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Journalism and Britney Spears’ ‘Agonizing’ Abortion
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Journalism and Britney Spears’ ‘Agonizing’ Abortion

Some news outlets included her description of her abortion, others omitted it.

Singer Britney Spears walks the red carpet at the 2017 Pre-GRAMMY Gala. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

“One of the most agonizing things I have ever experienced in my life.” 

With defeats on ballot measures in six states last year, the pro-life movement has been on a political losing streak ever since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June 2022. Meanwhile, the cultural battle continues, and a crucial aspect of it concerns how we refer to abortion: Is it a simple “termination,” or a wrenching and wretched event? A memoir published on Tuesday offers truth about abortion from a surprising source. 

Last week, People magazine touted an “exclusive” headline: “Britney Spears Reveals She Had an Abortion Because Justin Timberlake ‘Didn’t Want to Be a Father.’” In making the claim, People quoted an admission in Spears’ forthcoming memoir, The Woman in Me, that the abortion was “agonizing.” But then it also ran an article about other “celebrities who have shared their abortion stories … to help erase any stigma around it.”

Although “agonizing” is these days a politically incorrect adjective concerning abortion, some journalists did draw attention to it. CNN, Fox News, Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, ABC’s Good Morning America, and NBC’s Today all quoted Spears saying the abortion was “agonizing.” Forbes made the sentence about agonizing its “crucial quote.” British outlets, including The Independent, the Daily Mail, and Sky News, also reported the agony of abortion, an important reality that women and men alike need to understand.

The New York Times’ writeup of the news, however, ran a People-like headline—“Britney Spears Writes of Having an Abortion While Dating Justin Timberlake”—while excluding Spears’ comment about agony. A long story two days later also spared readers from connecting abortion and agony, merely noting that Spears “said she didn’t view the pregnancy as ‘a tragedy,’ but that [Timberlake] thought they were too young.” USA Today, which had described Spears’ memoir as “the “publishing event of the year,” also left out the agony and merely reported that Timberlake said “we weren’t ready to have a baby in our lives, that we were way too young.”

Entertainment Tonight, Elle, and Cosmopolitan ignored agony but had room to quote a source about Timberlake’s reaction—“Justin and Jessica [Biel, Timberlake’s wife] just want everyone to grow and evolve instead of continuing to bring up the past.”

I’m glad CBS Mornings correspondent Jamie Yuccas said Spears was “pregnant with Timberlake’s baby,” rather than “his fetus,” but she then continued, “they decided to terminate the pregnancy.” But in video CBS has since scrubbed from its website and YouTube, co-host Nate Burleson asked Yuccas, “You say it’s heartbreaking. Why is it heartbreaking?” She responded that Spears has “been through a lot.” 

Those CBS personalities’ puzzlement follows decades of abortion-minimizing in reporting. In 1970, leading up to Roe v. Wade, many newspapers made abortion seem easy: The Omaha World-Herald called abortion a way in 15 minutes to feel “like a brand-new woman.” The San Francisco Chronicle described how a typical young woman “came back from the abortion smiling,” and told her patiently waiting mother, “I’m starved. Let’s go to lunch.” One and two days after the January 22, 1973, Roe decision, respectively, the Des Moines Register said goodbye to “emotion-charged hearings” on abortion, and the Milwaukee Journal declared that “politicians and policemen and judges” would no longer have to be concerned with the “distractive” issue. 

A century-and-a-half ago, though, feminist Elizabeth Edson Evans in The Abuse of Maternity described what today we call “post-abortion syndrome.” Here’s some 19th-century prose: Evans interviewed one woman who said she was “wild with regret at my folly,” and another described her “imaginings as to what might have been the worth of that child’s individuality. [She never] read of an accident by land or by water, or of a critical moment in battle, or of a good cause lost through lack of a brave defender, but my heart whispered, ‘He might have been there to help and save.’”

In the 1870s as now, some opposed abortion out of their biblical belief, but Evans—who later authored The Christ Myth and was married to an early proponent of animal rights—concluded like other “first-wave feminists” that abortion was convenient for men but bad for women. Evans even mocked a typical sermon of her era by quoting one woman’s declaration: “I know of no joys of heaven that could make me happy there. … Somebody else may have my crown and harp—I want my baby.”

Based on her interviews, Evans wrote that since there is “grief for the loss of an infant at birth, how much more terrible [are] the keen pangs of a speedily-awakened remorse!” True in 1873, true in 2023, but rarely reported.

Marvin Olasky is chairman of Zenger House, a Discovery and Acton institutes scholar, and the author of "Pivot Points," "Moral Vision," and other books.