiming President Obama "says they're going to reduce the number of abortions, and that same week he pushes to subsidize abortion? You can't do that."

On a recent Hardball, Matthews questioned Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch about the topic, asking leading questions that encouraged them to state their opposition to insurance coverage of abortion. But Matthews didn't ask them -- and hasn't asked any other guest -- one simple question: Why shouldn't abortions be covered, given that the procedure is legal? Nor has he asked if there are any other legal procedures that shouldn't be covered.

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.

But one needn't look further than health care to find such examples. The premise that taxpayers who oppose abortion shouldn't have to pay for them with their tax money carries obvious implications the media ignores: What about contraceptives? Why should a woman denied insurance payment for an abortion be forced to subsidize the prostate exam of a man who insisted he not have to fund her abortion? Why should Christian Scientists who believe only in healing by prayer be forced to subsidize their neighbor's heart surgery?

The idea that taxpayers shouldn't pay for insurance that covers medical services they don't support is fundamentally incompatible with the very concept of insurance. If every interest group wields veto power over the medical care insurance can cover, insurance simply can't work. If there is a reason to grant such veto power only to those who would use it to prevent insurance coverage of abortions, reporters like Matthews haven't explained it. (And, no, public opinion does not present such a reason, as recent polling showing strong public support for women's reproductive health coverage makes clear.)

That isn't the only logical inconsistency on the part of abortion foes that the media fail to examine in their coverage of this controversy. Many of those who are most adamant that the government not allow abortions to be paid for by health insurance plans are the same conservatives who argue against health care reform by warning of the prospect of a government bureaucrat getting between you and your doctor.

You read that right: The same people who want a government ban on insurance coverage for a legal medical procedure turn around and demagogue about government bureaucrats making medical decisions. That's a pretty obvious inconsistency, the kind any reporter should be able to spot easily. And yet the tension between those two positions has gone unexplored in news reports about the abortion controversy. Matthews certainly didn't ask Orrin Hatch to reconcile the two; he was busy assuring Hatch "I think your side may win this."

Nobody who is familiar with the Bob Casey myth should be surprised at reporters unthinkingly adopting an anti-choice frame for their news reports. For nearly two decades, political reporters have claimed that the Democrats refused to allow Casey to speak at their 1992 convention because he opposed abortion rights, and that the party needed to be more hospitable to those who share his views.

That the story of Casey and the 1992 convention is completely fabricated is actually beside the point. Pretend for a moment (like reporters do) that it's true. Now: When was the last time you saw a news report about the fact that the Republicans have never allowed anyone to give a speech in favor of abortion rights at their convention?

Exactly.

Opponents of abortion rights certainly deserve to have their views represented in the media. But reporters shouldn't adopt those views as their own.

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