NY Times Article Got Story on DIY Abortions Wrong

by Cara on January 23, 2009

in abortion, anti-choice extremism, blogging, human rights, immigration, legislation, media, pregnancy, reproductive justice, women’s health

The other week, I blogged about this NY Times article on Dominican women in New York City inducing abortion themselves with misoprostol.

Well, it turns out that the NY Times go several key facts very wrong. AlterNet has the story. (emphasis mine)

So what did the study find? Far less misoprostol use than expected, it turns out. Data analysis isn’t finished yet and the study won’t be published until March. But Grossman said that 1,200 women were surveyed, and at most, only 17 reported using misoprostol at all, let alone in the US. “You absolutely cannot use this study to generalize beyond the groups we studied,” he warned. “But the vast majority of the women we talked to went to medical facilities, like Planned Parenthood, to get their abortions. Misoprostol use was not common.”

But the Times tells a different story. It says the study finds that in Latina immigrant enclaves like Upper Manhattan, misoprostol is “frequently employed …despite the widespread availability of safe, legal and inexpensive abortions in clinics and hospitals.”

When Times reporter Jennifer Lee contacted the Ibis and Gynuity researchers in December, they could not understand why the Times was doing a news story. We said, ‘There’s no news now about misoprostol,’” said Winikoff. “We told her, ‘Maybe there will be if you wait for the study.’” Their fears about premature use of their research were well founded. Lee’s editor at the Times, Jodi Rudoren, told RH Reality Check that when Lee talked to her about the study to make a case for an article, she gave an estimated figure for women reporting misoprostol use that far surpassed what the researchers say is correct.

And the Times article hammers misoprostol’s dangers, while completely ignoring all the research supporting its potential for relatively safe and effective DIY use.
“We told her about that data and our education efforts,” Grossman said. Both topics have been covered in other publications in recent years.

The Times article also states — wrongly — that self-induced abortions in New York are “illicit,” and women do them “illegally.” In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 38 states outlaw self-abortion, in laws which often track repressive statutes left over from pre-Roe v. Wade days. But New York isn’t one of them — women there can legally self abort early pregnancies if they want to.

You got all that? The figures are overblown, the self-induced abortion method — while certainly not ideal, and certainly more dangerous than a doctor-supervised option — is much safer than made out to be, and the abortions themselves are not illegal.

That’s not to say that the story has no merit at all, and do-it-yourself abortions do in fact happen in America.  I further stand by the majority of my assertions made in my original blog post: anti-choice policies do promote unsafe abortions, access (as the AlerNet article also notes) is still far too limited, and immigration policies only compound the problem.

But these facts are important.  And the NY Times fucked up, big time.  And their fuck up could have wide-reaching consequences:

After the Times piece came out, the national media followed with articles saying that misoprostol use among US Latinas is common, increasing, risky and illegal. As a result, Gonzalez-Rojas said, “there could be legislative action” to further outlaw or crack down on self-induced abortions, “including to criminalize women’s use of misoprostol” in the name of protecting them. “We do have concerns.”

Scary. Granted, this legislation would be completely ridiculous and unnecessarily punitive even if the newspaper did have its facts 100% correct.  But the fact that we could be seeing this kind of legislation thanks to an article that wasn’t even accurate?  Not okay.

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{ 2 comments }

1 MomTFH January 24, 2009 at 2:55 pm

I had a problem with this story from the start, and I am glad you posted this follow up that verified my suspicions.

This is yet another example of how abortion is mishandled by the media. Why does it always have to be sensationalist coverage of rare extremes? How about normal coverage of it as a normal health issue about normal women getting normal health care?

2 Sage-femme Collective February 10, 2009 at 4:00 pm

The majority of women in the United States pay for their own abortions at a cost of upwards of $350. When women are faced with restrictions (financial,legal, or both) towards clinical abortion services they will resort to self-induced abortion methods. Abortion has an element of inherent danger, whether spontaneous or induced, for infection or hemorrhage can happen. Greater education regarding the risks associated with abortion and the importance of monitoring temperature and blood loss should be emphasized – along with the repeal of restrictive abortion laws.

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