In the midst of all the heated rhetoric about abortion that choked the news last week, there was one sentence that still echoes in my mind. It was the message transmitted from the man in the Oval Office to the pro-life demonstrators on the Ellipse: "The momentum is with us."
I wanted to dismiss his words as the optimistic cheer of a fan. Go get 'em, tiger. There is no evidence, after all, that public opinion has moved an iota closer to his anti- abortion stance. Instead it seems to have frozen in place. The constitutional amendment that would ban abortion has stalled, and the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the basic right to choose abortion.
But Ronald Reagan knows his business, and his business is political communication. The "momentum" he talks about is a word that comes out of that specialized dictionary. The "Big Mo" is a political term used to describe the direction in which the pack is traveling, especially the journalistic pack. Within that definition, the president is right: The Big Mo is with the right-to- lifers.
In recent months, I have been struck by the success that the anti-abortion movement has had in reframing the questions and the arguments, in producing the action and the news in this long public debate. What is "news" this season is the clinic closed down by a bomb or a bomb threat. What is news is a sonogram videotape of a fetus being aborted. What is news is the medical technology and bio-ethical dilemma of the middle trimester.
By contrast, the oldest story in the world is that of a pregnant woman. It's the story "we've already done," the story that's been filmed and reported a thousand times.
It's not that the media have turned pro- life, or pro-choice for that matter. The essential bias of my profession is pro-change, pro-newness. It's this bias that has subtly and fundamentally shifted the coverage from the woman to the fetus.
You do not need to be a full-time media watcher to chronicle this. Two weeks ago, the Newsweek cover story on abortion was cast "in the context of a struggle over helpless beings." The "beings" were those in the womb. The piece described aggressive pro-life tactics and "moral disquiet" and scared politicians. There was no space devoted to the life of the carrier of those beings.
The television networks have focused their lenses in much the same way of late. Questions about the life of a fetus dominated the talk shows. Bernie Nathanson's sonogram of a fetus being aborted was replayed on the news with hardly a word questioning his premises.
In the passion for "newness," the pregnant woman was as invisible in the argument as she was in the sonogram. The media looked straight through her. As Nanette Falkenberg of the National Abortion Rights Action League asked one reporter in frustration, "Do you think the fetus is housed in a Tupperware jar?"
What has happened to the other side of this difficult story? Half of all Americans know someone who's had an abortion. More than 1.5 million women a year choose abortion. Where were these women, most of them young, most of them unmarried? They were the absent, the disappeared victims of the Big Mo.
Those who have struggled to keep abortion legal and available are very conscious of the shift in attention. Falkenberg admits, "Our folks feel beleaguered. The president talks about abortion in his Inaugural Address. Our clinics are getting blown up. This propaganda (the sonogram videotape) gets shown on all networks. We have really noticed a total absence of any focus on the woman involved."
She predicts a struggle to recapture the Big Mo. "We had a conscious desire to de- emotionalize this issue, and I don't think we can play it that way anymore. We think it may be time again for women to publicly tell their own stories. We have to say, 'You want emotion, we'll give you emotion. You want real-life stories, here they are.'
Most of us in the media are uneasy providing -- even grooming -- an emotional battleground of such intensity. But as surely as the pendulum swings, we lean toward the new story, go where the action is, build the momentum.
So the president is right about momentum. The story of the unwanted pregnancy is as old, as rumpled, as dull as yesterday's news. And yet it is also as fresh, as new and as unique as the life stories of the thousands of women who will face that crisis tomorrow for the very first time.