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Interpreting remarks on abortion

at 06:00 AM ET, 06/17/2013


(Charles Dharapak/AP)

“They are saying that there's no abortion, and they want to make it a federal law that there be no abortion in our country.”

— Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), June 13, 2013

The Fact Checker always ventures into questions about abortion rhetoric with trepidation. Given the intensity of emotions, virtually no one is ever happy with our rulings, no matter how much we try to just stick with the facts. So we try to stick with statements that appear pretty clear cut.

A reader, for instance, drew our attention to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s comment at a news conference as something that appeared to be clearly in error. From the context of the remarks, Pelosi appeared to be referring to a GOP-crafted bill on abortion.

The bill in question, HR 1797, would prohibit “the abortion from being performed if the probable post-fertilization age of the unborn child is 20 weeks or greater,” which is similar to saying after the 22nd week of pregnancy. (There originally was an exception only to save the life of a mother, but GOP leaders late last week quietly added exceptions for rape and incest.)

The bill was approved Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee on a 20 to 12 vote. The Supreme Court has set a threshold of 24 weeks for legal abortions, but advocates claim that fetuses can begin to feel pain earlier than that. That assertion is disputed, but in any case the bill would not result in a sweeping ban on all abortions. (Update: Readers have pointed out the Supreme Court test is not the number of weeks but “viability” of the fetus.)

Indeed, the National Journal also spotted Pelosi’s false claim, initially reporting that “Pelosi then wrongly or mistakenly characterized the Republican bill as one that would ban abortion completely, which it does not.”  But when we checked with Drew Hammill, her spokesman, he said that her comment was being misinterpreted.

 Hammill said that Pelosi was referring not to the bill, but to what she believes is the ultimate goal of Republicans — to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. He noted that Pelosi, at the start of the news conference, correctly described the bill. (She was reading from a prepared statement.) 

“The leader is well aware of the details of the legislation,” Hammill said.

Pelosi’s comment came when she was in the midst of a tense back-and-forth with John McCormack, a reporter from the conservative Weekly Standard. McCormack’s questions were respectful, yet tough, asking whether there was a “moral difference” between abortion clinics that permit late-term abortions and the case of convicted abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. Pelosi bristled and answered quite sharply, and two had a heated discussion.

You can watch the exchange here:

 Pelosi made her disputed comment right after McCormack said “this is the issue they are talking about,” referring specifically to the bill in question.

Pelosi was clearly irritated at a reporter who she said “obviously [had] an agenda.” Still, we’re not quite sure how Pelosi leapt from a discussion of the bill to an overall assertion about GOP political goals. But we will accept Hammill’s explanation, given that Pelosi had correctly described the bill earlier in the news conference.  We don’t like to play gotcha here at The Fact Checker, but want to focus on the facts.

As it happens, last week we also had checked a statement made by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), the bill’s chief sponsor, during the committee debate on the measure. “The incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,” he asserted.

As stated, that comment appeared as wrong as Pelosi’s statement initially appeared. We sought an explanation from Franks’s spokesman, Ben Carnes, but did not get a response. We awarded Franks Four Pinocchios in a column that appeared Thursday morning.

Some readers, including McCormack, accused us — and much of the rest of the media — of misinterpreting Franks’s comments by assuming he was using “incidence” to mean “rate of occurrence,” as opposed to “occurrence.” So we sought out Carnes again.

On Friday, he explained that Franks misspoke and intended to refer to the number of abortions due to rape. (The Guttmacher Institute says that 1 percent of women who have abortions say they are victims of rape and less than a half percent say they became pregnant because of incest.)  That’s an entirely different matter, and we are not sure we would have written a column with that explanation in hand. Thus we have removed the Pinocchio rating from the column on Franks’s statement.

Some readers believed we had erred in this matter.

“The bottom line of this particular controversy is that we on the right knew exactly what the congressman meant, even without a spokesman around to clarify things,” one reader wrote The Fact Checker. “We were armed with nothing more than good ears, a dictionary, common sense—and a willingness to extend to one of our own the benefit of the doubt. Why shouldn’t we expect the same from non-partisan fact-checkers?”

This is a valid question, and we agree we were too quick to follow the media narrative in this case. The Fact Checker tries to focus on topics and statements in the news, but that’s no excuse.

We are always open to learning new facts and information that may alter Pinocchio ratings. We thank the readers who pushed us to reconsider the meaning of Franks’s statement.  

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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