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Right-Wing Rhetoric Dominates the Issue

Abortion: In calling slain physician an 'abortion doctor,' the media adopt the descriptors of the anti-choice movement.

November 02, 1998|SUZANNE GORDON and ISABEL MARCUS | Suzanne Gordon is a journalist who writes about women's issues and health care. She is the author of "Life Support: Three Nurses on the Front Line" (Little, Brown & Co., 1997). Isabel Marcus is a professor of law at University of Buffalo Law School and director of the Women's Studies Program at SUNY Buffalo

"Sniper Kills Abortion Doctor in His Home." Abortion Doctor Killed by Sniper in Upstate N.Y." "Abortion Doc Gunned Down." This is how the American media--from the Chicago Tribune to the Los Angeles Times to the New York Daily News and many other newspapers, have reported the Oct. 23 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo, N.Y. Aside from some Day 2 follow-up stories or a mention buried at the end of a later news report, readers and viewers might never have known from print press and TV coverage that Slepian, who left a wife and four children, had a thriving obstetrics and gynecology practice. Nor was this oversight limited to newspapers.

Story after story, TV report after TV report repeated the term "abortion doctor" in headlines and in the body of their stories. Why don't the American media identify physicians who perform some abortions as healers? Why do they accept the right wing's anti-abortion rhetoric as the industry standard?

The right wing wants Americans to believe that any doctor who, in the course of his or her practice, terminates a pregnancy for any reason--whether to save the woman's life or to respect her own personal choice about becoming a mother--is a vicious "baby killer." (An Internet site titled "the Nuremberg Files" lists physicians performing abortions in clinics and private practices and next to their names is a column that indicates whether they are "working," "injured" or "killed.")

In the fevered right-wing imagination, a physician who performs abortions in course of a broad obstetrical-gynecological practice becomes an "abortionist" or "abortion doctor." The anti-abortion fringe conveniently replaces the traditional image of doctor-healer working to save lives with an image of a physician devoted to ending them--Dr. Death. When the mainstream media describe such physicians as "abortion doctors," reporters and editors reinforce and legitimate the anti-choice world view.

If the term "abortion doctor" only resonated with a small minority of Americans committed to the anti-choice position, it would not be such a problem. Unfortunately, this descriptor may influence middle-of-the-road readers and viewers as well. When those who are relatively neutral on the subject hear or read the term "abortion doctor," the picture that springs to mind is of a physician whose medical practice is exclusively dedicated to the performance of abortions--as when we speak of a cancer doctor, we understand that their work to be confined to treating cancer.

But most physicians, like Slepian, who perform these legally and medically accepted procedures do so in practices that care for women across the life span. They deliver babies, treat women with gynecological cancers, help women cope with menopause and work with them as they grow older. They are, in short, obstetrician-gynecologists.

Does the term "abortion doctor" convey that fact? Would people reading or hearing such a term or reading an entire story in which it is never mentioned understand that the physician slain in a Mafia-style hit is, in fact, a healer--someone whom they or their loved ones might one day turn to for treatment and compassion? Or might they shrug off the murder and dismiss its significance as an another unfortunate example of politics run amok, distressing perhaps, but an inevitable casualty of the long and tedious war over reproductive rights?

The public and particularly the medical profession should insist that the media be accurate. (Feminists, too, should mind their rhetoric in this regard. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, recently referred to murdered physicians as "abortion doctors.") Physicians who perform abortions should not be identified as "abortion doctors" but as what they are: obstetrician-gynecologists. Within the constraints of headline writing and "news at 11" promos, this should be reflected. And it should certainly be reflected in the body of news stories when they first appear or are told, not on Day 2 or Day 3 of ongoing coverage.

The deaths of healers whom we normally hold in high esteem should be depicted in the same way as a the deaths of priests and nuns or relief workers caught in the cross-fire of vicious civil wars in other countries. But this will not happen if the American media allow the right-wing fringe to dictate the language used in headlines and stories and, thereby, promote its version of reality.

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