Will Miracle Baby Change the Abortion Debate?

Is “Hurricane Amillia” about to blow the abortion village down?  Not if the media can help it.

Last week tiny Amillia Taylor made her public debut.  Amillia was delivered at 21 weeks and 6 days, the shortest period of time a child has been carried in utero and lived to survive.  She was introduced to the press in anticipation of her going home after four months in the hospital.  

ABC World News Tonight was the only broadcast news outlet to make the connection between Amillia's gestational age and laws governing abortion. The vast majority of the 21 broadcast stories that ran about Amillia last week merely dealt with the baby's homecoming. 

Kudos to ABC anchor Charlie Gibson for leading with Amillia on Feb. 20, 2007, and acknowledging the greater significance of the story. “The fact that she has survived and grown to more than four pounds and is about to go home is a miracle, yes, but a miracle that may have an effect on the debate over abortion, and it may change what people think about life.”

ABC made a point of presenting both sides of the story. Reporter Dan Harris warned that “anti-abortion activists” would make Amillia a “national poster child.”  He closed the story by quoting a bioethicist, Professor Arthur Caplan, “We don't have new treatments.  There isn't anything to be done differently to try and save 21-week old premature infants.  And so, I think it would be wrong to just say, because this one made it, we ought to treat everyone, when we don't have any new treatments.”

CNN's Anderson Cooper, 360 also tackled the abortion-related issues surrounding Amillia's birth, but couched the discussion in terms of “fetus viability.”  The CNN story emphasized the potential problems extremely premature babies face and the developmental hurdles that Amillia must surmount.   The same bioethicist quoted by ABC, Arthur Caplan, was given substantially more time to air his pessimistic opinion in the CNN report.

When asked by anchor Kiran Chetry if Amillia's birth and survival would lead people to try to redefine medical standards regarding “fetus viability,” Caplan answered, “I think it will.  You see people out there really opposed to abortion, looking for evidence that it's time to make a change in any way they can restrict abortion.  And I think some people will point to the survival of this baby and say, here is a 21-week-old baby, we've got a line in the sand in the Roe decision that says 24 weeks, maybe that's too old, let's restrict it, let's take it down a couple of more weeks.”

Chetry then threw a softball question to Caplan that allowed him to expound on the many problems that prematurely born babies can face, including learning disabilities, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, mental retardation and physical disabilities.  Caplan then showed his true colors when he said, “… it isn't just a question of biological life, it's also a question of at what price to the child.”

What price to the child?  Living with disabilities is a small price to pay, considering the alternative – not living at all.

In that statement, Caplan made a remarkable value judgment about life.  To Caplan, the issue is the quality of life as he perceives it.  What does that say about the countless children born with the problems he lists? Are their lives worth less because of their disabilities?

The contrast between the ABC and CNN stories is stark.  ABC asked whether Amillia's birth and survival change the abortion debate and gave each side of the issue a fair airing.  CNN asked the same question but spent more time talking about Amillia's potential future problems, making her survival seem more like an ominous prologue to an existence fraught with disabilities and challenges, than a miraculous gift of life.  That may not have been great journalism, but CNN still did a better job than most of the media, which opted to ignore the abortion angle rather than address it. 

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer for the Culture and Media Institute (www.cultureandmediainstitute.org), a division of the MediaResearchCenter.