Religion ghosts in the politics of abortion? Obviously …

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It happens at least once a year.

A GetReligionista will write a post about media bias in mainstream coverage of abortion (click here for that classic series on this topic by the late David Shaw, media-beat reporter for The Los Angeles Times) and then someone will post a comment saying that abortion is a political, not a religious, issue and that this site should stick to religion. Often, these correspondents will note that the only people who think abortion is a religious issue are crazy fundamentalists and radical Catholics, etc., etc. — an observation that does little to help make their case.

Truth is, lots of people oppose abortion for different reasons. Tomorrow’s annual March For Life will draw thousands of Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and the usual suspects. However, those paying close attention will also see banners for pro-life atheists and agnostics, as well as the Pro-Life Alliance for Gays and Lesbians (“Human Rights Start When Life Begins”). Marchers will show up from Feminists For Life, Democrats For Life, Libertarians For Life and a host of other groups from off the beaten journalistic path.

However, it is safe to say that the majority of the marchers will be there for reasons that are based, in part, on their religious convictions. In the United States of America, and lots of other places, that is the statistical reality.

Thus, it was rather strange to see such a faith-free approach used in that New York Times story that ran under the headline, “Parties Seize On Abortion Issues in Midterm Race.” As a reader noted, in an email to this site:

Other than quoting someone from the Faith and Freedom Coalition, there is no allusion that some people see this as an issue of faith or morality.

As a person of faith who is against legalized abortion on demand, this bothered me. It seemed very deliberated on the part of the writer. Most people, however, probably know the basics of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Does an article mentioning this debate as it pertains to an election have to mention the religious aspect? Or should readers already just know?

That’s a very good question.

Consider the top of the story, for example. Can one address the political clout of those who oppose abortion inside the modern Republican Party without mentioning the “pew gap” or the role played by married, religious women in this cause?

WASHINGTON – When the Republican National Committee gathers for its winter meeting here on Wednesday, the action will start a few hours late to accommodate anyone who wants to stop first at the March for Life, the annual anti-abortion demonstration on the National Mall. And if they need a lift to the meeting afterward, they can hop on a free shuttle, courtesy of the Republican Party.

“We thought it only fitting for our members to attend the march,” said Reince Priebus, the party chairman.

Abortion is becoming an unexpectedly animating issue in the 2014 midterm elections. Republicans, through state ballot initiatives and legislation in Congress, are using it to stoke enthusiasm among core supporters. Democrats, mindful of how potent the subject has been in recent campaigns like last year’s governor’s race in Virginia, are looking to rally female voters by portraying their conservative opponents as callous on women’s issues.

This story does cover a lot of ground, but the reporters are following a strictly political map. At several times it was easy to spot the ghosts that the Times team either didn’t see or made a conscious decision to avoid. For example:

Democrats say their success this year will depend on how close they can come, given lower turnout, to President Obama’s overwhelming margins with female voters; in 2008, he enjoyed a 14-point advantage among women, and in 2012, it was 12 points.

That is a crucial statistic and had to be discussed. Yet, inside that statistic are divisions among female voters connected to statistics about religious affiliation, religious practice and marital status. In regional elections to pick legislators, the impact of these factors will vary according to zip codes — but there are facts here that need to be discussed.

Or how about this passage:

In Oregon, Senator Jeff Merkley could face a similar situation if supporters of an initiative there succeed in getting an anti-abortion measure with a fiscally conservative twist on the ballot: the measure seeks to outlaw the use of state funds to pay for any abortion unless the mother is in grave medical danger.

“We don’t make this a pro-life thing,” said Jeff Jimerson, who is organizing the petition drive. “This is a pro-taxpayer thing. There are a lot of libertarians in Oregon, people who don’t really care what you do, just don’t make me pay for it.”

Once again, that is a crucial point that needs to be made, given the power of country-club Republicans in some regions, as well as pure libertarians. Yet the point seems to be that the goal is to frame this issue in a new way, a way that reaches out beyond the obvious pro-lifers. Well, who are the obvious people in that moral, religious and cultural niche? It seems that the goal is to discuss half of the equation, without mentioning the other (or talking to voices in those groups about their beliefs and motivations).

Here’s one more example, only this time the missing information is on the religious and cultural left.

Abortion rights groups have built targeting models that allow them to predict an individual voter’s position on women’s health issues. These models, along with similar ones built by the Obama campaign, were factors not just in Virginia last year but also in Democratic electoral victories in 2012.

OK, I’ll ask. What about these liberal voters? What are the characteristics, beliefs and affiliations that are built into those “targeting models”? I seem to remember that, when the Pew Forum professionals rolled out their “nones” data, there were some pretty obvious connections between religious beliefs and practices (and the lack thereof) and political convictions on moral and social issues. In fact, wasn’t that one of the most obvious takeaways from the study?

So was it journalistically wise or unwise to avoid the obvious religion hooks in this story?

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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.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    But I think there’s a more fundamental question to be asked — the third paragraph starts by stating, “Abortion is becoming an unexpectedly animating issue in the 2014 midterm elections.” The problem is, the Times says this every other year. Every other year, it seems they expect that the nation will have “moved on,” gotten over its “obsession” (loaded term there, right Pope Francis?) with the fetus and just accepted the rule of Roe v Wade. That hasn’t happened and the Times can’t get over that fact.

    That this hasn’t happened is due primarily to religious people. While you’re right, tmatt, to point out the “alternative” (for lack of a better word) pro-life groups, they’re a minority within the pro-life movement. A guesstimate of 80 percent of that movement is made up of Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants. So the fact that the Times ignored their influence is rather baffling. One would almost think they would take the opportunity to join with their state’s governor and denigrate religious pro-life people. But then maybe they deliberately ignored us because they didn’t want to give too much credence to our influence — it’s hard to say.

    • tmatt

      I cited the other smaller groups simply as a way of admitting that this is a topic that is overwhelmingly faith-driven, but there are other perspectives. The media should look at them all, if possible. Some of the smaller groups are themselves worthy of sidebar coverage.

  • TomD

    I’m not sure the first time that I encountered Nat Hentoff’s writings with regard to his pro-life stance. Mr. Hentoff is a libertarian, jazz-historian, author and columnist who has been described as a liberal Democrat in his political leanings. He wrote a column, I believe in April 2008, describing why, on the issue of abortion, he could not vote for Barack Obama.

    How is this relevant? While it is true that the core of pro-life activism is heavily inclined in a traditional religious direction, there are numerous, prominent members of the pro-life movement who are not religious, but who form their opinions primarily from a moral/ethical perspective. Mr. Hentoff is a prominent example of this. On the issue of abortion, his political inclinations are negated by his moral/ethical inclinations.

    For the pro-choice forces, especially in the media, to emphasize the political is an attempt to avoid the moral/ethical discussion. They believe that they win the abortion debate as a political issue; I suspect they know, and most polling shows, that they lose it as a moral/ethical issue.

    It is the pro-choice movement, led by the media, that must continually emphasize the political dimension of the abortion debate. Ironically, they often do this by simplistically caricaturing the religious dimension, thereby conveniently bypassing the moral/ethical dimension. It would be helpful to the pro-life cause if more Americans were aware of the intellectual breadth of the pro-life position, including people like Nat Hentoff.

    And the media, including the New York Times, largely ignores the March For Life because it doesn’t fit their narrative. Detailed, accurate coverage of the event risks introducing ideas into the abortion discussion that they would rather leave unexamined.

    • Florian

      Why, I wonder, are pro-lifers called “ANTI-abortion” while those who want death for the unborn child are called: “PRO-choice” making them seem so noble and so fair? Someone who is pro-choice sees no difference to allowing a baby to live or having the baby killed…so,in effect, they are pro-death. The word ‘abortion’ has lost its significance…we should talk about having human babies killed by the millions…which is, in effect, the genocide of the human race.

      • TomD

        Florian, I agree. The activists and the media use the labels that support their narrative. And you’re right, we capitulate to it when we adopt their language. But the media is not going adopt other language. They know that language influences minds.

        Actually, I’ve seen the phrases “pro-choice” and “anti-choice” more lately, I suspect because polling shows that many people, especially young people, are influenced by the word “choice.”

        A similar move to influence the discussion was made, first by activists and then almost immediately by their allies in the media, to replace “homosexual” with “gay.” They must remove the sexual reference to fit their narrative.

        It is important for those supporting the right to abortion to get the words “life” and “abortion” out of the narrative. For them, this is all about “choice,” and what reasonable, modern person can be against that?

        • Florian

          You’re right Tom…it’s up to faithful pro-lifers to begin to radically change the ‘labels’ – for instance, Catholics are being accused of wanting to stop women from getting contraceptive coverage in their insurance and even prominent Catholics use the term ‘contraception’ mandate when it is really about the freedom of religion and forcing Catholic agencies and institutions to pay for sterilizations and abortion producing drugs and if Catholics don’t stand strong together this Administration will win. Every Catholic Institution and agency should refuse to comply and if they are fined, they should refuse to pay…then let Obama and his henchmen send out their storm troopers to round up Catholics and others, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, and throw them all in jail…then the Obama agenda will be made manifest to all…but if Catholics and others don’t stand strong together against Obama, all will fall. Look what happened when the Polish people stood strong together against communism – they won!!! But if they had broken ranks, if some had backed away, they would have lost…Cardinal George said that the Church will be persecuted…well, the Church is being persecuted, not so overtly – yet. But little by little Obama and his cronies are working their way into the fabric of unity within the Church which is why Obama has prominent Catholic politicians stand with him, such as Pelosi, Sebelius and Biden – among others. Sadly, so many Catholics do not understand what it means to trust the Lord and to live a life of faith – so we must pray and witness to Christ no matter the cost.

      • tmatt

        The Associated Press is now using pro-abortion-rights and anti-abortion. The other option, really, is “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” as the language of the movements.

        • Florian

          The other option should be: pro-life or anti-life”

  • Danielck

    To be pro-life is to be pro-choice. Here’s how:

    To choose life is to choose the possibility for a near infinite number of future choices relative to the child born. The child will make choices throughout their life. Family and friends too will make choices relative to the life of the child. And so will society and others. So with one choice (the choice to give birth to a child), a near infinite number of choices are borne.

    On the other hand, to be pro-murder (i.e., pro-abortion) is to be for one choice, and maybe a few more. It is obvious what the one choice is, and why closer to zero future choices can and will be made relative to the murdered child. We, Catholic-Christians/Conservatives/etc. are truly pro-choice, and with choice we have the power to turn the tables on those against choice.

    • Florian

      How have we come to the point where a minor girl child can choose an abortion, to have her baby in the womb killed, but she cannot be given an aspirin by the school nurse without a parent’s permission? This is so diabolical! If a young girl is pregnant it is rape…and so by secretly having an abortion, the rapist is allowed to go free, to be free to rape again. How powerful satan and his minions have become in our country. What will be his next move? To allow mother’s to choose to have their born child killed? Evil generates evil…women are being manipulated and deceived into believing that having her unborn baby killed is good for her….it is never good for her, ever!!!

      • tmatt

        Once again….

        What does this have to do with the media issues in the post?

    • tmatt

      What does this have to do with the media issues in the post?

  • James Patton

    Here is the problem with reporting about a tangent such as faith in political issues. Just because someone claims that they are part of the religious faithful, does not directly correlate to how they will vote, legislate, or govern. When reporting from the religious/faith angle, many times than not, you end up looking like you have no clue to what is going on. I am not saying religion/faith can’t affect such issues, I only claim that the end results are not proportional to how many people make the claim of faith/religion. That in the end is just bad journalism.

  • PalaceGuard

    The only “religious conviction” that most of the media are capable of recognizing is one wherein a judge slams the law down on a Christian baker. The problem is, the media, along with much of the educated stratum of society, have internalized the 60s worldview that human life is political life, i.e., an eternal power struggle between classes and factions. No more, no less. Add to that a large splash of superficial scientism, and you end up with a peculiar mindset wherein any motives or philosophies outside of that particular, dare I say, paradigm are not so much ignored as they are inherently invisible. As a snide catchphrase from my long-gone New Age days runs, “I’ll see it when I believe it!”

    • Florian

      In our country, especially under this Administration, there is a war not only against life but against God…how is it that just a handful of people can bully people into believing that they are ‘biased’ if they stand for God and for goodness? Evil thrives because so many good men and women sit back and do and say nothing to counteract the pervasive influence of evil…we must not be afraid! Remember what St. Peter said about it is better to please God rather than men. Persecution of Christians and Jews and all who hold for goodness is not coming – it is already here!!! We must stand up and let our voices be heard…remember what Pope John Paul II told us, over and over again: “Don’t be afraid!” But even if we are afraid, let us speak and act anyway and may God be with us.

      • tmatt

        Sigh II. And your comment on the actual post?

    • tmatt

      Sigh.

      • PalaceGuard

        *Shrug* I did comment on the journalism. The heck with it.

  • Florian

    Jan. 22nd: at the March for Life in Washington today, it was pointed out several times that the real war on women is being waged by the Democrats and the liberal media…when women are urged to have their unborn babies killed, that is a war on women, mothers and motherhood, as well as a war on human babies – this needs to be pointed out and emphasized over and over again; then there was a female Latino speaker who spoke to Latinos about the fact that Planned Parenthood (and therefore all those who support and promote Planned Parenthood) are at war against Latinos and blacks since the foundress of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, wanted to eliminate the black and Latino races because she considered them undesirable and therefore urged that abortuaries be placed in poor, black and Latino neighborhoods which is happening even today. Strange that the NAACP knows this and yet supports Planned Parenthood; they would not even allow the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King to speak near their facilities…they must be promoting the elimination of blacks and Latinos; Obama knows this about Planned Parenthood and yet he supports their agenda…the anti-life people are very articulate and loud and, of course, the liberal media helps them; but pro-lifers can use Twitter and Facebook and YouTube to get the pro life message out as many were encouraged to do at the March for Life in Washington today…March On!!!

    • tmatt

      And the post? The media questions?


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