Nets Dance Around “Partial-Birth” Term, Schieffer Frets About “End of Legal Abortion”

All three broadcast network evening newscast anchors separated themselves from the “partial-birth” abortion term, some more awkwardly than others, as all ran full stories Tuesday on the decision by the Supreme Court to take up, in the fall, the constitutionality of a federal ban on the abortion procedure -- of whatever name -- which lacks a “health of the mother” exception. After CBS reporter Wyatt Andrews touted how former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor had “protected” the women's health exception, anchor Bob Schieffer saw not the potential now of new “protections” for the unborn, but instead worried about new “restrictions” that may be “imposed” on abortion. Schieffer channeled left-wing fears as he asked Jan Crawford Greenburg of the Chicago Tribune: "So does that mean this is going to be the beginning of the end of legal abortion in this country?" Greenburg, who at another point described Justice Alito “as much more conservative” than the pre-Alito/Roberts court, set him straight: "No, there's still five justices on the court who would vote to uphold Roe versus Wade, which guaranteed a woman's right to an abortion.”

Schieffer introduced the CBS Evening News coverage, with a “Late-Term Abortion” graphic over his shoulder: “The court agreed today to consider the constitutionality of the ban that Congress imposed on a kind of late-term abortion that critics call partial-birth abortion.” In his top of the broadcast tease from Torino, NBC anchor Brian Williams asked: “Can the federal government outlaw late-term abortions?" He soon awkwardly offered this description: “A late term abortion procedure that opponents of it call 'partial-birth abortion.'” Yes, he said “of it call.” Reporter Pete Williams cited "what opponents call partial-birth abortion." Over on ABC, anchor Elizabeth Vargas wasn't so awkward as she stuck to the simpler “so-called partial-birth abortion” verbiage. ABC reporter Jake Tapper at least folded in a description as he delineated what occurs: “The law in question is President Bush's ban on certain procedures where the fetus is at least partially removed from the womb before its aborted.” (Transcript of CBS follows)

The CBS and NBC reporters also offered brief overviews of the procedure. CBS's Wyatt Andrews reported how “three years ago, Congress, hoping for this very day, passed a law it called the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, making it a crime for a physician to deliver, quote, 'a living fetus,' and then essentially kill it.” Is that like being “essentially” pregnant? NBC's Pete Williams related how "opponents,” of abortion, “emphasized that a fetus is partially delivered, its skull then collapsed."

While CBS displayed a “Late-Term Abortion” graphic, ABC and NBC went with more neutral graphic boxes over the shoulders of their anchors. ABC's World News Tonight used “Abortion Battle” and NBC displayed “Abortion Debate.”

CBS's Andrews should get credit for uniquely letting views know why there is no mother's health exception, explaining how that “was on purpose, says the bill's co-sponsor, Congressman Chris Smith, because abortion opponents believe the health exception guts the law." Smith contended: "Because health means everything -- mental health, emotional health -- it's seen as abortion on demand, that there is no prohibition at all."

Brian Williams, in northern Italy, teased the February 21 NBC Nightly News:
“The abortion wars. The new Supreme Court agrees to take the high-stakes question: Can the federal government outlaw late-term abortions?”

Williams set up the subsequent story: “At the U.S. Supreme Court today, this was Justice Samuel Alito's first day on the bench and the court agreed to decide whether Congress went too far when it banned a late term abortion procedure that opponents of it call 'partial birth abortion.' It is a deeply divisive issue, one the court has faced before. But this time, the lineup of justices could produce a very different result. Here is NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams.”

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth provided a full rundown of the February 21 CBS Evening News coverage:
Bob Schieffer, with “Late-Term Abortion” graphic over his shoulder: "The Supreme Court is stepping into the abortion debate again. It's an old debate, but this time it will be argued before a court with a new chief justice, a new associate justice, and very possibly a new balance of power. The court agreed today to consider the constitutionality of the ban that Congress imposed on a kind of late-term abortion that critics call partial-birth abortion. Here is Wyatt Andrews."

Wyatt Andrews: "Just the announcement the Supreme Court will rule on the late-term abortion ban was heartening to abortion opponents who hope Justice Samuel Alito will become the new swing vote against abortion rights. Three years ago, Congress, hoping for this very day, passed a law it called the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, making it a crime for a physician to deliver, quote, 'a living fetus,' and then essentially kill it. The law does not have an exception for the health of the woman involved. And that was on purpose, says the bill's co-sponsor, Congressman Chris Smith, because abortion opponents believe the health exception guts the law."

Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ): "Because health means everything -- mental health, emotional health -- it's seen as abortion on demand, that there is no prohibition at all."

Andrews: "In her years on the court, however, Justice O'Connor protected the woman's health exception, and she did it so often it became accepted constitutional law. So every federal court that has ruled on the late-term ban has struck it down, including the Eighth Circuit Appeals Court, which said, 'Because the act does not contain a woman's health exception, it is unconstitutional.'"

Eve Gartner, Planned Parenthood: "That's the core issue in this case. Will women's health and safety continue to be paramount when the state regulates abortion?"

Andrews: "During his confirmation hearings, Alito would not tip his hand on abortion but came out strongly in favor of honoring previous court decisions."

Samuel Alito, Supreme Court Justice, at confirmation hearing: "There needs to be a special justification for overruling a prior precedent."

Andrew Cohen, CBS News legal analyst: "If Justice Alito meant what he said when he said that he believes in a strong rule and role of precedent at the Supreme Court, this law is going to fail."

Andrews: "So when this case gets argued, the question is: Which Alito will it be? The Judge Alito who votes to uphold precedent? That Alito keeps the woman's health exception. But the Alito conservatives think they are getting votes to ban this partial-birth abortion. Bob?"

Bob Schieffer: "Thank you very much, Wyatt. Well, let's see if we can find out which one. Let's bring in our legal analyst, Jan Crawford Greenberg, into this. Jan, what do you think the significance of this case is going to be? Is it important?"

Jan Crawford Greenburg, inside on Capitol Hill: "Absolutely, Bob. And today's announcement, the first day that Justice Alito took the bench in public in the courtroom, dramatically underscores the changes that are already taking place in the Supreme Court. If Justice O'Connor were still on the court, this law would be unconstitutional. With Justice Alito now in her place, the court is poised to say this kind of law is okay."

Schieffer: "Well, so does that mean this is going to be the beginning of the end of legal abortion in this country?"

Greenburg: "No, there's still five justices on the court who would vote to uphold Roe versus Wade, which guaranteed a woman's right to an abortion. Instead what we're likely to see is states having greater leeway to step in and regulate abortion, to say this kind of procedure is okay, this kind of procedure is not. That's what this new court is most likely to do in the year to come."

Schieffer: "So abortion itself will remain legal, but we're likely to see new restrictions imposed?"

Greenburg: "Greater regulations on abortions by the state and by the federal government. That's something the Supreme Court has not previously allowed with Justice O'Connor on the court. With this new lineup of justices, particularly with Justice Alito, who is seen as much more conservative, the court is now likely to take that path, allow the states to step in and the federal government and have greater regulations."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center