The media love an apostate, and Ron Fitzsimmons is the apostate of the moment. In November 1995, at the start of Congress' battle over so-called "partial-birth abortions," Fitzsimmons, the executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, went on Nightline to argue against a ban. Even ardent pro-choicers concede the grisliness of the procedure--in which delivery is induced, the fetus' skull is crushed, and its brains are suctioned. So, Fitzsimmons now says, he deliberately underestimated how often the procedure is performed and claimed incorrectly that most such operations were necessary for the mother's health.
But last week Fitzsimmons came clean. "I lied through my teeth," he said in an interview with the American Medical News. This became front-page news and revived the partial-birth-abortion issue. Congress failed to override President Clinton's veto of a ban last fall. But there is speculation that Clinton will change his position now that the truth has been revealed.
Media accounts of Fitzsimmons' confession have been stirring. First, there was the critical moment of moral doubt: The day after appearing on Nightline, Fitzsimmons says, he felt "physically ill. ... I told my wife, 'I can't do this again.' " Next, heroic outrage: He stepped forward when he could no longer watch the debate be "engulfed by spins and half-truths." Finally, redemption: accolades from pols and pundits. On Meet the Press, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., declared in his conscience-of-the-nation mode: "Mr. Fitzsimmons did the honorable thing."
But the media are being as credulous about Fitzsimmons' new story as they were about his old one. For starters, why did it take him 16 months to retract lies he claims to have immediately regretted?
Then there's the underplayed fact that Fitzsimmons' mendacity could not possibly have influenced the national debate, because the segments of the Nightline interview in which Fitzsimmons says he lied through his teeth never aired!
Quite apart from the melodrama of Fitzsimmons' recantation and confession, moreover, there is nothing new about what he "revealed" last week. Last fall, both the Washington Post and the Bergen Record ran front-page stories asserting that pro-choice groups underestimate the number of "intact dilation and extraction" (IDE) procedures, to use the medical term, that are performed. In a piece that pro-life groups circulated all over the place, the Bergen Record's Ruth Padawer showed that one clinic in Englewood, N.J., had performed 1,500 IDEs in 1994. That is 1,000 more than pro-choice groups claimed had been performed in the entire country. After interviewing doctors who perform the procedure, both papers concluded that only in very few instances was the IDE actually necessary to protect the woman's health. Most of them were performed on poor women who could not muster the money to pay for abortions earlier in their pregnancies.
Abortion practitioners have publicly admitted the same for years. Martin Haskell, the Ohio doctor who developed the procedure, asserted in one paper that 80 percent of his patients choose it because it is safer and more convenient than the alternatives. There was no medical necessity. The other leading late-term abortionist, the now-deceased Dr. James McMahon, presented similar statistics before a congressional committee two years ago. These two doctors together performed 500 late-term abortions in one year, and there are at least eight other doctors who administer it--obviously, this adds up to more than 500 IDEs a year nationwide.
Fitzsimmons now endorses the pro-life movement's figure of 5,000. But that figure is as unreliable as the pro-choice movement's 500. None of the groups that provides reliable statistics about abortion tallies up the total numbers of IDEs. Consequently, there's much improvisation and sleight of hand involved when anyone throws around numbers. Both sides claim to have derived their figures from interviews with doctors who perform IDEs, but different doctors use different definitions of the procedure and, in many cases, they probably make only rough estimates of their own caseloads. Whether the correct figure is nearer 500 or 5,000, it is a minuscule percentage of the 1.5 million abortions performed each year in the United States.
You might think, from the attention paid to Ron Fitzsimmons' recantation, that he was a major player in the abortion debate. But most reporters who cover abortion--to say nothing of pro-choice insiders--say they had never heard of him. "This guy came out of the blue," says an official at one major pro-choice group. At best, Fitzsimmons is a B-league lobbyist. His group, a trade association, represents 220 clinics (but not Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States). While it aims to protect abortion rights, its agenda is mostly more mundane. Right now, its biggest task is negotiating contracts with pharmaceutical companies.
Fitzsimmons (who isn't giving any interviews now) offers no new statistics to back up his current claim that 5,000 IDEs are performed every year. And most newspaper accounts fail to point out that, in spite of his confession, Fitzsimmons continues to oppose a ban on IDEs.
There is little doubt about the pro-choice media's unquestioning acceptance of the faulty pro-choice statistics. Editorial boards at the Washington Post and the New York Times took the position that a ban on late-term abortions is bad because it affects only women carrying badly deformed babies who have no other alternative. Perhaps the uncritical reportage of Fitzsimmons' new story can be explained by pangs of guilt about the uncritical reportage of his old one.
Pro-choicers have muddled the debate over late-term abortions, and the Fitzsimmons affair is their disingenuous strategy coming back to bite them. Instead of categorically defending a woman's right to an abortion, they have chosen to challenge pro-lifers on the pro-lifers' turf. They squabble over the details of late-term abortions. But these details are their weakest points. Abortion is necessarily an ugly business, and it doesn't do them any good to debate the extent of its ugliness. Once Congress agrees to regulate one sort of abortion because it is gruesome, the pro-lifers will immediately turn to another form of abortion and insist that it, too, be regulated, because it, too, is gruesome.
If a fetus is a fully human life, then all abortion is murder and the debate over any particular procedure is beside the point. But the pro-life movement recognizes it has lost the larger debate, and has therefore adopted a step-by-step strategy. If abortion is not wrong--irrespective of the circumstances--then the issue becomes a tradeoff among unpleasant alternatives. And the question is not which of these alternatives is more unpleasant, but whether the government should be making the decision.