Heartbeat Bill

What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

In yet another U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion — City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health in 1983 — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found herself pondering the potential impact of advanced medical technology on the trimester framework at the heart of Roe v. Wade.

Hang in there with me for a moment. I am bringing this up because the information is highly relevant to news coverage of the bitter debates surrounding efforts to pass a “heartbeat” bill in Georgia. That was the subject of recent post by our own Bobby Ross, Jr., that ran with this headline: “Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'.”

Just to be clear: I agree with Bobby that this particular Atlanta Journal-Constitution article contained a wider than normal range of voices explaining how different groups view that abortion legislation. That’s good. However, there was one crucial, and I mean CRUCIAL, point in the article that confused me. Digging into that topic a bit, I found more confusion — at AJC.com and in some other news outlets, as well.

In the end, I will be asking a journalism question, not a question about law or science.

Let’s walk into this carefully, beginning with this long quote from Justice O’Connor in 1983:

Just as improvements in medical technology inevitably will move forward the point at which the state may regulate for reasons of maternal health, different technological improvements will move backward the point of viability at which the state may proscribe abortions except when necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother. … In 1973, viability before 28 weeks was considered unusual. However, recent studies have demonstrated increasingly earlier fetal viability. It is certainly reasonable to believe that fetal viability in the first trimester of pregnancy may be possible in the not too distant future.

The Roe framework, then, is clearly on a collision course with itself.

This is, of course, precisely what is happening. At this point, it is commonly accepted that the viability of unborn children — weight is crucial — has moved back to between 22 and 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Will science make even more progress there, in terms of helping premies survive outside the womb?

Now, onto the “heartbeat” bill debates. When can scientists detect the heartbeat of an unborn child? That would be six weeks into the pregnancy. Parents can usually hear the heartbeat, with assistance, at nine to 10 weeks. Note this passage in the story that Bobby critiqued:

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Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'

Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'

Earlier this month, I praised the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of legislation pitting religious freedom vs. gay rights.

In particular, I complimented the fair manner in which the Journal-Constitution reported on a subject that often begets scare quotes and slanted headlines (against the religious freedom side) in mainstream news stories.

I stressed in that post:

Since I don’t read the Atlanta paper regularly, I can’t say if this is typical of how that news organization handles this topic. But this particular story, in my humble opinion, deserves kudos.

I stand by the previous caveat, but I have another example of an equally balanced, nuanced report from the Journal-Constitution that I want to highlight.

Maybe — just maybe — we’ve stumbled upon a positive trend? (I know, I know: We need a third example to make it a real trend.)

The Atlanta paper’s latest culture wars story concerns abortion, a topic on which — as we’ve noted repeatedly — news media bias against pro-life advocates frequently runs rampant.

But once again, the Journal-Constitution treats both sides — all sides, actually, since there aren’t just two sides — in what impresses me as an impartial manner.

The basics from the top of the story:

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When is a heartbeat not a heartbeat? When NPR (briefly) calls it 'sounds from the fetus'

When is a heartbeat not a heartbeat? When NPR (briefly) calls it 'sounds from the fetus'

If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

You know the answer to that one, don't you? In a way, that old puzzler reminds me of questions your GetReligionistas face from time to time. I am thinking, to be precise, about emails in which readers send us items claiming that this or that newsroom has committed this or that atrocity, yet there is no URL provided and, when push comes to shove, there is no way to know if that news report ever contained the words or phrases quoted by the offended readers.

You see, it's so easy to change the content of online news and there is no common standard for digital corrections. (At GetReligion, when non-troll readers -- especially journalists -- leave comments noting typos and clear errors of fact we change the text, but we thank them and leave their comments live at the end of repaired articles.)

Thank goodness there are people who know how to use the "screen grab" (or screen shot) function in their computer browsers. I say this because of a remarkable "Heartbeat Bill" fix in a story at National Public Radio, which led to a piece by Bre Payton at The Federalist, as well as cyberspace shouts from readers.

Before we get to the NPR case study -- backed by a screenshot -- let me remind readers why stories about abortion show up so often at GetReligion. First, these public-square debates always involve activists from religious groups. Second, it's virtually impossible for activists on either side to describe their beliefs without raising moral and theological questions, as well as questions about science. For decades, abortion-coverage issues (click here for the classic Los Angeles Times series by reporter David Shaw) have played a crucial role in discussions of both media bias and religion-news coverage.

So what is the "Heartbeat Bill" in Ohio? Let's look at how The New York Times started a story on this topic, to get a sample of the language being used. Here is the overture:

WASHINGTON -- Gov. John Kasich of Ohio on Tuesday signed into law a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, but vetoed a far more restrictive measure that would have barred abortions after a fetal heartbeat was detected, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

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