Chain letters and unnamed sources

n11531People who oppose abortion are divided on how best to fight the political threats they face in the current environment and one area in particular that pro-lifers have been divided on is how to fight the Freedom of Choice Act. The bill, which was first introduced in 1989, is described by supporters as an attempt to codify Roe v. Wade at all levels of government. Opponents note that it could be used to fund abortion and invalidate parental notification laws, informed consent laws, and bans on partial birth abortion.

Which brings us to this curious article in Time magazine, written by national editor Amy Sullivan, “The Catholic Crusade Against a Mythical Abortion Bill“:

The U.S. Catholic Church’s crusade against the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) has all the hallmarks of a well-oiled lobbying campaign. A national postcard campaign is flooding the White House and congressional offices with messages opposing FOCA, and Catholic bishops have made defeating the abortion rights legislation a top priority. In the most recent effort to stop the bill, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia sent a letter to every member of Congress imploring them to “please oppose FOCA.”

There is only one hitch. Congress isn’t about to pass the Freedom of Choice Act — because no such bill has been introduced in the current Congress.

Okay, beyond the hystrionics, (“Crusade?” Really?) there are some basic problems with the reporting. The Catholic Conference of Bishops does have a postcard campaign running right now. And it does relate to FOCA. But it’s beyond absurd, for anyone who knows about the legislative process and how quickly a bill can become a law (particularly with this Congress!) to suggest that groups are only allowed to lobby once a bill is in committee. But what’s more, the postcard campaign specifically notes:

Passing the “Freedom of Choice Act” would achieve these pro-abortion goals in one extreme piece of federal legislation, though this same “FOCA agenda” could be pursued in a series of smaller steps.

Italics mine. The postcards themselves ask members of Congress to “oppose FOCA or any similar measure, and retain laws against federal funding and promotion of abortion.”

So even if one agrees with Sullivan that FOCA is not a realistic threat, the Catholic campaign is about fighting any abortion-rights legislation. Is Amy Sullivan promising us that not one piece of abortion-supporting legislation will even be introduced during this Congress? That seems odd, doesn’t it?

Let’s check out this paragraph:

At a time when the United States is gripped by economic uncertainty and faces serious challenges in hot spots around the globe, some American Catholics are finding it both curious and troubling that their church has launched a major campaign against a piece of legislation that doesn’t exist and wouldn’t have much chance of becoming law even if it did. To many critics, it feels like the legislative equivalent of the dog that didn’t bark.

Oh for the love of all that’s holy. One of the main reasons why FOCA doesn’t have much of a chance of passing as a complete package (although components are another story) is because groups like the Catholic Conference of Bishops are fighting it tooth and nail on the front end. And this moral equivalency schtick of comparing the economy with the sanctity of human life is fine for a cocktail party discussion, if many drinks have been consumed and the banter is not at its most erudite, but not for a reporter who has an obligation to get all sides of the story. And that “dog that didn’t bark” line? As one reader noted, the dog that didn’t bark is a clue in a Sherlock Holmes story that leads to the identification of a murderer — not evidence that there was nothing happening. (The dog didn’t bark because he knew the murderer.)

The article then goes on to underplay what FOCA would do to current laws restricting abortions before underplaying how far-reaching Roe v. Wade itself is. Then we get this drive-by:

A chain e-mail of unknown origin soon began making its way into Catholic inboxes, warning of an imminent threat to the anti-abortion cause. “For those of you who do not know,” it read, “the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) is set to be signed if Congress passes it on January 21-22 of 2009. The FOCA is the next sick chapter in the book of abortion.” The e-mail urged Catholics to say a novena — a devotion of dedicated prayer for nine successive days — beginning on Jan. 11 and ending the day prior to Inauguration Day.

When Jan. 22 came and went without a Freedom of Choice Act becoming law, the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities announced a nationwide postcard campaign to blanket congressional offices and the White House with appeals to stop FOCA. Anti-FOCA groups on Facebook soon had more than 150,000 members and added thousands more each day. Priests started preaching against the legislation, and churches began circulating petitions to oppose its passage.

Oh Amy. So an email that has nothing at all whatsoever to do with the campaign of the Catholic Bishops is sent around to unknown and unquantified email boxes. Thanks for sharing. But then note the second paragraph . . . which clearly makes it seem like the two are related. They’re not. And beyond that, sigh, Sullivan is factually wrong again. In fact, the postcard campaign was announced long before Jan. 22, not after. It was launched the weekend after the inauguration and continued through mid-February but it was voted on in November and announced then. It’s not like you can launch a national campaign without some level of effort, after all.

Here are other problems:

In the midst of all this activity, the fact that there was no Freedom of Choice Act before the 111th Congress went largely unnoticed and unmentioned.

A Freedom of Choice Act was introduced in the 108th and 110th Congresses (from 2003 to ’05 and ’07 to ’09, respectively) by Representative Jerold Nadler, a New York Democrat.

Um, considering that some of the lobbying efforts against FOCA began before the 111th Congress itself began, the first paragraph is nonsensical. That Congress has only been in session for a few weeks now. And even the second paragraph is flawed since earlier versions of the bill were also introduced in 1989 and 1993.

So why in the world are these crazy, awful, deranged, lying pro-lifers worried about such a mythical piece of fantasy legislation as FOCA? Well, buried deep in the piece, Sullivan mentions this:

In some respects, President Obama has only himself to blame for the current controversy. As a presidential candidate, the then Senator himself pointed a spotlight on the legislation he co-sponsored when he told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2007 that “the first thing I’d do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing I’d do.”

Oh, so the sitting President of the United States promised not only to sign FOCA (which he co-sponsored in the Senate in the last Congress) but to make it his first act as President? So pro-lifers believed the words that their president said? How dare they! And how dare they assume that even if FOCA doesn’t get passed that other abortion-rights legislation might be a significant threat? They are clearly deranged and awful people who should be taken off the street and mocked in the pages of Time magazine.

The piece goes on to say that President Obama hasn’t done much to support abortion, only citing the Mexico City policy. Of course, he’s also filling the executive branch with fellow travelers and laying the groundwork for various other changes. And I don’t think Planned Parenthood enjoyed cocktail hour at the previous White House. But, per the beginning of the story, pro-lifers are only allowed to notice such things after there is little to nothing to be done about them.

Sullivan’s piece devolves into pure partisan analysis before quoting an official from Catholics United, a liberal organization. He questions the motivations of the bishops, saying they only care about this issue because it raises money for them. No one is allowed to respond to the character assassination.

And the piece ends with what I like to call “the Sullivan special.” Here it is:

Some of the USCCB’s own policy staffers are reportedly frustrated by the attention given to FOCA. And a few Catholic officials have even taken the rare step of speaking out to correct misinformation about the issue.

The Sullivan special is where you claim some special knowledge that is not shared in detail with readers. It may be conservatives secretly giving her, a liberal reporter, information off the record that miraculously supports her point. Or maybe it’s just a personal interpretation of data. It’s kind of hard to know how seriously to take these anonymous sources since they appear so frequently in Sullivan’s pieces and always in favor of the point she’s so obviously trying to make.

There’s also the problem that the false information she mentions comes from a bleeping chain mail. I mean, since when do we make organizations that have nothing to do with chain email answer for them? It’s just ridiculous and horrible to do that to an organization like the Catholic Bishops who are speaking quite loudly on the record for all to see. And one more thing, one of the pieces of supposedly false information is actually not false. Or, at least, there’s no way to know whether an estimate of how many more abortions will be performed if FOCA were passed is right or not. But if taxpayers fund abortion and other restrictions are removed, it’s not false to estimate that abortions will increase. Sullivan may disagree with the estimate but that’s different than calling it a “false claim” as she does. It makes her article no better than a chain letter.

There is much more that could be said but one final note. In a piece of this length, how does the “reporter” “reporting” on the story for a “news magazine” not manage to speak with a single, solitary person in favor of the campaign? Is Sullivan’s advocacy so fragile that she can’t actually discuss the topic with someone who doesn’t share her views? Does she need help locating the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops? She should just follow this hard-to-find link for better sources on future stories.

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  • FW Ken

    Time … Newsweek … whatever.

    Good analysis, Mollie.


    From their mission statement:

    We take seriously all our Church’s social and political teachings, and refuse to water down our faith in service of partisan politics.

    Compare to content of the site.

  • Elanor

    In the midst of all this activity, the fact that there was no Freedom of Choice Act before the 111th Congress went largely unnoticed and unmentioned.

    I think that’s ‘before’ meaning ‘in front of, facing’, not as in “prior to’. So not actually nonsensical, merely unclear and misleading.

  • Mike Hickerson

    At a time when the United States is gripped by economic uncertainty and faces serious challenges in hot spots around the globe…

    This is one of my favorite pseudo-arguments. My father-in-law (a state legislator) sometimes hears similar comments, and he likes to respond that he is perfectly capable of following more than issue and more than one bill at the same time.

  • Mollie


    I agree. My point was that the efforts to fight FOCA predate the 111th Congress so it’s nonsensical to say that there the campaign had failed to mention that future events hadn’t happened.

  • Chris Bolinger

    How did Sullivan ever get to be National Editor? Was it through attrition?

  • michael

    By Sullivan’s logic–and I am being generous here–it is a little kooky for NARAL to remain in business since there is not, nor is there likely to be, any legislation before Congress banning abortions.

    I look forward to reading that article when it comes out.

  • Jerry

    he’s also filling the executive branch with fellow travelers

    That phrase fellow traveler struck me like nails on a blackboard because of the McCarthy associations from my childhood. That phrase was used to besmirch and destroy the careers of honorable and patriotic people. You as much as said that our President is evil. As we used to say: “them’s fightin’ words”. After I read fellow travelers, I stopped reading your post, Mollie, because I would not be able to read what you wrote without a severe negative bias.

  • Stoo

    I’d never heard the term before, but the Wiki article suggests it means “communist sympathiser”. :o

  • Margaret

    I am always learning something about the McCarthy era. I thought the “fellow travelers” remark was a reference to filling the executive branch with people of like-minded beliefs, policies, etc. and I expect this to happen with any president and assume it should happen.

    I am also afraid that now that I have read your post, Mollie, I have an even more severe and negative bias against people who are pro-FOCA. But I do intend to try to meet as many pro-FOCA individuals as possible and really listen to them. Although this article by Ms. Sullivan hasn’t helped that intention much.

  • Kevin J Jones

    “And a few Catholic officials have even taken the rare step of speaking out to correct misinformation about the issue.”

    Including Richard Doerflinger, at the USCCB’s pro-life secretariat, which is also leading the postcard campaign.

    Doerflinger or one of his colleagues really needed to be contacted for this story. This is a case where anonymity kills quality.

  • Gregory DeVore

    You as much as said that our President is evil.

    Actually Molly didnt say that but given the monstrous evil of abortion a case can be made that anybody who is prochoice is well evil.

  • Dave

    “Fellow traveler” does indeed have its roots in the McCarthy-HUAC era, but it’s been 50 years and our erstwhile Communist foes are a problem because now they’re behaving like capitalists. I think we can realease the term back into general usage — meaning that it discloses an intent to speak negaatively about a cohort, but not that it accuses them of treason.

  • Pingback: FOCA uncampaign and key story « BaptistPlanet

  • Wm. Sulik


    I have to agree with Jerry [#7] about the phrase “fellow travelers.” Given it’s link to the McCarthy era, it’s not completely accurate. I believe a better phrase for those who will staff the Obama administration and carry out its abortion policies might be “Obersturmbannfuehrer.”



  • michael

    “[…] Amy Sullivan didn’t write a perfect article, but the current campaign is still against legislation which has not been introduced. Perhaps the […]”

    Perhaps the point is to prevent FOCA from being introduced where, it stands to reason, it has a much greater chance of passing than if it is not introduced at all.

    Wouldn’t such a ‘forfeit’ count as a win from a pro-life point of view? And isn’t this why NOW, NARAL, Planned Parenthood and a host of other liberal organizations put pressure on their representatives and wage a constant campaign in favor of abortion rights, in order to prevent the possibility of overturning Roe from ever arising? Do they wait until legislation is introudced before undertaking their activities? Are they expected to?

    This might have been interesting as a story on the anxiety worry among opponents of abortion over even more liberal abortion law. But otherwise, I fail to see what the news or interest in this–except as a specimen of hack journalism–and I doubt this was Sullivan’s intent.

  • Jeff

    u – s – c – c – b. Ah, i always forget that second c looking for their address.

    Wait, is that .com? Or .org? Hey, i’m sure i’ll find it sooner or later, maybe that gaggle thing all the kids are talking about.

  • Jerry

    But if taxpayers fund abortion and other restrictions are removed, it’s not false to estimate that abortions will increase.

    The statistics show that the abortion rate has been declining both in the Clinton and Bush years

    Sure it’s a normal assumption to make, but I’m not sure the evidence from the Clinton and Bush years supports that assumption.

    That is, in fact, one of the issues with the coverage of this issue – lack of facts with too many assumptions being made both as you pointed out in your analysis and even in your analysis.

  • Mollie


    That’s the first I ever heard of “fellow traveler” having Commie connotations. I always heard of it during the Bush era when people would talk about various neo-con fellow travelers.

    But wait, there’s more. The term actually refers to people who sympathize with a given party (not necessarily Communist, but originally used in that context?) without joining it. So that’s not what I meant either.

    I really just meant it in its most literal sense of people who share the philosophy of the President.

    Anyway, as for the other point, Jerry, the decline of the abortion rate during a period of increased restriction certainly doesn’t hurt the argument of people who say the opposite direction would have opposite results. Many states have passed various restrictions during the Bush and Clinton years.

    But my major point was that while it’s certainly fine to disagree with the estimate put forth by pro-lifers (of an additional 100,000 abortions), it’s not proper to call that a “false claim.” It is, rather, a claim.

  • dalea

    From Wikipedia:

    After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the term “fellow traveler” (Russian language: poputchik; this was sometimes used untranslated in Central European countries in addition to the English term) was sometimes applied to Russian writers who accepted the revolution’s ends but were not active participants. The term became famous because of Trotsky’s 1924 book Literature and Revolution, in which Chapter 2 is called “The Literary ‘Fellow-Travellers’ of the Revolution”:

  • hoosier

    “I really just meant [Fellow Traveler] in its most literal sense”

    Its most literal sense? Then where are they going? Aren’t they all literally in DC already?

  • MJBubba

    Mollie, I am well aware of the history of the term “fellow travelers,” and thought your use was entirely appropriate.

  • Bill R.

    Funny story:
    I’m definitely too young to have heard the phrase “fellow traveler” when it was in common use, but I thought I remembered learning in elementary school that “fellow traveler” was the English translation of the word “sputnik”. Thus, I was confused and bemused when Mollie used the phrase here because I thought she was calling Obama and co. sputniks! Like space cadets? Or Russian satellites? Oh, the glorious confusion of language!

    Note: according to wikipedia, sputnik actually translates as “co-traveler” or “traveling companion”. So I was pretty close!

  • Harris

    Gracious. Molly complains about “crusade” then whips out the fellow traveler.

    There is a bit of dishonesty in the blog, however, when citing Rep. Nadler’s introduction of the bill but not giving its resolution: it never came to a vote, never came out of committee. And that brings up the pertinent issue: when a measure lacks any possible chance of passage, what is the status of opposition? (Seriously, if they had to break arms to get three to pass the stimulus, what is the likelihood of 60 in the Senate? One has a better chance of winning the PowerBall lottery).

    Givwn the lack of a plausible chance of passage, the citing of then candidate Obama’s promise to sign FOCA becomes less an indication of legislative will, and more an expression of personal conviction. Mollie’s opposition then lies in her opposition to the President, or to the idea that this man does not share her convictions. The difficulty with her’s and that of the Catholic bishops stance is that in absolutizing their rejection of the President they end up with little constructive to say, and of course that in turn opens the door for the other side. It may be righteous, but at price of political impotence. And that’s not good for Life.

  • Mollie


    You can read minds? That’s some skill you have.

    Stick to the facts — and not the ad hominem — when leaving comments on my posts. Otherwise, I will happily delete them.

  • Charles


    Even after Mollie explains her use of “fellow travelers” you jump in with an accusation of duplicity? Give her a break.

    There’s no need to mention that the bill never came to a vote, the point was to acknowledge that it had been introduced. And there’s good reason it didn’t come to a vote. The 108th Congress was controlled by Republicans. The 110th was controlled by Democrats, but Bush would have vetoed, and the Senate wouldn’t be able to override. So letting the bill out of committee would have been idiotic, even by congressional standards.

    Now the situation is different. A promise from the President that the bill will be signed if it crosses his desk; incredibly strong liberal control in the House, and enough pro-choice Republicans in the Senate to make cloture realistic.

    I consider that a “plausible chance of passage.” Even if it wasn’t, why would Mollie’s opposition be a problem? She isn’t stating here that she opposes him on every policy because she opposes him on this, neither do the bishops. They’ve “absolutized” nothing, and have much to say that is constructive. So much so, that the National Editor of TIME had to resort to rebutting a chain letter.

    “Political impotence” is the perspective the opposition is selling; that doesn’t make it the truth.

  • Jerry

    There was an excellent extended segment on an Obama “fellow traveler” today, Rev. Joel Hunter, that I found very interesting. Here are the links to the background and faith of the “fellow traveler” for those that are interested:

  • Don

    I would have thought that the incipient president’s very clear and firm statements in favor of FOCA would be sufficient to make it a live issue – whether it had yet been introduced to Congress or not. As Mollie hints, the stimulus bill was created almost overnight and fast-tracked so vigorously we hardly had time to read the title. With the language of FOCA already done, how long would it take? And who is so disingenuous as to claim that there isn’t a pre-loaded consituency ready to ram it through?