The first thing readers should know about Moira Weigel’s essay in The Atlantic is its original title. When the piece went live early Tuesday morning, that title was “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person.” But by 1PM on the east coast, the article bore a new moniker: “How the Ultrasound Became Political.” The change wasn’t particularly poetic, but it was necessary; in the hours between the piece’s birth and rechristening, numerous readers and bloggers had pointed out that crucial claims in Weigel’s piece—including the idea that a six week-old fetus did not have an actual heart—was factually incorrect. Weigel’s original title had triumphantly presumed the crumbling of fetal personhood. The new title reflects the crumbling of her logic.
Of course, there’s a spot of irony in the essay’s new name. What Weigel wants the reader to believe is that pro-lifers have manipulated an inconclusive and imprecise technology to humanize the inhuman, and thus subjected the factual and scientific to the political. But isn’t that precisely what Weigel has done?
This irony exemplifies the relationship between the progressive left and science. In many ways liberals have styled themselves the party of scientific literacy ever since the Scopes trial. Whether the cause celebre was removing creationist literature from public schools, lending platforms to overpopulation worries, or climate change, progressives have, for what feels like the last half-century, presented themselves as the political ideology that welcomes scientific consensus and expertise.
Except, that is, when it comes to abortion. Despite manifold increases in medical technology and knowledge of prenatal development, pro-choice has hardly budged an inch from the judgment of fetal impersonality rendered by Roe v Wade. In some ways, this is simply by default; mainstream abortion rights activism is overwhelmingly centered on female autonomy rather than the question of the personhood of the unborn. #MyBodyMyChoice has always been surer footing for pro-choice than arguments over when a person really becomes a person. But the pro-choice uneasiness during discussions of fetal “viability” or ultrasound technology is unmistakable, and Ms. Weigel in particular offered an illustrative example.
Why didn’t the fact checkers at The Atlantic preemptively correct Weigel’s capricious and unsound argument? It seems unlikely that a team of researchers would simply forget to verify whether a six week old fetus has begun to develop a heart—especially if such a question lay at the center of an argument, as it did for Weigel’s piece. The specific failures of an editorial process are difficult to identify, but it’s worth noting that this too reflects a greater categorical tension—namely, between the media and abortion.
One doesn’t need to look much further than the maddening summer of 2015, when major media outlets seemed to ignore, then downplay, then rally in response to a video sting of Planned Parenthood. Abortion workers’ declaring “It’s a boy” as they sift through severed anatomy in a petri dish certainly seems to have relevance for the conversation about fetal personhood. Why didn’t major journalism institutions think so? Could it be that abortion is sacrosanct even among those in our culture who are tasked with investigating its moral implications? Recall that editors for Vox once commissioned a piece from a professor as part of a rhetorical exercise called “the repugnant conclusion.” When the professor turned in an essay arguing (purely hypothetically) against abortion, Vox killed the piece, and explained to its frustrated author that the website didn’t even want to risk the appearance of criticizing abortion rights.
The embarrassments of Vox cannot, of course, be laid at the foot of The Atlantic. But that Moira Weigel’s deeply flawed, seriously ignorant essay could navigate the editorial machine of one of the country’s most influential publications is troubling. It raises again familiar issues of how the American abortion rights lobby relies not on facts and arguments, but on slogans, propaganda, and false dilemmas.
Media criticism is often too easy for conservatives, but I cannot help but now imagine an unexpectedly pregnant couple that perhaps read Weigel’s essay and believed it—because, of course, it is important that we believe reputable reporting. Perhaps these people had never considered themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” If they came away from reading Moira Weigel at 10:30AM Tuesday morning, they came away believing that this new life inside its mother had been misrepresented to them, that it was, contrary to all their instincts and all their technology, a lifeless, purposeless mass of tissue. Imagine their driving to the abortion clinic that morning, and coming back to find out that the essay which dawned new light on them now contained an update from its editors:
“This article originally stated that there is “no heart to speak of” in a six-week-old fetus. By that point in a pregnancy, a heart has already begun to form. We regret the error.”
God help us.