Tips for reporters covering pro-lifers

graphic1Let me jump in here with a quick follow-up on my recent post about press coverage of the Democratic Party platform’s new language on issues linked to abortion and the sanctity of life.

Our friend Steve Waldman, the czar and protector of all things, has posted his own observations about the language that came out of meetings between left-of-center Evangelical Protestants — think Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, et al — and the people who are charged with helping Sen. Barack Obama capture more voters from pews containing church-going Catholics and Evangelicals under the age of 30-something.

It also helps to know that Waldman — with the omnipresent John C. Green of the Pew Forum — is one half of the team that produced the classic “Tribal Relations” piece in Atlantic Monthly on the various camps of religious believers who are active today in American politics.

This quick dissection of the abortion plank is Waldman’s opinion, but I share it as a handy guide to what the changed language may or may not mean. Also, I don’t think anyone would accuse Waldman of being a voice for religious conservatives. Please consider this a quick study of the basic facts, which may prove helpful for reporters who are covering the issue. For starters, he notes:

(1) The Lack of Moral Language — The key linguistic debate has been whether to “reduce the number of abortions” or “reduce the need for abortions.” Pro-life folks favored the former. Pro-choice folks favored the latter. The pro-choice folks won. In fact, the 2004 platform said abortion “should be safe, legal and rare” — language that’s casts abortion reduction as morally preferable, something this platform does not.

(2) Abortion Reduction — The draft platform includes — for the first time — language supporting policies specifically designed to reduce the need for abortions: “The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre and post natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.” We can therefore see the outlines of a pro-active position that might woo pro-life Catholics and evangelicals. Democrats can now say, you can support the Republican party which issues grand moralistic pronouncements but doesn’t take enough practical steps to reduce the number of abortions or you can support the Democrats who do take those steps. It is an open question, however, whether Obama will go that far, since the platform clearly avoided using any moral language casting abortion as a morally inferior choice.

(3) Conscience Clause — There is no “conscience clause” acknowledging and respecting the diversity of opinion within the party on abortion. Pro-life Democrats had hoped for that. …

And so forth and so on. The key now, according to Waldman, is what kind of moral language Obama chooses to use on this kind of issue.

I have said, for months, that the conscience clause was the key. Some Conservatives have long said — this is heresy, I think — that it is impossible to be a Christian and a Democrat. However, the 2004 Democratic Party platform language put that statement in a mirror and said that to be pro-life is to back a stance on this issue that, in effect, makes one a Republican. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell could not have said it better.

So, reporters, Waldman is convinced that the debates over this part of the platform are not over. After all, the committee rejected the following proposed language from the organization Democrats for Life (look near the end of this link) that tried to restore freedom of conscience on this life-and-death issue. The proposed language, again, stated:

We respect the conscience of each American and recognize that members of our Party have deeply held and sometimes differing positions on issues of personal conscience, like abortion. We recognize the diversity of views as a source of strength and we welcome into our ranks all Americans who may hold differing positions on these and other issues.

It would be interesting to see Waldman apply his 12 tribes typology to this battle over abortion policy.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chip

    Regarding the conscience clause, the preamble of the proposed platform does include a statement that acknowledges divsity within the ranks of the party.

    We may not always agree, but we will work together with the respect and good will needed to move this country forward.

    Personally, I would prefer the language that the Democrats for Life proposed, but it’s not like there is no acknowledgement of diversity.

    Some Conservatives have long said — this is heresy, I think — that it is impossible to be a Christian and a Democrat. However, the current Democratic Party platform puts that statement in a mirror and says that to be pro-life is to back a stance on this issue that, in effect, makes one a Republican. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell could not have said it better.

    When you say “current Democratic Party platform,” are you talking about the 2004 platform? I sure don’t see that in the abortion plank of the proposed platform. It clearly states the party’s position, but it’s a stretch to say that abortion is a litmus test. The most powerful Democratic Senator, Harry Reid, is not a Republican, and he won’t become one if this platform is passed.

  • Jerry

    I wonder why you left off what I think it is the most important point and the point emphasized in the news coverage I’ve seen:

    4) Greater Inclusion — Pro-life religious liberals were included in the process like they haven’t been before. They’re thrilled with their participation and feel that the platform moved in the right direction as a result. In any event, given the party’s ambivalent attitude in the past toward pro-life Democrats, they view the inclusion itself as a big deal.

    I’m a process-oriented kind of guy so I think the process point might be much more important in the long run compared to the exact wording of the platform. That leads into my oft repeated perspective point. This time I’ll quote Ben Hecht who said:

    Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.

    The Democratic party position is clearly shifting as can be seen looking back to the anti-abortion Senators and Congressman who were supported by the party two years ago and continuing with the current process. And, as Chip reminded me, such people as Harry Reid are no doubt having an influence, albeit quietly behind the scene.

  • tmatt


    I simply didn’t want to run the whole article. The whole piece is there at the link. I went through the conscience clause, because that is where there is now info that remains unreported in the MSM.

    I hope everyone reads the whole Waldan article.

  • Jerry

    Terry, fair enough. The point I emphasized has been widely reported.

  • John Mark

    I personally don’t see the Democratic Party becoming conservative on marriage and sanctity of life issues, and I wonder, too, if the Republican party will continue to slowly drift to the left. My question is whether or not there is legitimate and real questioning going on as to the party stance or if this is just a move to get the pro-life vote. I mean, are any of the national leadership troubled at all about abortion? Really troubled?

  • Doc

    John (#5),
    I believe Harry Reid is mentioned in all the comments. I can vouch for him that yes, he is truly troubled, his voting record consistently pro-Life and he is the senate majority leader. What more do you need?

  • Dave

    IMHO the story the MSM is missing behind the story it’s not covering, is that Obama must treat the women’s groups as surrogates for the female voters that he ticked off by defeating Hillary Clinton. He’s caught in an approach-approach conflict here, because a conscience clause might go some distance to assuage the people he affronted with his “bitter” comment, the major gaffe of his campaign (so far). But it would further offend the Clinton surrogates. IMHO.