Explaining the difference between 15 and 24 weeks : NPR Public Editor And why that matters in abortion legislation

Explaining the difference between 15 and 24 weeks

And why that matters in abortion legislation

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

When Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham proposed a federal bill that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks, political reporters could see how the bill altered the conversation in many midterm Congressional races. Within a day, NPR did a nuanced story on those political implications.

For many people who've been pregnant, the difference between accessing an abortion at 15 weeks and one up to 24 weeks, which was federally protected until last summer when the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, is obvious. Medical tests that detect serious problems with a fetus often cannot be confirmed until closer to 20 weeks. When this detail is left out of stories, it feels like a glaring omission to people who are upset at the idea of requiring expectant parents to continue a pregnancy that they already know will end in suffering.

One such listener wrote us an impassioned letter asking for that detail to be included in stories about abortion bans after 15 weeks.

Is that reasonable? We talked to an NPR journalist about deciding what information goes into stories about abortion bans.

Prompted by a different listener, we wanted to know more about the phenomenon of "quiet quitting." The listener encouraged NPR to frame stories from the worker's point of view. I also wanted to know if there's any research that backs up the existence of this cleverly named concept. And many NPR stories have included an appropriate amount of skepticism.

We asked one question about quiet quitting and learned a lot about the ethics of covering this interesting but ill-defined phenomenon.

Finally, we highlighted a meaningful story about school segregation in Texas.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Abortion bans after 15 weeks

J Waller wrote on Sept. 14: I am reaching out in response to the story on Morning Edition reporting on the legislation for a federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. I think a crucial point that was missed in this report was the explanation of why an abortion ban at 15 weeks is an extreme position. On the surface a ban at 15 weeks seems like it could be a moderate compromise – I can imagine many listeners wondering why on earth any pregnancy would need to be terminated after 15 weeks? Well, that is the piece of the puzzle that I rarely, if ever hear articulated in reporting. ... Most women who get devastating news that there is a major problem with their pregnancy don't get that news until 20 weeks – 5 weeks AFTER the proposed federal ban. ... Please, please, don't forget to explain the whole story. Anyone can report just the basic facts, I depend on NPR for the full and complete story. ...

This Morning Edition story revolved around the political effects of Sen. Lindsey Graham's proposed bill to impose a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks, including how it was affecting other Republicans and changing the conversation about the upcoming midterm elections. The story did not address what the ban would mean in practice.

Exploring the latter deserves its own story, and NPR has done so in the past.

A December 2021 episode of the NPR Politics Podcast called "Why Women Seek Abortions After 15 Weeks" focused specifically on what a ban would mean after the Supreme Court heard arguments over a Mississippi law. In the podcast, legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg explained that since Roe v. Wade, "the Supreme Court has put the cutoff point for abortion at viability, when the fetus can survive outside the womb," which is roughly 24 weeks. The Mississippi law at the center of that story banned abortion after 15 weeks. National correspondent Sarah McCammon, who covers reproductive rights for NPR, said that information about the medical condition of the fetus often arrives between 15 and 24 weeks for many pregnant patients she had spoken with.

"Many patients have an ultrasound right around 20 weeks," McCammon said in the podcast. "That's pretty standard as most people who've been pregnant know. And that is often where things arise. Sometimes doctors will see things — you know, severe fetal abnormalities and so forth — that will cause a patient to rethink what they want to do with that pregnancy. So from a medical perspective, I think a lot of doctors would say it is a dramatic difference" between 15 and 24 weeks.

We agree that it's important to go beyond the basic facts and tell fuller and more complete stories. NPR did that with this particular podcast episode and several other stories.

Congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, who reported the Morning Edition story, is on leave. So, we reached out to McCammon. While she didn't work on that particular Morning Edition story, we asked her how she chooses which proposed or newly implemented abortion laws might require closer and more in-depth looks at their ramifications. In an email, McCammon said it's "somewhat case by case."

"Generally, I'm always looking for emerging trends, or legislative proposals that seem to have the potential to actually change the status of abortion rights policy or move the debate around it in some significant way," she wrote. "The piece I did about third trimester abortion a few years ago was prompted by national debate over some legislation in Virginia's state legislature."

She continued: "And 15-week bans have become more newsworthy in light of the Dobbs case, which centered around a 15-week ban from Mississippi. Now, with the overturning of Roe, there's also a renewed push on both sides of this issue for national legislation addressing abortion."

She also pointed us to previous stories about why people seek later abortions. In a Morning Edition piece about religions' disagreements on when life begins, McCammon talked to a woman whose doctors told her when she was 16 weeks pregnant that "there was a fatal problem with the fetus, and her choices were to terminate or wait for a stillbirth." Believing her Judaism gave her the choice, she made the difficult decision to have an abortion.

Multifaceted and important issues can't be reduced to a single news story. They require follow-ups and continued reporting from many angles. The recent Morning Edition story was meant to help the audience understand the political nature of Graham's 15-week abortion ban bill, so that was the angle the piece centered on. But in the other stories we've referenced, NPR indeed reported on the reasons someone might seek an abortion after 15 weeks, giving this topic the context and thorough coverage it needs. — Emily Barske


We ask NPR one question about how the work comes together.

How is NPR reporting on 'quiet quitting'?

Even though there isn't a clear definition of the term "quiet quitting," it's generally thought of as doing your job without any extra effort. On Sept. 13, audience member Ian Jerome wrote to us asking, "I'm curious what the ethics are of NPR reporting on the 'Quiet Quitting' phenomenon?" Jerome went on to request that NPR focus on the views of employees, rather than employers, when covering this abstract idea of quiet quitting.

We were also curious about how NPR reported on the topic: How do you cover a concept that has had its name and legitimacy questioned? So we asked Business Desk correspondent Alina Selyukh, who's been covering the subject, about her reporting approach. In an email, she told us that conversations about quiet quitting have struck a chord with NPR's listeners and readers.

"In one of my stories (and in life) I've been describing quiet-quitting as a Rorschach test for people's views on the power dynamics between employers & employees, on how invested folks should be in their jobs and what challenges deserve the biggest scrutiny," Selyukh said. "Generally, talking with workers directly is a big element of our business reporting, and I'd say this topic was no exception."

NPR has published a half-dozen or so stories about quiet quitting. Like other outlets, the news organization published a story in August to try to define what quiet quitting is, and a few days later All Things Considered looked into whether or not it's a good thing.

In late August, NPR created a survey that asked its audience what the concept means to them. Selyukh said NPR received almost 900 responses, some from employers, but the vast majority from workers who weren't managers. That survey helped shape coverage, she said.

"My teammates and I combed the vast discourse on the topic that was happening online, checked the corporate takes, interviewed labor economists and then gathered real-life workers' stories (in my case, connecting with a dozen people from different professions and parts of the country)," she added. "You can see many of these workers' thoughts at the end of this fairly comprehensive newsletter we did on the subject." — Amaris Castillo


The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

A little-told story of segregation in Texas

Weekend Edition Saturday aired a special story from Marfa Public Radio reporter Travis Bubenik about an old school in Marfa, Texas, where Latino kids were educated for decades separately from their white peers. The Blackwell School is now being designated a national historic site. We hear from former students who recall not being allowed to speak Spanish at school, and a professor who described some even being beaten for it. It's an important story about an aspect of Latino history in West Texas that should not be forgotten. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute