South Dakota reconsiderations

dcfightEven though our reputation is only slightly above ex-cons, I’m extremely proud to be a reporter.

Most journalists, or at least the ones I’m privileged to know, strive to be fair and helpful in their coverage of contentious and confusing stories. Most succeed. In fact, the number one thing that surprised me about reporters — when, in my second career, I became one and dwelt in their midst — was that they managed to be so fair given how liberal they are personally. It’s true, reporters are more or less liberal. But having personal convictions does not make you biased. Being a sloppy, lazy and unethical reporter makes you biased.

But there is one issue where it’s harder to find good coverage than bad. There is one issue where we do such a horrible job covering it that it makes me ashamed: abortion. I have thought about it for years and have been unable to figure out why reporters tend to botch portrayals of the opposing sides or fail to dig into the non-political aspects of the issue. From style guides on down to local reports of protests, journalists forget much of what they learned when they work on this issue.

Which is why I continue to be so thankful for Stephanie Simon on the faith and values beat at the Los Angeles Times. She found a really interesting angle for her story on the South Dakota abortion ban: how opposing sides on the abortion issue are dealing with making political compromises for their cause.

Some foes of abortion — fearful that South Dakota has moved too far, too fast — now find themselves reluctantly opposing efforts to protect all fetal life from the moment of conception. They are even angling to block another abortion ban that seems likely to pass in Mississippi.

For their part, some abortion-rights activists feel they must acknowledge the sentiment behind the South Dakota ban by assuring America that they, too, regard abortion as a grave moral concern. But such language outrages others in their movement, especially abortion doctors, who feel it stigmatizes and alienates their patients.

That some pro-lifers wish this South Dakota ban had not passed is fairly well known. But that pro-choice activists are considering reshaping their message is news. Mark Stricherz, a really smart friend who is a Roman Catholic and populist writer, has been following the Democrat abortion debates regularly. Yet I haven’t really seen good mainstream news coverage of the political questions pro-choice activists and Democrats are asking.

While the Republican Party is officially pro-life, many of its members and elected representatives are not. On the Democrat side, there has been a striking decline over the last couple of decades in the percentage of elected members of Congress who oppose legalized abortion. There has also been a striking decline in political power, which I wrote about recently. That’s leading some Democrat strategists to wonder whether pro-choice orthodoxy is such a good idea. Of course, this debate is happening at the same time that Kate Michelman is considering entering the Pennsylvania Senate race to thwart the chances of Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat.

abortionIn other words, this is a great story for the political and religion beats. Here, Simon looks at the various views on the pro-choice side:

The liberal think tank Third Way is circulating a memo on Capitol Hill advising politicians who support abortion rights to recalibrate their message. Instead of stressing a woman’s right to choose, they should tell voters that they support “personal liberty,” but accept that it’s a “moral responsibility” to reduce the number of abortions. (That number has declined steadily from a peak of 1.43 million in 1990 to 1.29 million in 2002, the latest year statistics are available.)

A number of abortion-rights activists have bought into that strategy. They’ve been on the defensive for more than two decades, ever since conservative and fundamentalist Christians began pushing social issues like abortion to the forefront of political debate. . . .

Such tactical positioning infuriates Dr. Warren Hern, who runs an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colo. He, too, would like to see fewer women with unwanted pregnancies; he counsels all his patients on contraception. But in his view, the availability of safe, legal abortions should be a cause for national pride — not shame. . . .

One out of every three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. . . .

Above all, [National Women's Health Organization president Susan Hill] said: “We have to stop apologizing” for the nation’s abortion rate — and start mobilizing the millions of women “who believe it was the best choice for them.”

This jockeying among Democrats and the pro-choice advocates with whom they are so closely entwined should not have caught reporters by surprise. Strategist James Carville has been openly discussing losses in membership from Roman Catholics for almost a year.

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  • [Was "Lynn"]

    This comment has been deleted. As a reminder, we expect people to leave at least a first name and a legitimate email address (which is not published) if they expect to have comments stand. Presenting yourself under more than one pseudonym is a sure way for your comment to be deleted.

  • Daniel

    I think this is a tough issue where biases–both mine and yours–likely tinge what we read and how we view information.

    First, the conflict within the Democratic party on softening its pro-chioce position is nothing new. A good example of this kind of self-assessment was seen beginning days after the 2004 election.

    The issue has even been bandied about on the Sunday morning talk shows for a couple of years and recently in Newsweek.

    Democrats have a problem, unquestionably.

    With the Robert Casey urban legend still haunting them, they have found themselves in a corner. The Republicans have been successful in a much smaller corner–when was the last time a Republican who didn’t support the party nominee and was pro-choice spoke at the Republican Convention? For that matter, when was the last time a pro-choice Republican was allowed to speak about abortion at the Republican convention? What are the chances Lincoln Chaffee or Alren Specter will show up on the 2008 GOP stage–but Democrats are in a much tougher position.

    I think the next few months will be interesting as abortion politics again heat up. South Dakota passed a law with Alito in mind, not their citizens or unborn fetuses. The pro-life forces are looking for the “big fight” even though most people don’t want Roe overturned. But how will Democrats play it? It’s a fascinating question, but also understandable that journalists have a tough time putting their biases aside.

  • Dan

    This morning’s LA Times also has a front page article about abortion in Mexico. It contains the following paragraph:

    “Health Secretary Julio Frenk determined that use of the pill did not constitute abortion. But in response to protests from antiabortion groups, Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal, a devout Catholic, said the principle of ‘the defense of life’ would not allow the pill’s distribution. The health secretary eventually prevailed.”

    Why is the Interior Secretary identified as a “devout Catholic” but the Health Secretary’s religion is not identified? I don’t know what religion Julio Frenk is. But let’s suppose he is a not very devout Jew. Here is how the paragraph would read if equal treatment were given to both officials:

    “Health Secretary Julio Frenk, a secular Jew, determined that use of the pill did not constitute abortion. But in response to protests from antiabortion groups, Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal, a devout Catholic, said the principle of ‘the defense of life’ would not allow the pill’s distribution. The health secretary eventually prevailed.”

  • tmatt


    Robert Casey “urban legend”?

  • Philocrites

    I know this is a small tangent, but what style guide supports using “Democrat” as an adjective? This usage shows up regularly in GOP rhetoric but is not, to the best of my knowledge, an accepted journalistic form. AP uses “Democratic.” What style guide are you using when you write about “the Democrat abortion debates,” “the Democrat side,” and “some Democrat strategists”?

  • Mollie

    Way to make me pull out my AP Style Guide, Philocrites!

    I’m a notorious copydesk criminal (just ask my copy chief) but I find the style guide to be confusing. Also, I remember an ex-boyfriend/reporter friend of mine used to get mad at me for saying Democratic when it was supposed to just be Democrat. I just remember the anger, not the specific usage issues.

    Anyway, my AP Style Guide says:

    political parties and philosophies
    Capitalize both the name of the party and the word party if it is customarily used as part of the organization’s proper name: the Democratic Party, the Republican Party

    (NB: So there’s the DemocratIC)

    Capitalize Communist, Conservative, Democrat, Liberal, Republican, Socialist, etc., when they refer to a specific party or its members. Lowercase these words when they refer to political philosophy . . .

    (NB: So there’s the Democrat (no “-ic”))

    So that’s why I’m confused. It’s also why I need three editors. I guess I thought it was democratic if it was small d and Democrat if it was capitalized D.

    I’ll edit the changes once I’m clear on which ones need changing.

    Thanks for the careful eye!


  • Daniel

    The urban legend that Casey was banned from speaking at the 92 Democratic convention because he was pro-life.

    He wasn’t allowed to speak because he wouldn’t campaign with the candidate and didn’t support the nominee, as well as not supporting a major plank in the party platform. Just like Lincoln Chafee isn’t allowed to speak because he doesn’t support the nominee.

    Just like you don’t let the woman who says mean things about your mother and openly criticizes her views in public to give a toast at her birthday celebration, you don’t let opponents of your nomination speak at your nominating convention.

    It’s petty, but it’s politics. And it wasn’t all about abortion or even mostly about abortion, despite the accompanying urban lore surrounding it.

  • tmatt


    Have you read Casey’s blow-by-blow account of that event in his autobiography?

    Also, why did Clinton and Gore apologize for preventing him from speaking if they didn’t do so?

  • Daniel

    I have read Casey’s blow-by-blow, actually. And they apologized because they took a lot of flack and they looked bad.

    But just because they apologized for not letting him speak doesn’t mean the urban legend is true that this was all about silencing pro-life Democrats.

    I agree it doesn’t look good. But politics is full of this kind of folklore.

  • dan

    Interesting look of the protestor/activist in the photo accompanying this blog posting…the masked face, the hood…reminds one of the Klan.

  • Todd


    And they apologized because they took a lot of flack and they looked bad.

    Do you know this for a fact, i.e., has either Clinton or Gore publicly acknowledged this to be the motivation for the apology? If so, please provide the reference. Otherwise, it is only fair to assume that they apologized for the stated reason, i.e., the stance on abortion, that was given by the person (Casey) to whom the apology was offered.

    Reading minds is a dangerous thing, as in doing so one often assumes that the person whose mind is being read has the same world-view, motives for action, etc. as that of the mind-reader. This can lead to deadly misunderstandings.

  • Daniel

    Of course I can’t read minds. I’ve heard Clinton aides–including Carville–dismiss the story as inaccurate and said that it was about politics, not abortion.

    They have reasons to spin it one way, and clearly Casey and the pro-life movement (and conservatives in general) have a reason to spin it another.

    Again, I would like to see the names of the pro-choice Republicans who refuse to support the party’s nominee who have been allowed to speak about abortion at a Republican convention.

  • Mollie

    Well, under those, uh, narrow constraints, David, you probably won’t find any.

    But for the last Republican convention, you did see KEYNOTES by pro-choice people like Guiliani and Schwarzenegger — huge pro-choicers. You’re not going to see stuff like that at the Dem convention.

    Also, there were other pro-choicers, like Ron Silver, Bloomberg, Ed Koch, and Pataki who were given prime time.

    Someone might be confused for wondering whether the Republican Party had a pro-life platform or not . . .

  • Daniel

    Were any of those people allowed to mention abortion, Mollie?

  • Mollie

    So not allowing Bob Casey to speak at the DNC is equivalent to ALLOWING all these pro-choice people to speak? Okay.

  • Daniel

    While not really interested in defending Democrats, I would note there were actually four pro-life Democrats who spoke at the 2004, including one who spoke about pro-life issues.

    A story from the Catholic New Service

    The reality is there aren’t prominent pro-life Democrats, unlike the pro-choice Republicans who will never be supported by the primary voters in the Republcian party. If Casey beats Santorum, he will have the profile at the level of a Schwarzanegger or a Guilianil.

    None of that changes the fact that Democrats need to do some soul-searching on abortion. It’s a very problematic position for Democrats, just as immigration (and abortion) is a problematic position for Republicans. EMILY’s list plays an important role in poltiical fundraising for Democrats, just as religious conservatives are an important fundraising bloc for Republicans. To defy abortion rights supporters, like defying religious conservatives for Republicans, is a difficult political chioce.

  • Mollie

    The article that you linked to says that two pro-life speakers spoke at the convention. Jim Turner, who spoke about his role on the Homeland Security Committee and, well, Rep. Jim Langevin who introduced a speaker who advocated destroying embryos for research. Langevin *is* a member of Democrats for Life, however.

  • Daniel

    Also speaking at the events were Raymond Flynn, former Boston mayor and former Vatican ambassador, and Pennsylvania Auditor General Robert P. Casey Jr. In 1992 his late father, Gov. Robert P. Casey, a Catholic, was not allowed to address the convention on his pro-life beliefs.

  • Mollie

    I’m pretty sure that refers to the rally and pro-life Democrat(ic!?) events near and before the convention . . .

  • Daniel

    You know, you are probably right about that. I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about with “events.” but you are probably right.

  • Avram

    I would note there were actually four pro-life Democrats who spoke at the 2004

    Not only that, but Richard M. Daley (mayor of Chicago) and Senator John Breaux, both of whom oppose abortion rights, got to speak at the 1992 convention, the very same one were Casey was kept from speaking.

    On the other hand, neither Daley nor Breaux gave speeches about abortion, which Casey wanted to do. So I dunno.

    Casey didn’t endorse the Clinton/Gore ticket, but neither did Jerry Brown, who was allowed to give a speech. But Brown had been a major candidate in the primary race, which commands a certain amount of respect.

    Oh, about Democrat/Democratic — Use Democrat as a noun, Democratic as an adjective. So it’s “Democratic abortion debates” and “on the Democratic side”, but “jockeying among Democrats”. The formal name of the party is the Democratic Party. (For added confusion, the party was originally called the Republican Party back in the 1790s, but was called the Democratic-Republicans by its opponents in the Federalist Party. If you squint at the second photo of this timeline poster you can see the Dem-Reps absorbing the Feds, and the Whigs splitting off and morphing into Lincoln’s Republicans, with lots of little offshoot parties whose names are too small to read twining around them.)

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