The medical framing of abortion: A comparative study of abortion discourse in the media and the Supreme Court

Date of Completion

January 2001


Sociology, General




This study examines the medical profession's relationship to abortion and abortion policy as revealed through discourse in the arenas of the print media and the Supreme Court. Two major outcomes are assessed: the relative prominence or standing of medical actors compared to other social actors, and the preferred framing of abortion by social actors in each discourse arena. The concept of medical framing, an understanding of abortion as a medical procedure embedded in the social relations of medicine is developed. Medical framing discourse was sponsored by the state in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that de-criminalized abortion in the United States. Data used to assess media discourse are 30 years of news articles about abortion published in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times as collected by the “Shaping Abortion Discourse” project (Ferree et al, forthcoming). Data used to evaluate standing and framing in the Supreme Court are amicus curiae briefs filed in major Supreme Court cases. Theoretically, the study is situated at the intersection of sociological theory of the professions, and issue framing and policy analysis perspectives articulated in social movements theory, state theory and in political science. Theory of the professions as integrated into the “professional project” helps to explain the medical profession's reaction to abortion regulation. Social movements theory guides the interpretation of differences in framing outcomes. State theory provides conceptual guidance for interpreting relations between state and societal social actors. Medical actors were prominent and diverse in the Supreme Court. Medical actors in the media were dominated by abortion providers. The medical framing of abortion was hegemonic in the Supreme Court. Medical framing did not diffuse widely to the media even among medical actors. The study shows how structures and processes of these different discourse arenas shaped the observed outcomes. The study concludes that Roe v. Wade presumed the unproblematic operation of the professional project in the conduct of abortion such that the medical profession would be allowed to self-regulate the provision of abortion as it does the provision of other medical procedures, a presumption that proved inaccurate. ^