A controversial bill before the Virginia legislature to loosen restrictions on late-term abortion was voted down recently, but not before debate over the bill went viral. Republican Majority Leader Todd Gilbert asked Democratic Delegate Kathy Tran whether her bill would allow an abortion even on a woman at the end of her pregnancy who was dilating and about to give birth. "My bill would allow that, yes," Tran said after some coaxing.
Democratic Governor Ralph Northam weighed in shortly afterwards, saying that while he had not heard Tran's comments, the sort of abortion she was describing "is done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s not viable."
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"In this example, if a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother," he said.
The Washington Post has run four headlines on two stories over the controversy. See if you can sense a theme:
- "Abortion bill draws GOP outrage against Va. Gov. Northam, Democratic legislators"
- The same piece, before being edited, was headlined "Va. Gov. Northam faces fierce conservative backlash over abortion bill."
- "Until this week, Del. Kathy Tran was known for nursing her daughter on the House floor. Now Republicans are calling her a baby killer."
- That headline too was edited, to "Del. Kathy Tran was known for nursing her baby on the House floor. Now she’s getting death threats."
Much digital ink has been already spilled explaining why the "Republicans pounce" meme is so lame and hackish: when the framing of the story is "Republicans are attacking a Democrat for X" rather than "Democrat does X," the inescapable message is that in the eyes of the media, the controversy is a newsworthy story and the underlying event isn't.
Even past the headline, the framing of the stories plays into the narrative that Republicans are making much ado of nothing. Northam, we're told, "gave an answer that was later used by Republicans to suggest he favored killing live babies." Republicans "sought to exploit the moment as part of a campaign to paint Democrats as radicals out of step with the state," and their uproar "played directly into the national partisan divide, fueling outrage."
However, "Northam’s office later made clear the governor was talking about prognosis and medical treatment, not ending the life of a delivered baby." A Democratic delegate "upbraid[ed] Republicans for their treatment of Tran," and the Democratic caucus "slammed the Republicans."
Republicans use, Republicans seek to exploit, Republicans fuel outrage and partisanship. Democrats make clear, Democrats upbraid, Democrats slam.
Even the framing of the central conflict is hopelessly biased: "Republicans circulated a video of [Tran] acknowledging that her bill, like current law, would allow abortions up to the point of delivery in cases when the mother’s life or health was at serious risk." Gilbert, however, asked specifically about mental health:
GILBERT: How late in the third trimester could a physician perform an abortion if he indicated that it would impair the mental health of the woman?
TRAN: Or physical health.
GILBERT: Okay, I'm talking about the mental health.
TRAN: I mean, through the third trimester. The third trimester goes up to 40 weeks.
GILBERT: Okay, but to the end of the third trimester?
TRAN: Yup, I don't think we have a limit in the bill.
Saying simply that the bill is about instances when "health is at serious risk" allows most readers to draw the conclusion that WaPo is talking about physical health. But part of what made the exchange so outrageous is that Gilbert was asking about ending the life of a fully-gestated child due to the mental strain it's inflicting on the mother. That's a far more slippery proposition.
The second WaPo story is arguably more embarrassing. Tran, the reader learns, "arrived to the United States as a Vietnam boat refugee during the late 1970s," she "has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan" and "worked at the U.S. Department of Labor, helping to oversee the Office of Workforce Investment," she campaigned with her baby (awwwwww) and "drew attention for nursing the baby — by then a year old — on the floor of the House of Delegates."
So why was this unassailable person under attack? Originally the sole description in the entire piece of what sparked the controversy was that "Republicans circulated a video of her testimony about a bill she proposed that would have loosened restrictions on late-term abortions." That's it! No discussion at all that maybe the reason "Republicans are calling her a baby killer" was that the video contains her endorsing the legality of killing of a fully formed human child—aka, a baby—during the birthing process.
The piece was stealth-edited and now actually spells out Tran's statement. But anyone who read it in the first two hours after publication would think Republicans pounced on, well, nothing.
Deafness to the Republican position is par for the course, but polls show 80% of Americans are opposed to late-term abortion. Indeed, even a Democratic co-sponsor of the bill apologized for and said they didn't read the bill. WaPo doesn't just alienate conservatives when its coverage is this one-sided, it alienates the vast majority of the country.