Should abortion get some coverage, maybe?

Two deaths this week give the media a chance to cover significant changes in women’s sexuality within the past few decades.

Helen Gurley Brown, former editor of Cosmo and author of Sex and the Single Girl, died Monday. On Tuesday, several leaders sent a flurry of statements on the death of Nellie Gray, the founder of the March for Life, an annual march marking the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.

The timed deaths give us the opportunity to compare the amount of coverage the mainstream media devote to the two women. But because the March for Life draws from a heavily religious crowd, we’ll focus on Gray.

The March for Life has not received the most quality coverage over the years. Even the Washington Post’s ombudsman stepped in earlier this year to call out the coverage. On one hand, a journalist might argue that since it’s an annual event, does it deserve much coverage? On the other hand, it’s an annual event that spans 38 years. Do we think Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party will last that long?

I’m not sure what to make of the Associated Press’s basic report, which reads like a boring Wikipedia page with a few most spicy quotes the reporter could find.

She used the phrase ‘‘no exceptions, no compromise’’ to sum up her belief that life begins at conception and that abortion should be illegal.

At this year’s march, she referred to abortion as genocide and the Roe v. Wade decision as ‘‘an evil imposed upon our country.’’

Were these quotes representative of how Gray spoke about abortion, or were these the most inflammatory the reporter could find? I don’t know the answer, but I’m curious whether this represents how she portrayed abortion in her speeches. The piece ends on this note:

Ms. Gray, who was single and had no children, was a longtime parishioner of St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church in Washington.

Ho hum. I’d like to know more.

Part of the reason the March for Life might not receive much coverage is its public image. Its website, just as one example, offers minimal information. For instance, you can’t find a leadership structure and you have to get the annual report in the mail. Oh, am I being trite? Your website is the first way newcomers (and reporters) will experience your message. So on one hand, it doesn’t surprise me that Gray might not receive much attention.

Still, careful reporters will note how the march has played an important role in an entire movement over several decades. It offers an interesting snapshot of not only the pro-life movement but also of religious participation in a highly political social issue.

Consider the case of my close friend who is Catholic but does not attend Mass regularly: she loves the March for Life and will show up at just about any rally related to abortion. Her example may or may not be representative among other pro-lifers who are religious, but it’s interesting where religion and abortion connect or diverge.

The Washington Post has much more interesting background and history in its obituary, something they perhaps prepared ahead of time. Mentions of faith, however, don’t come until towards the end.

Miss Gray told The Post that she first encountered the concept of abortion while reading “The Cardinal,” Henry Morton Robinson’s best-selling 1950 novel about a fast-rising Roman Catholic priest. The narrative describes a procedure known today as a late-term abortion, in which a baby is partially delivered before its skull is crushed to facilitate its removal.

Part of the problem with the coverage of abortion itself is that it doesn’t neatly fall into one beat. It crosses health, politics, gender, ethics and, of course, religion. But few reporters are devoted to covering abortion specifically, so it often gets lost by the wayside. Still, Gray’s death offers opportunities to do stories about the movement in fresh ways.

When I covered the march in 2009 just after President Obama’s inauguration and after Obama repealed the Mexico City policy, stating the U.S. government would not contribute to groups performing or promoting abortion. You can imagine plenty of signs with politically-directed sentiments. I also noticed that the crowd appeared to be mostly Catholic, based on the number of rosary beads and clerical clothing. So I’d be curious if anyone knows how ecumenical the march has been over the years.

With the founder’s death, there are so many interesting angles reporters could dive into just about what the march represents and whether it has successfully changed hearts and minds.

  • How have the numbers of the march waxed and waned over the years?
  • In Washington where you find marches every day, it seems, how does the March for Life stand out? How religiously connected is the march?
  • Are marches still a cultural force? Do activists prefer to do different types of outreach? What were the successes and failures to the approach?
  • How organized is the March for Life? Can you pinpoint the leadership structure, and if so, what are the religious affiliations of the leaders?
  • How would the march’s success be evaluated if it were just another organization or ministry? Would they just look at numbers? What do they consider a successful march?
  • Have people been turned off or on within either side by the march? What parts of the country does it draw from and is there ecumenical involvement?
  • How does the rhetoric found in the March for Life differ from the rest of the pro-life movement? Do pro-life strategists prefer more public or private attempts at changing public opinion?

It would be difficult to find a pro-lifer who would directly criticize the march, but there are large questions about strategy. A big part of the question has to do with how your faith impacts or doesn’t impact your activism in the public square. As the country polls less pro-choice and more pro-life, Gray’s death offers reporters a chance to cover angles they’re missing.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • A quick typo-“When I covered the march in 2008 just after President Obama’s inauguration”
    That would be 2009.
    Otherwise, very good coverage of someone who didn’t hang out with all the right people in New York.

    • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      Mark: fixed, thank you!

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Mollie, the most likely reason the website is as stilted as it is, is most likely because of Nellie herself. I never personally met her, but I know many who were around her and, like other older pro-life leaders, technology was not her gig.

    In addition, the March for Life was her baby and pretty much hers alone. Of course she had help, but not a whole lot, which is why the communications/technology end of it suffered so much.

    One of the biggest concerns I have is who is going to take charge and how that succession is going to play out. Is there an anointed successor? Will it become an American Life League project (Nellie’s “no exceptions, no compromise” motto is best envisioned in Judie Brown)? Or will there be a battle between competing pro-life groups like Priests for Life, ALL and the National Right to Life Committee for control of one of the most powerful symbols of the movement? (They can have a habit of sniping each at other and even losing out on their own goals because of it.)

    Re: the coverage, I was surprised that I got news of Helen Gurley Brown’s death via e-mail alerts from multiple major news sources. I guess it was right up there with yesterday’s news that Felix Hernandez threw a perfect game. It guess it only makes sense that the MSM wouldn’t cover the woman responsible from bringing together 100,000-250,000 people every year for 38 years to converge on Washington in support of nascent human life when they’ve got perfectly pitched baseball games and the author of “Sex and the Single Girl” to cover.

    • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      All good comments and questions. Thanks for adding to the conversation. It is interesting to see how differently the two women were covered, eh?

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Sorry, Sarah! I didn’t read the author very closely, did I? Duh!

    • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      That’s okay. I don’t mind being mistaken for the divine MZ Hemingway 🙂

  • John Siple

    I’ve been appalled at National Press Coverage on the Annual March For LIFE each year.
    Thousands of Catholic & evangelical denominations march together, all with smiles, signage, banners, rosaries, and grief.
    Nobody knows about it. The press ignores it. Men & women, school kids, babies in carriages, in arms, on wheels all march for one thing:
    Repeal Roe VS. Wade!

    If more citizens with a religious sensibility would view this remarkable March for Life, more overconscientious patriots would hear the call to remember that murder of the innocents is pagan, self-centered and without thought of the life within the womb!
    Thanks for reading!

    My last 2to children were counseled by gynecologists to have the fetuses aborted, due to known complications. My wife ignored this, as she was willing to suffer for the life within.

    • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

      Hi John, thanks for weighing in. I just wanted to ask, though: with limited staff, time, resources, etc. should editors assign coverage every single year? Are there years where it might be more significant, perhaps with a tie-in to legislation? How do they distinguish each march from the next march? If it’s expected, is it news? I’ve obviously made a case for why it deserves some coverage, but there are some tough questions editors have to deal with as well.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    One more addition to my post, if I may. To be clear, there were some outlets who did cover Nellie Gray’s death. We also have RNS & NYT, but I didn’t get a chance to scour for more:
    So I’m not saying the media is ignoring Gray’s death, but I’m still asking whether abortion itself is being covered enough and as much as other pressing issues.

  • I’ve covered quite a few marches and the quotes in the Washington Post sounded like vintage Nellie. For the 30th anniversary of the march I wrote a story that examines her rather controversial place among pro-life activists, many of which were unhappy with both her style and her priorities.
    Since I’m not sure if that will work as a hot link in your new format, here’s the relevant section of the story:

    Within the anti-abortion movement, Gray is respected for her single-minded labor. But there is off-the-record grumbling that her march promotes an uncompromising approach to abortion politics that some major anti-abortion lobbies do not share.

    The March for Life calls for a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions, but groups such as the National Right to Life Committee have put an amendment on the back burner and accept limited exceptions, particularly to save the mother’s life.

    Cathy Cleaver, director of information and planning for the Pro-life Secretariat of the U.S. Catholic bishops, won’t discuss differences with the March for Life. The bishops promote the march. Their all-night pre-march vigil at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception draws up to 10,000 people.

    That makes it “the largest annual Catholic Mass in the country,” said Cleaver, 39, who first marched 16 years ago as a law student at Georgetown University.

    But there is more than one legal way to stop abortion, she said.

    “The church, of course, allows and supports incremental legislation. There is no question about that. … If someone tells you something different about the church’s position, that person is misinformed,” she said.

    There are other tensions in the ranks. Young Republicans may march next to Democrats for Life or even Anarchists for Life. Fundamentalist Protestants may pray for the salvation of the handful of Wiccans for Life, and even the Catholics who have long been the backbone of the march.

    Last year, the tension snapped with the arrest of two members of the Pro-life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Gray and the park police said it was because their banner promoted a cause other than opposition to abortion. Gray permits no off-topic signs in her demonstration.

    “All persons are welcome, all messages are not,” Gray said.

    One of those arrested, Cecilia Brown, 39, of Cleveland, said the banner bore only the group’s name and the slogan: “Human rights start when human life begins.”

    Group members had marched since 1991. Reactions from other marchers usually ranged from “We’re glad you’re here, but we don’t approve of your lifestyle” to “Remember Sodom and Gomorra,” Brown said.

    Many members were anti-abortion activists before they came out of the closet. One had spoken at the March for Life as a representative of Collegians for Life. They don’t promote gay rights at the march, Brown said. The alliance’s goal is to promote the anti-abortion cause at gay pride events.

    They also have an outreach to employees of abortion clinics, she said.

    “We bring the [anti-abortion] message to people [conservative Christians] could never get near. But they don’t look at it as a gift. They think we have this other agenda,” she said.

    Gray has said alliance members can march without their banner. Brown plans to carry it.

    “I will lower my banner when all the other groups lower their banner,” she said.