AP Changes Clinton-Era History To Call Elena Kagan Pragmatic

June 6th, 2010 12:20 PM
The Associated Press apparently thinks its readers are either too young or too stupid to remember something that happened thirteen years ago.

On Friday, the Clinton Presidential Library released formerly private documents from the '90s that revolved around Elena Kagan's stint as an advisor to President Clinton. Of particular interest was her encouraging Clinton to veto a ban on partial birth abortions for late-term babies.

When Clinton used his veto pen to stop the ban in 1997, it was intensely controversial. Media archives from that year show it was described as a "bitter battle" over something full of "public revulsion." 

How things change in thirteen years. Now with a pro-choice Supreme Court nominee to get through confirmation hearings, the AP blatantly ignored history to portray Kagan's advice as common sense pragmatism.

Writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis penned a dispatch obviously designed to be as friendly as possible, even if that left a few facts out of the story (h/t LiveAction):

As an aide to former President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan helped defend her boss' veto of a measure that would have banned late-term abortions with few exceptions, according to files handed over to Congress Friday.

Kagan's memos and notes - part of a 46,500-page batch of records released by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library - reveal her role as the administration was playing defense against a Republican Congress that was trying to impose new limits on abortion rights.

Ah, those evil Republicans were trying to limit the rights of women by banning late-term abortions, and Clinton's veto had to be defended.

Too bad that's not what the veto was for. This handy little piece, pulled from CNN's archives of 1998, tells a very different story:

Had the measure become law, it would have banned a medical procedure -- described by its critics as a "partial birth abortion" -- except when needed to save the pregnant woman's life. The procedure involves the partial, feet-first delivery of a fetus and the draining of its skull contents.

Banning partial birth procedures would by default save more late-term pregnancies since the technique was invented specifically for older babies. NPR explained in 2006 that the older the baby was - harder bones, longer limbs, more wiggling - the higher the chance of the womb getting damaged, so it was easier to peacefully pull the baby out and then kill it.

Partial-birth supporters knew that banning the practice would significantly lessen doctors' willingness to abort older babies, so they spun it as a de facto ban on late-term abortion. The AP accepted that angle and insisted on portraying the issue as Republicans wanting to limit women's rights. 

The article went on to praise Kagan's "pragmatic streak" that helped her stay a "middle course" when negotiating cultural issues. It then quoted former Domestic Policy Council Director Bruce Reed who was quick to insist that Kagan was "not an ideological person - she's practical."

Nothing in the article, not one single word, mentioned partial birth methods. Readers were led to believe the veto protected women from a blanket ban aimed at late-term abortions.

Just in case readers might wonder that perhaps the Kagan documents referred to some other veto and not the partial birth one, the Washington Post provided slightly more honest coverage on Saturday:

The documents showed Kagan's pragmatic side as well. She agreed with Clinton's decision to veto a bill banning "partial-birth" abortions because it did not include an exception for protecting a woman's health. But she helped write his response to a disappointed Catholic bishop, saying he knew the procedure was used in some cases where the woman's health was not at issue: "I do not support such uses, I do not defend them and I would sign appropriate legislation banning them," Kagan proposed in a handwritten draft for Clinton.

Kagan was on the pragmatic side of that issue? Gallup records that in 1998, some 60% of Americans were opposed to partial birth abortion, and the Los Angeles Times reported in 1997 that Congress was struggling to find the "slim middle ground" on such a hot issue.

For a taste of how the Clinton veto was anything but pragmatic, observe this relic from the New York Times on October 21, 1997:

Recognizing that turnabout, President Clinton waited until a time when few people were watching -- late on a recent Friday, at the start of the holiest Jewish holiday -- to veto legislation that would prohibit the form of late term abortion. Instead of announcing it in person, Mr. Clinton issued a written statement.

A deeply unpopular veto done quietly away from the spotlight to appease hard-line abortion supporters. That's the brand of pragmatism Elena Kagan is being praised for now.

If the AP wants to imply she made a good decision in 1997, that is a fair discussion to have - but only if readers are told the truth about what that decision was.