Pro-Lifers Push Boston Globe to Change Policy on Abortion Stories

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:04 PM EDT

( - The Boston Globe, one the nation's most influential newspapers, is operating under a new set of guidelines - favorable to the pro-life movement - on stories about partial birth abortion.

Ombudsman Christine Chinlund recommended the guidelines, which are not the paper's official policy, after complaints from the National Right to Life Committee and like-minded pro-lifers. One of her suggestions is to use the term "partial birth abortion" - accepted by pro-life advocates, but strongly opposed by abortion supporters.

Recent coverage of partial birth abortion prompted Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, to take five news organizations to task for what he viewed as misinformation in their stories.

At issue is whether partial birth abortions are performed for medical reasons or as an elective choice. In the case of the Globe, Johnson objected to a March 14 story that contained a sentence - without attribution - referring to "late-term" abortions as the result of "fetal abnormalities" or "medical conditions threatening a woman."

After Congress adopted legislation banning partial birth abortions two weeks ago, Chinlund wrote Johnson an e-mail message June 4 stating new guidelines she had drafted to clarify some of the issues he raised.

"I do believe the Globe should use the phrase 'partial birth abortion' because that is how the legislation is known," Chinlund wrote.

She also addressed Johnson's contention that most partial birth abortions were the result of a woman's decision, not out of medical necessity.

"Under those guidelines, the Globe would not say or imply that the procedure known as partial birth abortion is used only when medically necessary - thus recognizing that it is also used by healthy women who carry a healthy fetus," she wrote. "I also believe that any mention of the bill's lack of an exemption for the health of the mother should be accompanied by a mention of the exemption that does exist to protect the life of the mother."

She told that the decision was made after consulting with the paper's top editor, Martin Baron, National Editor Kenneth Cooper and Washington Bureau Chief Peter Canellos.

While editors aren't required to follow her recommendations, she said they had Baron's support.

"Probably in this case, my recommendations will guide at least most of the editors who deal with these stories, if not all of them," she said. "The top editor agreed with my recommendations. Nothing formal happened, but that in itself, sets the tone."

Baron didn't return a call seeking comment.

After failing to hear back from the Globe in March, Johnson said he contacted Baron directly after reading comments the editor made about fact checking and corrections in the wake of the Jayson Blair affair at The New York Times.

"It took quite awhile," Johnson said. "It didn't happen right away, but I think this is an appropriate response, even if it took a little longer than I would have hoped."

The Globe's decision didn't go over quite as well with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, whose spokeswoman Marjorie Signer said the new guidelines were both "surprising" and "unfortunate."

"The Boston Globe exists in a certain atmosphere, and they have lots of constituencies. They're trying to discern what is right and fair, but I think they are missing the bigger picture," Signer said. "It's tragic that anybody would give any credence to this nonsense about women walking in with great big bellies and saying they've changed their mind. No way. It doesn't happen."

She also criticized Johnson and the National Right to Life Committee for trying to confuse reporters by making the issue seem so complex that the public is unable to understand what's at stake.

"His group has hammered away at this, and their purpose is not to clarify but to confuse," Signer said. "If they were trying to clarify things, the Supreme Court would not have found [Nebraska's partial birth abortion] law unconstitutional in 2000."

The Boston Globe was not the only news organization to face criticism. In the past several months, Johnson has questioned the work of San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Bob Egelko, Gannett News Service reporter Pamela Brogan and Guardian correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg.

Egelko, a federal courts reporter for the Chronicle, wrote in a March 15 story that partial birth abortion "is generally performed late in pregnancy after discovery of damage to or abnormalities in the fetus."

"I don't want to debate the issue with Mr. Johnson," Egelko said. "I made my best call based on the people I interviewed and the information I received. He's an advocate, and he's free to use his terminology. If he thinks our story is inaccurate, he can ask for a correction, and if he thinks our story is biased, he can send a letter to the editor."

Johnson provided with a 1,400-word letter he sent to the Chronicle on March 24. He said he didn't hear back from Egelko until June 5 in a one-sentence e-mail.

Gannett's Brogan wrote back to Johnson in February after he questioned unattributed information in a story about partial birth abortion. In a Dec. 17 article, she wrote that procedure is "usually performed in cases when the mother's life is threatened or the fetus is deformed."

"I don't understand why he's still hammering away at the issue," she said. "I've written several stories since then, and he hasn't said a peep."

Brogan said Johnson told her to contact Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, for further information on whether partial birth abortions were performed for medical reasons or as a woman's elective decision. Brogan questioned Fitzsimmons' expertise.

"He's not the Guttmacher Institute, he's not the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], and these are roundly considered to be the authorities on this topic," she said. "There isn't any authoritative data on why these abortions are performed because nobody asked [these women]. You can't say one reason or the other."

The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Johnson noted, is affiliated with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which he said raised questions about the organization's political stake in the issue.

Johnson cited two other examples of misinformation, one in The Guardian, a British newspaper, and the other in a Miami Herald editorial. Neither organization returned calls seeking comment, but the Herald did run portion of a June 12 letter to the editor by Johnson.

While hesitant to pinpoint why some journalists refuse to accept positions advocated by the pro-life movement, Johnson said some news agencies are bound to never change.

"This is something that some people want to believe," he said. "They pick it out of the air, and they stick it in stories that go to millions of people. That's very shoddy journalism. But what is worse is that when challenged, not to have the journalistic integrity to correct it promptly."

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