The Science of Roe v. Wade
How Journalists Can Help News Consumers Understand A Complex Story
Roe v. Wade may be one of the biggest stories you will cover as a journalist. It’s certainly one of the most complex for reporters and news consumers. Why? Because it’s a combination of Science + Law + Emotions.
I’ve covered Roe v. Wade since it began in 1970, but it was not my first experience covering the abortion issue as a journalist. I remember the 1967 Colorado case where the state decriminalized abortion because of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s health. While many people opposed the idea, I found a growing number of people who saw abortion as acceptable and even necessary in those types of situations. More states followed Colorado and the pressure was on the courts in the late 1960s.
I’d like to share some thoughts for journalists who are covering the current Roe v. Wade debate. I also hope this will be helpful for news consumers.
I’ve been watching the current coverage of abortion debates and protests and noticed something important for journalists. Most of the people I’ve seen or heard interviewed don’t remember a time when abortion was not legal in the United States.
I often hear people say that they shouldn’t lose a legal right they’ve always had. That’s because of their age. There was a time not so long ago when abortion was not a legal right in the United States. Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land since 1973 — just 49 years ago. Unless someone is in their 50s or older, they would have no memory of a time when abortion was not legal in the United States.
So, let’s begin with a quick history of abortion. It’s always good as a journalist to have a solid understanding of where things began and how they developed over time. You may find that helpful in your coverage and reporting of this important story.
The first thing I learned about abortion as a young journalist was that it was not new in the United States or even in the history of the world. Many ancient people knew how to induce abortions through a variety of methods. I won’t describe the methods here, but the Ebers Papyrus and Kahun Gynecological Papyrus are two examples of ancient documents describing abortion methods. Ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, and other countries were known to have various methods of abortion — many which were toxic and dangerous to pregnant women.
America has a long history of abortion that dates back to the early 17th century when it was a British colony. English common law allowed abortions until a pregnant woman experienced quickening (also known as quick with child). The quickening was the first feeling of the baby moving inside a mother’s womb (generally within the first 15-20 weeks after conception). The belief at that time was the unborn child was a part of the mother until quickening (also known as animation), so abortion was not viewed as homicide prior to the child moving in the womb. Even then, many people did not think of abortion after quickening as a felony crime. They viewed it as a misprision (misdemeanor) instead.
States began banning (criminalizing) abortion in the early 19th century. Some states, like New York, made abortion a crime whether it was done before or after quickening. The American Medical Association campaigned during the 19th century for a nationwide ban on abortion. Most states criminalized abortion by the early part of the 20th century. That continued to be true until the mid-1960s, which is when I was in college studying to become a journalist. That’s when things began to change across the country.
Whether you are a journalist or news consumer, you may find it helpful to read about some of the mid-20th century court challenges involving abortion. I reported about most of them, but realize many of today’s journalists were not even alive at the time.
Here are some of the court cases you may find helpful to research for an historical perspective in your reporting.
Griswold v. Connecticut
United States v. Vuitch
Younger v. Harris
Doe v. Bolton
Roe v. Wade
Other historical documents you may find helpful to read are:
The Hyde Amendment
Webster v. Reproductive Health Services
Rust v. Sullivan
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey
Gonzales v. Carhart
Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt
June Medical Services vs. Russo
Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization
The Supreme Court’s decision concerning Roe v. Wade did not come quickly. It was argued on December 13, 1971, but the Justices did not release their decision until more than a year later — January 22, 1973. Justice Blackmun delivered the Court’s opinion and wrote this about the difficulty of the decision —
We forthwith acknowledge our awareness of the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy, of the vigorous opposing views, even among physicians, and of the deep and seemingly absolute convictions that the subject inspires.
Notice that Justice Blackmun wrote “of the vigorous opposing views” about abortion, “even among physicians.” That leads us to the next part of this article — abortion science.
Keep in mind that the court cases in the 1960s that led to Roe v. Wade were based on medical science known at that time. Many physicians viewed abortion as a medical procedure. Science is knowledge or a system of knowledge “covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method” (Merriam-Webster). Knowledge doesn’t stand still. People are adding new findings to scientific knowledge every day. That includes scientists and medical professionals.
Journalists should follow the science during news coverage — including stories about Roe v. Wade. The reason I say that is because of the scientific arguments lawyers made in early court cases about abortion. You will find those arguments as you read through the case files in the historical documents listed above. Experts in a variety of scientific fields testified during those cases based on their understanding of what was known about abortion science at the time.
Since many of those arguments were based on scientific information available 50 years ago, journalists should research any advances in scientific knowledge since that time. If science has advanced since that time, what impact might that have on abortion science?
Here are several scientific advancements pertaining to pregnancy and the unborn child that have developed since the Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade:
DNA testing to determine paternity
CVS (chorionic villus sampling)
SNP Microarry testing
Fetal pain response
Fetal viability (survival outside womb)
You might wonder why I mention following science in Roe v. Wade. Didn’t the Supreme Court rule on the case based on the U.S. Constitution? It did — the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. However, as the State of Texas argued before the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade included issues of health and medical standards — meaning that science was part of their argument. Did the Justices not pay attention to those scientific arguments? They did.
The Justices tried to balance the rights of states and of women. The Court divided pregnancy into three 12-week trimesters and defined the rights of each party based on those trimesters. The Justices based some of their decision on the scientific knowledge of how an unborn child develops inside their mother’s womb.
Technology is an important part of the process of increasing knowledge. Do you know what technology is available now that was not available when Roe v. Wade was argued 50 years ago? Do you know if there are scientific discoveries made since that time that might impact the stories you’re covering today? Do your viewers/listeners/readers know about advancements in scientific technology since 1973?
One reason I ask the question is because I rarely hear journalists mention technological advancements in medical science as pertains to pregnancy and an unborn child (fetus). I know from my own research that medical science has made many advancements in the last 50 years that have added greatly to our knowledge about the unborn. If you are a journalist who has reported on those advancements, you are doing a good thing for journalism. You are treating a difficult topic with the fairness it deserves. If you are not reporting about scientific advancements since Roe v. Wade, I hope you will. It’s an important part of the story.
Let me add this important note. Reporting about advancements in science during the past 50 years is not a matter of taking a particular position on the question of abortion. It’s about gathering all of the information pertinent to a story, confirming that information, and reporting that information clearly, objectively, and accurately. A journalist’s personal beliefs about any story they cover is not primary to performing the important work of journalism. Truth is primary.
One other issue you may find helpful in your coverage concerns the personhood of the unborn child. Some people view it as a moral issue, while others see it as a scientific issue based on what recent science reveals about the unborn. The Pro-Choice group has long claimed that an unborn fetus is a non-person. The Pro-Life group has long claimed that an unborn child is a person.
I remember the argument in the early days of legal debate in Roe v. Wade. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote this as part of the Court’s majority opinion – “If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment.”
The longer quote from Blackmun’s majority opinion is:
“The appellee and certain amici argue that the fetus is a “person” within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant’s case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment. The appellant conceded as much on reargument.” University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
This statement is often referred to as “Blackmun’s Hole.” Justice Blackmun seemed to be stating that if the personhood of an unborn child could be proven, then the unborn child would find protection in Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Blackmun also wrote this about the medical implications of when a person becomes human.
“Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.
It should be sufficient to note briefly the wide divergence of thinking on this most sensitive and difficult question…Substantial problems for precise definition of this view are posed, however, by new embryological data that purport to indicate that conception is a “process” over time, rather than an event, and by new medical techniques such as menstrual extraction, the “morning-after” pill, implantation of embryos, artificial insemination, and even artificial wombs.” University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
Some of the more recent developments in science may have some bearing on Blackmun’s majority ruling, so it’s good for journalists to have that knowledge.
You can read the full text of Roe v. Wade to learn more about how the Supreme Court made its decision. I believe it would be helpful for journalists, pro-choice and pro-life protestors, and news consumers to familiarize themselves with the Court’s ruling in light of the desire of many people to either “defend” or “overturn” Roe v. Wade.
Remember the Goal
Knowledge is a powerful thing in the hands of honest journalists. It is a harmful thing in the hands of dishonest journalists. Remember the goal — truth in every story. The goal is never about pushing any agenda other than finding, confirming, and reporting the truth.
I believe that a thorough knowledge about the history of abortion, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade, and the many court cases that have followed, will give you an understanding of the arguments from both sides — which is what you’re covering. The job of a journalist is to cover a story from all sides — accurately and objectively.
If you have made a personal decision about what you believe concerning this story, keep it to yourself. Don’t discuss your personal feelings in the newsroom, with co-workers in the field, or with friends. Don’t say things during live coverage of a protest that would define your personal position — and by all means don’t ever join in with a protest. I say that because I know journalists who have done that. I’ve also known journalists who declared their positions openly on social media. That’s not a good idea for several reasons — one being that you are on record in support of one side or the other and your words may be available to the public.
Once your personal beliefs are known publicly, it becomes difficult for the public to trust your reporting. Don’t allow your personal feelings to enter into how you cover the story, who you talk to or don’t talk to, how you write your story, how you edit your story, and how you present your story — whether live, recorded, or in print.
News editors, producers, and managers: teach your news team how to cover sensitive, even explosive, stories like this one. You know the rules of good journalism. Teach them to your team, then enforce them. News consumers must know they can trust you and your team to cover the news truthfully and fairly.
We’ll share a special guest article with you in the next newsletter about where news outlets get sources for stories.
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as a journalist or news consumer. Please share your comments and I’ll respond as quickly as I can. If you like what we’re doing in this newsletter, please let your friends know about it so they can subscribe.
The purpose of this newsletter is to help journalists understand how to do real journalism and the public know how they can find news they can trust on a daily basis. It’s a simple purpose, but complicated to accomplish. We’ll do our best to make it as clear as we can in future newsletters.