MILWAUKEE—Mary Matuska remembers when “abortionist” was a dirty word.

“It was a word immediately associated with shame,” she said. “Abortion was a shameful business and abortionist was a dirty word.”

So she was shocked when she opened her Sunday newspaper April 11 to find a major story extolling the heroism of one of Wisconsin's major abortionists.

“I couldn't believe my eyes,” recalled Matuska, a 26-year veteran of the pro-life movement and the state director of Pro-Life Wisconsin. “Here is a man who admits to killing babies up to 24 weeks of development and they're painting him as a hero who provides a ‘service’to women in need. It sickened me.”

The article appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the largest-circulation newspaper in Wisconsin. On the front page of the paper's Lifestyle section, abortionist Dennis Christensen proudly proclaims how he “has ended 70,000 pregnancies” during his medical career in spite of pickets and occasional clinic blockades. He tells stories of regular pickets of his home, his car's locks being glued shut and being accosted at a local theater.

Interviews with supporters of Christensen painted the picture of a man dedicated to assisting those in need. Another Wisconsin abortionist lauds Christensen as “an excellent provider” who taught him how to perform second-trimester abortions. A clinic nurse and pro-abortion lobbyist says, “He's as normal as apple pie, a good family man.”

Several pictures accompany the massive article as well. One features Christensen displaying a photo of his 18-month-old grandson of which he is quoted as saying, “Newborn babies are great, if you want them.” The other shows Christensen carrying a tray of abortion instruments out of a room after performing an abortion at his Madison clinic.

Stories like this are appearing more frequently. In March, The New York Times Magazine ran a story entitled “The Making of a Fugitive.” The story focused on a man being sought in connection with the murder of a Buffalo abortion doctor, and also portrayed those who do abortions as victims. On April 14, the TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes II featured a story on Michael Bray, a convicted abortion-clinic bomber who now publicly supports the use of lethal force to stop abortion.

“The media seems to be going out of their way to paint abortionists as martyrs and pro-lifers as villains,” said Matuska. “I see it as part of the agenda to legitimize abortion and those who perform abortions because so many physicians are refusing to enter the abortion business.”

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Deputy Editor Michael Ruby objected to Matuska's assertion that the mainstream media are trying to legitimize abortion and portray abortionists as heroes. He said the April 11 article focusing on Christensen was “very balanced.”

“Abortion remains one of, if not the, most divisive in the country,” Ruby noted. “Our article was evenhanded, fair-minded and did not take a position on abortion.”

Ruby said even if some people believe abortion is murder, the procedure is still legal and those who perform abortions are newsworthy.

“Christensen is not doing anything illegal under the laws of this country, so he is providing a legal service,” Ruby added. “This article was a fair-minded, accurate profile of this one person who is at the center of a storm.”

A Shrinking Breed

One thing that seems beyond dispute is that the number of abortion doctors is shrinking. Planned Parenthood has reported that 86% of counties in the United States don't have physicians willing to perform abortions. In 1982, there were 2,908 known abortionists. By 1996, the number had declined to 2,042, the fewest since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The number of surgical abortions has also declined over the past 15 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1,577,200 surgical abortions were reportedly performed in 1984. In 1996, the last year for complete figures, there were 1,221,585 surgical abortions reported.

Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation, disagreed. The Abortion Federation is a professional association for abortionists practicing in the United States and Canada. Saporta told the Register that abortionists are simply receiving the credit they deserve for making abortion the safest surgical procedure in the nation while risking their lives to provide what she calls a “health-care service for women.”

Saporta said she's not worried about the declining number of physicians willing to perform abortion. The Abortion Federation, she said, established a group called Medical Students for Choice in 1990 to recruit students to the abortion business. She said the organization has more than 4,000 members on 100 medical school campuses across the nation.

“Medical Students for Choice is preparing a new generation of physicians to replace those who will retire,” she said. “If just half of them [the students] added abortion to their practice, we would almost double the number of providers within four years.”

She added, “Violence is certainly an issue physicians address in making a decision [whether or not to perform abortions]. But it doesn't necessarily dissuade people who are committed to providing abortions.”

Focus on Violence

Like Pro-Life Wisconsin's Matuska, Kristin Hansen of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, said she has also seen more attempts by the mainstream media to “glorify” abortion and abortion providers by focusing on isolated acts of violence and the pro-violence views of those like Michael Bray.

“Michael Bray really isn't news,” Hansen said. “What is news is that the mainstream media is choosing not to report about the women dying at the hands of these abortionists.”

Family Research Council issued a press release prior to the 60 Minutes II segment featuring Bray, calling on the show's producers to present the issue of abortion-related violence in a fair and balanced manner, including the views of pro-life leaders who condemn such views as the antithesis of “pro-life.” No pro-life leaders were included in the 60 Minutes II segment to balance out Bray's views.

“It is more than ironic that CBS chooses to cover violence and abortion, but apparently not say one word about the killing of Lou Ann Herron, whose death occurred exactly one year ago this week. Herron was a 33-year-old mother who died by a botched abortion at the Women's A to Z Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona. She is one of an alarming number of women to have died from abortion in our country in recent years. You would never know this from national news sources, however,” Teresa Wagner, Family Research Council policy analyst, said in a press release.

Hansen said that while the media may try to portray abortionists as heroes, the strategy won't work.

“You cannot make the practice of abortion honorable or respectable,” she said. “The media will try to portray abortion doctors as heroic in the face of incredible opposition, but you can never make the practice acceptable.”

While the media seems to be jumping on the abortion bandwagon at an increasing level, Matuska says pro-lifers need to continue to be on the front lines, non-violently.

“The sad thing is that when some misguided person perpetrates violence in the name of ‘pro-life,’it only adds fuel to the fire,” she said. “But what the pro-abortionists and some members of the media really want pro-lifers to do is to hide in their homes and not speak out for the babies. That we cannot do.”

Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Indiana.