Via Media

Via Media

Abortion, El Salvador, and the Times

Last spring, the NYTimes Magazine ran an almost 8,000-word story on abortion in El Salvador. One of the central stories involved a woman who was supposedly jailed after obtaining an abortion at 18-weeks of pregnancy.

Problem was, that wasn’t the situation at all.

She was jailed after being tried and convicted for murdering her full-term newborn baby.

Today, the Times public editor addresses the issue, giving due credit to those who first exposed the, er, inaccuracy.

Complaints about the article began arriving at the paper after an anti-abortion Web site,, reported on Nov. 27 that the court had found that Ms. Climaco’s pregnancy ended with a full-term live birth. The headline: “New York Times Caught in Abortion-Promoting Whopper — Infanticide Portrayed as Abortion.” Seizing on the misleading presentation of the article’s only example of a 30-year jail sentence for an abortion, the site urged viewers to complain to the publisher and the president of The Times. A few came to me.

The care taken in the reporting and editing of this example didn’t meet the magazine’s normal standards. Although Sarah H. Smith, the magazine’s editorial manager, told me that relevant court documents are “normally” reviewed, Mr. Hitt never checked the 7,600-word ruling in the Climaco case while preparing his story. And Mr. Hitt told me that no editor or fact checker ever asked him if he had checked the court document containing the panel’s decision.

Mr. Hitt said Ms. Climaco had been brought to his attention by the magistrate who decided four years ago that the case warranted a trial, so he had asked the magistrate for the court record. “When she told me that the case had been archived, I accepted that to mean that I would have to rely upon the judge who had been directly involved in the case and who heard the evidence” in the trial stage of the judicial process, Mr. Hitt wrote in an e-mail to me. So he didn’t pursue the document.

But obtaining the public document isn’t difficult. At my request, a stringer for The Times in El Salvador walked into the court building without making any prior arrangements a few days ago, and minutes later had an official copy of the court ruling. It proved to be the same document as the one disseminated by, which had been translated into English in early December by a translator retained by The Times Magazine’s editors. I’ve since had the stringer review the translation of key paragraphs for me.


Exceptional care must be taken in the reporting process on sensitive articles such as this one to avoid the slightest perception of bias. Paul Tough, the editor on the article, acknowledged in an e-mail to me that in reporting this story, Mr. Hitt used an unpaid translator who has done consulting work for Ipas, an abortion rights advocacy group, for his interviews with Ms. Climaco and D.C. This wasn’t ideal, he said, but the risk posed for sources in this situation required the use of intermediaries “to some degree.”

Ipas used The Times’s account of Ms. Climaco’s sentence to seek donations on its Web site for “identifying lawyers who could appeal her case” and to help the organization “continue critical advocacy work” across Central America. “A gift from you toward our goal of $30,000 will help Carmen and other Central American women who are suffering under extreme abortion laws,” states the Web appeal, which Ipas said it took down after I first contacted the organization on Dec. 14. An Ipas spokeswoman called the appeal “moderately successful.”

The magazine’s failure to check the court ruling was then compounded for me by the handling of reader complaints about the issue. The initial complaints triggered a public defense of the article by two assistant managing editors before the court ruling had even been translated into English or Mr. Hitt had finished checking various sources in El Salvador. After being queried by the office of the publisher about a possible error, Craig Whitney, who is also the paper’s standards editor, drafted a response that was approved by Gerald Marzorati, who is also the editor of the magazine. It was forwarded on Dec. 1 to the office of the publisher, which began sending it to complaining readers.

The response said that while the “fair and dispassionate” story noted Ms. Climaco’s conviction of aggravated homicide, the article “concluded that it was more likely that she had had an illegal abortion.” The response ended by stating, “We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts as reported in our article, which was not part of any campaign to promote abortion.”

After the English translation of the court ruling became available on Dec. 8, I asked Mr. Marzorati if he continued to have “no reason to doubt the accuracy of the facts” in the article. His e-mail response seemed to ignore the ready availability of the court document containing the findings from the trial before the three-judge panel and its sentencing decision. He referred to it as the “third ruling,” since the trial is the third step in the judicial process.

The article was “as accurate as it could have been at the time it was written,” Mr. Marzorati wrote to me. “I also think that if the author and we editors knew of the contents of that third ruling, we would have qualified what we said about Ms. Climaco. Which is NOT to say that I simply accept the third ruling as ‘true’; El Salvador’s judicial system is terribly politicized.”

I asked Mr. Whitney if he intended to suggest that the office of the publisher bring the court’s findings to the attention of those readers who received the “no reason to doubt” response, or that a correction be published. The latest word from the standards editor: “No, I’m not ready to do that, nor to order up a correction or Editors’ Note at this point.”

One thing is clear to me, at this point, about the key example of Carmen Climaco. Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Times readers have a right to expect.

Comments read comments(18)
post a comment

posted December 31, 2006 at 11:28 am

Well at least its nice to know that the NYT is even-handed . . . in that they don’t read court decisions involving abortion in Spanish as well as English when making the facts up to suit their purposes is so much easier. For the Times’ earlier non-reading of Roe (describing the case as legalizing abortion only in the first three months of pregnancy), see the link below. Like the story in Amy’s post, this falsehood was later corrected by a similar act of pro-life vigilance.

report abuse

Marion (Mael Muire)

posted December 31, 2006 at 12:22 pm

The modus operandi of the women’s movement in general, and the abortion rights movement in particular, has always been the calculated, compeletely cynical manipulation of public opinion by feeding outright fabrications in support of these groups’ agenda to the major news media, who may be depended upon to accept these uncritically and disseminate them whole cloth among their readership.
You would think that the members of the media would have learned by now. But they never seem to.
It’s puzzling.
Back during the abortion debates of the late 1960s and 1970s, for example, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a founder of NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) disclosed that abortion advocates repeatedly conjured up sham statistics of abortion deaths to push their case. “… we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case — not the mass statistics. But when we spoke of the latter, it was always 5,000 to 10,000 a year.” He said that about 500 abortion deaths a year would have been more accurate. (From
Thousands of women per year dying from illegal abortions was a complete lie, and NARAL knew it – they had simply made it up! But they knew that if you repeat something often enough, people will begin to believe it. And they played the willing dupes in the news media like a violin.
I guess they still do.
So much for critical thinking.

report abuse


posted December 31, 2006 at 12:44 pm

Another reason to take the Times strait from newsstand to cage floor without bothering to read it in between

report abuse


posted December 31, 2006 at 2:21 pm

How The New York Times can call itself unbiased is beyond reason.

report abuse

Deacon John M. Bresnahan

posted December 31, 2006 at 3:11 pm

“Accuracy and fairness were not pursued with the vigor Tmes readers have a right to expect” says the Times editor.
Is this guy a total moron living in some sort of la-la land? Is there anyone with half a brain on this planet who expects the main media whore for left-wing causes to do due diligence in reporting when covering an abortion story??
The Times track record over the past few years for accuracy in news stories involving controversial issues has been proven lower than that of the grocery store tabloids or comic books.
Yet America’s elite, including members of the rest of the media elite, continue to consider this incompetent and bias driven yellow journal some sort of “newspaper of record,” that all the elite must pay homage to as their source of news.
This state of affairs proves beyond doubt that being members of any kind of elite does not guarantee the presence of intelligence or skill in judgement.

report abuse

Mark Wyzalek

posted December 31, 2006 at 4:37 pm

The NY Times ought to yank the story from the web and put their “apology” in its place –

report abuse


posted December 31, 2006 at 5:51 pm

The Times’ clientele doesn’t want to have any second thoughts about abortion. They’re fully invested in climbing various ladders, none of which were scouted by St. John Climacus.
Too many American hierarchs spend too much time parsing that publication.

report abuse


posted December 31, 2006 at 7:12 pm

Let us pray for Ms. Climaco.

report abuse

Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D.

posted December 31, 2006 at 7:47 pm

I must ask JMB to clarify. JMB says it is a falsehood that Roe v. Wade legalized abortion only in the first three months of pregnancy. He provides a link. I have followed that link, and I find only another list of links. Some of the articles link back to the same list of links again.
In fact, in any event, Roe v. Wade did legalize abortion without limits in the first three months of pregnancy, saying it was within the woman’s right of privacy, and a decision to be taken in consultation with her physician. Standards for abortion in the second three months were much stricter. The Roe and Doe opinions are so badly drafted, however, that litigation soon opened all their loopholes. The result is that abortion is freely available in many states in all three trimesters.
I think Justice Blackmun intended the Roe opinion to kick the abortion decision down the road to the medical profession. To understand what he thought he was doing, we should recall that in the nineteen-sixties when he drafted the Roe opinion, most women had a doctor of their own to consult. The Justice had been counsel to the Mayo Clinic, and he held physicians in high esteem. I don’t think that by referring the decision to physicians he meant to legalize abortion on demand.
The world changed. Now that very few Americans have their own doctor, and abortion clinics abound, saying that the abortion decision is one for the woman to make in consultation with her physician means it is a decision for the woman to make alone.
In 1990, I published an article on abortion in the New York Observer, I did a lot of research, and I intended to write a book. I discovered that misinformation was common among pro-choice advocates. Many people believed, for example, that it was mainly married women with large families who sought abortions.
As an advocate, I know how easy it is to believe that the facts are the way we think they “must” be. Or that the fundamental truth is independent of the facts in particular cases. Every advocate is vulnerable. It did not surprise me that there were pro-choice advocates who treated the facts cavalierly, as posters here suggest.
I also found that Dr. Bernard Nathanson, mentioned above, refers in one of his books to a study showing that pregnant women who saw sonograms decided against aborting the fetus. Uncharacteristically, he provided no footnote. I looked hard for such a study at the library of the Columbia Medical School, and I found none. I wrote to Dr. Nathanson, and I called his office a number of times and left messages explaining that I was a writer and an admirer of his work and asking where that study appeared. My calls were never returned.
When I decided not to write my book, I donated my research materials to the library of the Sisters of Life in the Bronx.

report abuse

Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D.

posted December 31, 2006 at 7:56 pm

My writer web site contains a link to the abortion article.

report abuse

Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D.

posted December 31, 2006 at 7:58 pm

My writer web site does contain a link to the abortion article. Contrary to the suggestion in my last post, it is at

report abuse

reluctant penitent

posted December 31, 2006 at 8:25 pm

Mary Campbell Gallagher,
What is your point?

report abuse

Mary Campbell Gallagher, J.D., Ph.D.

posted December 31, 2006 at 8:38 pm

Reluctant penitant,
What is your question?

report abuse

Marion (Mael Muire)

posted December 31, 2006 at 8:55 pm

Dr. Campbell, you mention the notion of “the fundamental truth” and “the facts.” I submit that among advocates for abortion-on-demand and their supporters in the news media, there is no concept of truth or facts, at least, not as we understand them. For abortion supporters, there is simply material that bolsters support for the cause, and that is what appears in print. If supportive of the cause, an item’s veracity, its factualness is not relevant, its utility to the cause is all that is relevant.
And if it is deemed by abortion supporters that not enough supportive facts are “out there”, then they will fabricate such facts as they think necessary and feed them to the complicit news media, who will wink, smile, and take the fabricated material to print, fabricated though they may know or suspect it to be.

report abuse

Ed the Roman

posted December 31, 2006 at 9:50 pm

Times reporters are not skeptical of abortion advocates because they agree wholeheartedly with their ends, and consider abortion opponents to be bigots, mental defectives, or both.
This makes for wicked fast fact-checking.

report abuse

Marion (Mael Muire)

posted December 31, 2006 at 10:20 pm

“Mental defectives” . . . a good descriptive term for those who who have not yet arrived at the conclusion that it is inadvisable to take on faith the veracity of what one reads in the Times (and other abortion-supporting media outlets.)

report abuse

Charlotte Allen

posted January 2, 2007 at 1:12 pm

You might be interested in how IPAS characterizes NY Times public editor Byron Calame’s Dec. 31 piece on its own website[]:
“On December 31st, The New York Times called attention to the tragic situation faced by women in El Salvador who must make crucial reproductive choices.
“Because abortion is illegal under all circumstances in El Salvador, poor women who are desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy often turn to dangerous back-alley abortions. Many women die needlessly every year and many more suffer often life-long injuries, and those women who survive an unsafe abortion face the threat of years of imprisonment.
“Ipas supports the decriminalization of abortion and widespread availability of quality abortion care in order to save women’s lives and enable them to exercise their fundamental reproductive rights.
“In El Salvador, Ipas has worked with the Ministry of Health to train doctors in maternity hospitals to treat the complications of unsafe abortions and to provide contraceptive counseling and services to avoid repeat abortions.”

report abuse


posted January 2, 2007 at 6:22 pm

Like most abortion advocacy groups, Ipas seems to have done an admirable job portraying itself and its mission as crucial to women, especially poor women, who, without Ipas’ services would suffer and die.
But what Ipas is really about is something hideous – the maiming and destroying of innocent unborn children. They are also about having the gall and the effrontery to trumpet forth to all the world that this abomination is somehow a good thing.
Woe to them who call good evil, and evil good.
Yes, Ipas is slick. Most slick.
Hat off to them.
Instead of saying what they are really about – a destoyer of lives – Ipas, like virtually all abortion advocacy groups, portrays itself instead as a savior of women. Thus, as do virtually all abortion advocacy groups, those at Ipas are liars – master-class liars.
Anyone with an ounce of common sense will see this, and won’t credit a word Ipas says on its website, or anywhere else, for that matter.
If, on the other hand, you happen to think that those who call evil good are to be trusted, then I guess you’ll go ahead and believe them. And, in that case, good luck to you. You’ll be needing it.

report abuse

Previous Posts

There is nothing I shall want
A couple of weeks ago, a memorial Mass for Michael was held here in Birmingham at the Cathedral. The bishop presided and offered a very nice, even charming homily in which he first focused on the Scripture readings of the day, and then turned to Michael, whom he remembered, among other things, as on

posted 9:24:16am Mar. 05, 2009 | read full post »

Revolutionary Road - Is it just me?
Why am I the only person I know..or even "know" in the Internet sense of "knowing"  - who didn't hate it? I didn't love it, either. There was a lot wrong with it. Weak characterization. Miscasting. Anvil-wielding mentally ill prophets.But here's the thing.Whether or not Yates' original novel in

posted 9:45:04pm Mar. 04, 2009 | read full post »

Books for Lent
No, I'm not going to ask you about your Lenten reading lists...although I might.Not today, though. This post is about giving books to others. For Lent, and a long time after that. You know how it goes during Lent: Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving, right?Well, here's a worthy recipient for your hard-

posted 9:22:07pm Mar. 04, 2009 | read full post »

Why Via Media
How about....because I'm lame and hate thinking up titles to things? No? about...St. Benedict? Yes, yes, I know the association with Anglicanism. That wasn't invovled in my purpose in naming the joint, but if draws some Googling Episcopalians, all the better.To tell the truth, you can bl

posted 8:54:17pm Mar. 04, 2009 | read full post »

Brave Heart?
I don't know about you, but one of effects of childbirth on me was a compulsion to spill the details. All of them.The whole thing was fascinating to me, so of course I assumed everyone else should be fascinated as well in the recounting of every minute of labor, describing the intensity of discomfor

posted 10:19:45pm Mar. 03, 2009 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.