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Why Emily Bazelon Didn't Follow Up on Ginsburg's Abortion Comment

5 years ago
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I keep reading about how "bizarre'' it is that there was no follow-up question after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Emily Bazelon, in an interview for The New York Times Magazine, that she originally assumed legalizing abortion would decrease the number of poor people having babies; she said she thought Roe v. Wade would answer "concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of.'' (There was a follow-up question from Bazelon, actually, but it was this: "When you say that reproductive rights need to be straightened out, what do you mean?'')
That's not so bizarre, though; when an interviewer assumes that he or she shares the subject's sympathies and world view, even the most shocking statements can fly right by, or be assigned the most benign possible meaning. Which is how the most jaw-dropping statement I can ever remember tumbling from a sitting justice's lips whizzed past Bazelon, an experienced legal writer also associated with her alma mater, Yale Law School. Bazelon's grandfather was a famous judge and advocate for the mentally ill.
To say that Bazelon is strongly pro-choice is like saying that her cousin, Betty Friedan, may have felt less than 100 percent fulfilled by housework; on Slate's XX Factor women's blog, where I blogged before joining Politics Daily, Bazelon wrote last year that "sometimes an abortion is a few not ideal hours that give you the rest of your life back -- nothing more.'' Surely she was just being provocative, I wrote in response, by putting abortion on a par with getting stuck in line at the DMV without a good book. Nope, she answered, "I wasn't being deliberately provocative . . . I think it's also important to remember that for some women, abortion brings simply and merely relief.''
This morning, I e-mailed her to ask what she took Ginsburg's statement to mean, and why she hadn't asked a follow-up. She wrote back that "It was clear to me that when Justice Ginsburg said 'we,' she meant some people at the time, not herself or a group that she feels a part of. That's not how she sees the world, as you I'm sure know, and it's entirely at odds with her record. Her point was about other people's conception of who they thought should be encouraged to have children and who shouldn't be, not her own. And as many other people have pointed out, that's clear from the context.''
Not to me and many other other people, it isn't. First, who says "we" when expressing a viewpoint they find repugnant? As Elizabeth Lev wrote in a Politics Daily piece in May, abortion rights and eugenics go back a ways. Which is what makes Ginsburg's remarks all the more astounding:
Ginsburg: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don't know why this hasn't been said more often.
Bazelon: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel, because in parts of the country abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?
Ginsburg: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae. In 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly, I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn't really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.
Argh, which perception? That we should be concerned about the number of undesirables, aka children born to poor women on Medicaid? That the government would, of course, fund abortions? The phrase "populations that we don't want to have too many of" makes me as squirmy as Lindsey Graham reading Sonia Sotomayor's "wise Latina'' speech.
If Bazelon knew that her story subject had gone and committed news, she gave no sign of it; even when the story was touted on the Double X women's blog she co-founded, her colleague, Hanna Rosin, wrote, "Our own Emily has a fantastic and revealing Q & A with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg up on the New York Times website today. Their conversation ranges from Roe v. Wade to summer camp in the Adirondacks to Savana Redding to losing her shoe under the bench.''
This afternoon, I received a second e-mail from Emily, in which she seemed to suggest that maybe Ginsburg's remark wasn't so perfectly "clear from the context" after all. "[A]lso meant to say in response to your last qu[estion]'' – about why no follow-up – "because I'm imperfect.''
Of course, every reporter in the multiverse has missed a few plays in the follow-up department, but it is more apt to happen with a story subject one particularly admires, as is obviously the case with Bazelon and Ginsburg. It's also true that this probably happens more all the time, since these days you practically have to be a blood relative to get an interview with anyone in public life. (Thus did we learn, from Michelle Obama's friend Toyna Lewis Lee, Spike Lee's wife, who did the Michelle Obama profile for Glamour magazine, that the Obama girls found Daddy "so snore-y and stinky'' that they never wanted to cuddle with him in the morning. And obviously, it's not just women's magazines assigning buddy-to-buddy interviews.)
Still, the cozy confab interview model can yield results. Would George W. Bush ever in a billion years have cruelly imitated poor doomed Texas Death Row inmate Karla Faye Tucker begging him for clemency in an interview with anyone other than a conservative he felt at home with? No. It's no accident that it was with Tucker Carlson that he let his guard down in by far the most revealing interview the former president ever gave. Similarly, I can't imagine that Ginsburg would have even granted an interview to someone whose abortion views she didn't know and feel comfortable with. And if she ever gives another one, I'm pretty sure it will be strictly stories from summer camp and losing her shoe under the bench.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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