Journalists ignore life’s beginnings

ignore2Two major newspapers published front-page stories yesterday about a proposed Bush Administration rule that would seek to protect health-care workers to not provide abortions, or contraceptive devices they regard as tantamount to abortion. The proposal would deny federal funding to any hospital, clinic, health plan, or other entity that does not give employees a right to refuse to participate on conscience grounds.

In The Wall Street Journal, reporter Stephanie Simon focused on the potentially far-reaching effects of the rule. Her lede began this way:

Set aside the fraught question of when human life begins. The new debate: When does pregnancy begin?

The Bush Administration has ignited a furor with a proposed definition of pregnancy that has the effect of classifying some of the most widely used methods of contraception as abortion.

A draft regulation, still being revised and debated, treats most birth-control pills and intrauterine devices as abortion because they can work by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. The regulation considers that destroying “the life of a human being.”

Later, Simon elaborated about the politics of the proposed rule as well as that of other similar state measures:

With its expansive definitions, the draft bolsters a key goal of the religious right: to give single-cell fertilized eggs full rights by defining them as legal people — or, as some activists put it, “the tiniest boys and girls.”

As long as Roe v. Wade remains in effect and abortion remains legal, that goal can’t be fully realized. But in recent years, abortion opponents have scored notable successes. For instance: Several states now define a fertilized egg as a legal person — an “unborn child” — for purposes of fetal homicide laws, which allow criminal prosecution when a woman miscarries as a result of an assault.

In South Dakota, abortion doctors must tell patients — whatever their stage of pregnancy — that they will be “terminating the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being” with whom they have an “existing relationship.” In Colorado, voters this fall will weigh a state constitutional amendment that would confer full personhood on fertilized eggs, as well as embryos and fetuses. And embryonic stem-cell research is restricted through a variety of state and federal policies.

In The Washington Post, reporter Rob Stein also focused on the political and legal effects of the rule:

Because of its wide scope and because it would — apparently for the first time — define abortion in a federal regulation as anything that affects a fertilized egg, the regulation could raise questions about a broad spectrum of scientific research and care, critics say.

Simon and Stein could not ignore writing about the rule’s political and legal implications. But their exclusive focus on them gave readers an incomplete and misleading picture. They glossed over the biological aspects of the rule. And Simon used scare quotes to describe human biology– “the life of the human being” and “unborn child.”

As I wrote last December, embryologists and biologists have reached a rough consensus about when human life begins. In the vast majority of cases, an individual human life begins at the end of fertilization or conception.

Take the definition in Brittanica Concise Encyclopedia:

In humans, the organism is called an embryo for the first seven or eight weeks after conception, after which it is called a fetus.

Or consider the definition in Columbia Encyclopedia:

Among humans, the developing young is known as an embryo until eight weeks following conception, after which time it is described, until birth, as a fetus.

Not all authorities agree with this precise definition. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary and Oxford University define an embryo as that which begins at implantation. Yet this definition relies on an exception to the rule: the case of twins or triplets, etc. In those cases, the first human life begins at fertilization, and the second when the embryo splits or divides. Yet the life is undoubtedly human.

It’s fine for reporters to write about the law and politics. But when it comes to bio-ethical issues, they also need to write about the biology. Avoiding the topic is simply a journalistic sin of omission.

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  • http://www.truyoo.com Shaun G

    The debate over what words to use for what concepts is a HUGE part of this issue, and as journalists, we should make sure that we are using neutral terms.

    Here’s a little guide to how the two sides in this debate define the terms, as well as suggested neutral terms. I’m going to label these two sides “Pro-lifers” and “Pro-choicers,” although I acknowledge that there’s some fuzziness to those labels.

    CONCEPT: The time before the egg is fertilized
    PRO-LIFERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Pre-conception
    PRO-CHOICERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Pre-conception
    NEUTRAL TERM: Pre-conception

    CONCEPT: Devices or drugs that prevent fertilization
    PRO-LIFERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Contraceptives
    PRO-CHOICERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Contraceptives
    NEUTRAL TERM: Contraceptives

    CONCEPT: The moment the egg is fertilized
    PRO-LIFERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Conception or fertilization
    PRO-CHOICERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Fertilization
    NEUTRAL TERM: Fertilization

    CONCEPT: The new human organism created at the moment of fertilization, with DNA distinct from both mother and father
    PRO-LIFERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Embryo
    PRO-CHOICERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Fertilized egg
    NEUTRAL TERM: ???

    CONCEPT: The period between fertilization and implantation
    PRO-LIFERS’ PREFERRED TERM: No particular name for this period
    PRO-CHOICERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Still pre-conception
    NEUTRAL TERM: ???

    CONCEPT: Devices or drugs that prevent implantation
    PRO-LIFERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Abortifacients
    PRO-CHOICERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Contraceptives
    NEUTRAL TERM: ???

    CONCEPT: The moment of implantation
    PRO-LIFERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Implantation
    PRO-CHOICERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Conception or implantation (considered synonymous)
    NEUTRAL TERM: Implantation

    CONCEPT: Devices or drugs that kill the implanted embryo/fetus
    PRO-LIFERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Abortifacients
    PRO-CHOICERS’ PREFERRED TERM: Abortifacients
    NEUTRAL TERM: Abortifacients

  • Brian Walden

    Set aside the fraught question of when human life begins. The new debate: When does pregnancy begin?

    I find it interesting that they frame the debate as being over where pregnancy begins instead of where a new human life begins. Isn’t the more important question whether or not a human life is at stake rather than whether or not a woman meets the medical definition of pregnant. The whole regulation in question (at least according to the summary in this article) is over where human life begins, not where pregnancy begins. Medical companies and other groups seem to throw in the pregnancy debate as a red herring.

    If the medical definition is that pregnancy begins at implantation, then maybe the real debate here is over whether abortion aborts a pregnancy or a human life. If abortion aborts a pregnancy, then maybe we need a new term for drugs that kill humans before pregnancy begins. But this is all just terminology the real question is whether or not they take a human life.

    I also wonder why the article repeatedly used the term fertilized eggs? I’m no biologist, but doesn’t the egg no longer exist after fertilization?

    I also think that this article asks all the questions backwards. It looks at the political and social effects of defining the start of life at fertilization as if it’s an arbitrary choice that we should make based on the effects it would have on society. Shouldn’t we look to science to tell us where life begins rather than basing it on how strongly we want a certain answer to be true. If a human at the moment before death is the same organism he was at the instant after conception then we need to answer the philosophical question of whether just being a human affords one human rights or whether there are other requirements. Then once we’ve come to some sort of consensus on all this we should see if any social and political policies need to change – not based on whether or not the changes are convenient but based on what the truth obliges us to do.

  • Michael

    The WP story quoted two bioethicists and a biologist, all of whom are critical of DHH’s new line drawing. I will assume they are aware of the debate over when life begins from a scientific point of view.

  • Dave

    The red herring in this story — aided and abetted by the proposed DHH protocol — is the whole question of the onset of human life. This story is about creating new “rights of conscience”. If this protocol can interfere with birth control between conception and the onset of what everyone agrees is pregnancy, the next protocol can confer “rights of conscience” to interfere with measures that are clearly contraception. This is the old engineered slippery slope, and it’s negligent for the reporter to miss that.

  • CTD

    First, I like Shaun G’s guide. It appears right on.

    Dave: The story is not about creating new rights of conscience, but about how to enforce existing rights of conscience. In that sense, the part of the story that should be addressed is the biological. As Shaun G’s guide illustrates, to those objecting to abortion there is no reason why the existing laws protecting conscience should not extend to post conception to pre-implantation stage. Employers should not be able to escape the purpose of the law by using their own definitions of “abortion” and “pregnancy.”

  • Brian L

    The rights are not new. From the WSJ:

    The regulation’s stated purpose is to improve enforcement of existing federal laws that protect some medical professionals’ right to refuse to participate or assist in abortion.

  • Jerry

    The story is not about creating new rights of conscience, but about how to enforce existing rights of conscience

    . The question of where a right of conscience exists is a thorny one. Does rights of conscience only exist where someone defines a life in a certain way? What about cases where someone defines a right of conscience because they believe that heaven or hell is at stake? Do Muslim teachers have the right to refuse to teach people who they feel are improperly attired because they risk going to hell if they ignore what they feel are the teachings of Islam?

    Dealing with the boundary where one persons right to do something infringes on another person’s right does not present an obvious or simple issue except in the minds of those committed to one side or the other.

    Having this complexity accurately reflected in media stories is a rare occurrence at best.

  • Brian L

    The WP article also did not seem to identify how acknowledging these rights (whether existing or not) would actually impact anyone’s ability to get contraception or an abortion. There were lots of scary pronouncement quotes, but no data suggesting how widespread these religious objections would be.

    Further, the article did not draw out the link between a “medical definition” and a person’s first amendment protections. I personally know several family physicians and OBs who would apparently disagree with whatever definition of “abortion” Susan F. Wood uses. What power does a medical definition have over one’s legal right of conscientious objection based on one’s religion and how does it apply here?

  • Pingback: enough abortion myths: it’s a baby, so what? « Flesh & Spirit

  • Dave

    CDT and Brian L:

    If these rights are not protected now, and would be protected if the protocol were adopted, that would be creation of new rights. There’s no controversy about this; rights have been created by law since Brown vs Board of Education.

    What is controversial is whether these rights should be created. And what new rights will come along afterward (the part the reporter missed).

    As conservative a figure as Amatai Etzioni has called for a moratorium on the minting of new rights. I’m not taking a reflexively liberal position on this.

  • Dave2

    Mark Stricherz wrote:

    Simon and Stein could not ignore writing about the rule’s political and legal implications. But their exclusive focus on them gave readers an incomplete and misleading picture. They glossed over the biological aspects of the rule. And Simon used scare quotes to describe human biology— “the life of the human being” and “unborn child.”

    I don’t see anything in the draft regulation that even touched on matters of biology. The terms ‘human being’ and ‘unborn child’ are not antiseptic biological terms like ‘Homo sapiens‘ and ‘blastocyst’. They are forensic terms fraught with legal, moral, and emotional baggage. If Simon and Stein had treated this as a dispute over biology, they would have grossly misled their readers.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Dave 2 writes,

    If Simon and Stein had treated this as a dispute over biology, they would have grossly misled their readers.

    My point was that the reporters should give readers biological context about the issue at hand; that’s a far cry from urging the reporters to parse any dispute over the topic.

  • Dave

    My point was that the reporters should give readers biological context about the issue at hand

    It’s just as reasonable to expect the reporters to give readers the political context, which is that the same sources of hostility to abortion are frequently hostile to contraception, and something along that line may be just over the horizon. This isn’t my invention; the New York Times Magazine a couple of years ago devoted a cover article to “The War on Contraception.”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Dave writes,

    It’s just as reasonable to expect the reporters to give readers the political context

    The expectation is reasonable. Here is another one: that in dealing with bio-ethical issues, the reporter will give readers a sentence or two about the science or biology. Otherwise, the story is incomplete.

  • Dave2

    Mark,

    I think we now have on the table three distinct criticisms of Simon and Stein:

    1. They “glossed over the biological aspects of the rule [i.e., the draft regulation]”
    2. Simon “used scare quotes to describe human biology”.
    3. They neglected to provide any biological context for the story.

    Criticism 1 fails, I think, because the draft regulation simply doesn’t have any biological aspects to it. All it does is review the two prominent perspectives on the beginning of pregnancy—‘at conception’ and ‘at implantation’—and then propose to define ‘abortion’ in accordance with the first of the two, so as to give due regard to the conscience of those who see pregnancy as beginning with conception. (The draft regulation has been leaked to the Internet, and you can check it out for yourself).

    Criticism 2 fails because, as I’ve pointed out, the terms flanked by Simon’s scare quotes (and I’m not even convinced they were intended as scare quotes) are not biological terms, but morally-charged forensic terms.

    Criticism 3 appears to be a brand-new criticism. My misgivings with this criticism are a matter of how the biological context can be given without badly insulting the intelligence of the reader. What sort of sentence should the reporters have included? “The scientific community has reached a consensus that human zygotes belong to the species Homo sapiens and not Canis familiaris or Drosophila melanogaster”? “When human eggs are fertilized by human sperm, the resulting fertilized eggs are human”? This is an honest question: what sort of biological sentences would improve the story?

  • Dave

    Mark (#14) asked:

    The [political context] expectation is reasonable. Here is another one: that in dealing with bio-ethical issues, the reporter will give readers a sentence or two about the science or biology. Otherwise, the story is incomplete.

    Alas, I’m the wrong person to try to answer that question. My parents were both biologists and, while I went into a different field, I sort of grew up with biology as a second language. When an article like this one makes any reference to biology I tend to fill in the gaps and only react if they get something patently wrong.

    With that understanding, I tend toward Dave2′s response to “Criticism 3″ in his #15. But, for reasons cited, I can’t offer my reaction as applicable to the general reading public.