Martyrs and magistrates

ArabicBible2In Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman is facing execution for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity.

This story is huge in the European and Canadian press and gaining coverage stateside every day. Similarly, other countries seem to be officially condemning the action more than U.S. officials have thus far. German and Italian officials have condemned the human-rights violation but so far the only words from America’s executive branch came from the third-highest senior official at the State Department. And, from Reuters, check out his rousing defense of a man who is about to die for the crime of converting from Islam to Christianity:

“We hope that the Afghan constitution is going to be upheld and in our view, if it’s upheld, then of course he’ll be found to be innocent,” said Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s third-ranked diplomat.

An Afghan judge said on Sunday a man named Abdur Rahman had been jailed for converting from Islam to Christianity and could face the death penalty if he refused to become a Muslim again. Sharia, or Islamic law, stipulates death for apostasy.

“While we understand the complexity of a case like this and we certainly will respect the sovereignty of the Afghan authorities and the Afghan system, from an American point of view, people should be free to choose their own religion,” Burns told reporters …

The Bush administration may need to bring out a slightly bigger gun — and slightly more compelling rhetoric — if it wants to help Rahman. But why hasn’t Bush addressed the matter? And why aren’t reporters asking him about it?

Bush held a press conference on Tuesday morning where reporters had the chance to ask hard-hitting questions and put him on the spot. Why not ask him why American soldiers are dying in Afghanistan so that a government that executes Christians can be put in place? For a media obsessed with President Bush’s supposed hardline Christianity, they could press him a bit. Or maybe they were too busy composing really tough questions such as “Why did you really want to go to war?” Seriously, Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson is tougher on Bush than is the press corps:

Is this the fruit of democracy? Is this why we have shed American blood and invested American treasure to set a people free? What have we accomplished for overthrowing the Taliban? This is the kind of thing we would expect from the Taliban, not from President Karzai and his freely elected democratic government.

The Times of London had an interesting article complete with a list of areas where Christians have been persecuted in recent years. They talked with the judge deciding whether an Afghan man should be executed for converting to Christianity. The judge says he does not understand what the big deal is:

“It is a crime to convert to Christianity from Islam. He is teasing and insulting his family by converting. In your country (Britain) two women can marry; that is very strange. In this country we have the perfect constitution, it is Islamic law and it is illegal to be a Christian and it should be punished.”

The paper had some great analysis and perspective on the situation, including this bit of intel from Rahman’s cellmate (Rahman is not allowed to speak to reporters):

Sayad Miakhel, told The Times: “He is standing by his words; he will not become a Muslim again. He has been a Christian for over 14 years. It is what he believes in . . .” Mr Miakhel, 30, said that conditions in the prison were basic, with 50 men to a cell built for 15. “Most prisoners have food brought to them by their families, but none of Abdul’s family have been to visit. I’m not sure how he is eating.”

“He seems depressed. He keeps looking up to the sky, to God,” said Mr Miakhel.

Most reporters are doing a good job of using Rahman’s story as a hook to explore the lack of religious freedom in Afghanistan, but one reporter’s story stands out in particular. Kim Barker, a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune, has a meaty piece that explores the family drama that led to Rahman getting busted, describes the religious landscape in Afghanistan and includes some frightening and violent quotes about what Rahman faces. Barker worked on the Tribune‘s series, “Struggle for the soul of Islam,” before taking a job covering Afghanistan. Here, she provides some perspective:

Rahman’s trial, which started Thursday, is thought to be the first of its kind in Afghanistan. It goes to the heart of the struggle between Islamic reformists and fundamentalists in the country, which is still recovering from 23 years of war and the harsh rule of the Taliban, a radical religious regime that fell in late 2001.

Even under the more moderate government now in power, Islamic law is supposed to be followed, and many believe it requires the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam for another religion.

noose2There was also an interesting and noteworthy headline change to the piece. The original headline was:

Afghan man faces death for being a Christian
Prosecutors, judge, family insist convert should die

It’s been corrected to read:

Afghan man faces death for abandoning Islam
Prosecutors, judge, family insist convert should die

It’s an important change and one that reporters, copyeditors and editors should keep in mind with this story. Technically speaking, converting to Christianity in a Muslim country will probably not get you killed or otherwise punished — so long as you are not Muslim to begin with (thae judge’s comment above notwithstanding). Certainly non-Muslims are not viewed the same way as Muslims from a legal standpoint — and this caveat manifests itself in wildly divergent ways — but it’s not being Christian that is the crime. Rather, the crime is leaving the Muslim religion.

Swallowing bitter pills

ru486newsprintThe FDA announced this week that another two women who had undergone abortions using pills had died. It is important for reporters to be very specific about what is and is not known about life and death issues such as these, and many reporters did a fine job. But there was one component that was sorely lacking. Let’s look at this sample coverage from Andrew Bridges with Associated Press:

Two more women have died after using the abortion pill RU-486, federal health regulators said Friday, in warning doctors to watch for a rare but deadly infection implicated in earlier deaths.

At least seven U.S. women have died after taking the pill, sold since 2000. The Food and Drug Administration cannot prove the drug was to blame in any of the cases.

This information is certainly helpful, but I was thinking back to a story I read in December that had shocked me. Not because the news was so surprising so much as bizarrely underreported. Here’s Salynn Boyles of WebMD in an article published by Fox:

The FDA received reports of 607 adverse events involving the abortion drug RU-486 over a four-year period, it was reported this week.

The adverse events included five reported deaths and 68 cases of severe bleeding that required transfusions.

Late last month, federal officials confirmed that five women who died of toxic shock syndrome within a week of taking the drug to induce abortions had the same rare bacterial infection.

Now, seven deaths provides some context, certainly. But 68 cases of severe bleeding that required blood transfusions? And 607 adverse events? Ay yay yay! Without debating the morality of abortion, why would reporters hide this? If you or a woman you knew were considering abortion — whether you agreed with her thinking or not — wouldn’t you want to share information like this with her? Why, in a story about the dangers of an abortion pill, would you not mention that you may be facing a blood transfusion if you take the pill? Yes, these numbers are comparatively small relative to the half-million women who have used pills to end pregnancies, but that doesn’t excuse hiding them.

Anyway, most outlets tried to push the story forward by looking at Planned Parenthood’s announcement that it was changing the way it administered the drug. Four of the seven women who died did so after receiving their abortion pills from Planned Parenthood. Apparently the FDA and Planned Parenthood have been battling for a while over the way Planned Parenthood directs patients to take the drug. The New York TimesGardiner Harris explains:

When Mifeprex was first approved by the agency in 2000, the standard regimen was to give the drug in a doctor’s office followed two days later by an oral dose of a different drug, misoprostol, also in a doctor’s office. Women expelled the fetus over the following days or weeks in a process that mimicked a miscarriage. The procedure must begin within 49 days of conception.

Soon after Mifeprex’s approval, most Planned Parenthood doctors switched to a different regimen, instructing women to insert misoprostol vaginally at home two to three days after taking Mifeprex. Studies of the new regimen showed that it was effective, and it allowed women to take lower doses of misoprostol. It also meant fewer office visits for Planned Parenthood.

But this regimen was not approved by the drug agency. It is not unusual for doctors to use drugs differently from how they are officially approved. But as reports of deaths among women undergoing the procedure trickled into the F.D.A., government officials issued stern warnings that doctors should stick to the approved regimen.

Until Friday, Planned Parenthood had rejected those warnings.

bitter pill 01I just want to point out this one device author Gardiner Harris used when writing about Planned Parenthood. He says that Planned Parenthood is using a regimen not approved by the FDA. Then he says that it’s not uncommon for doctors to deviate from approved uses. That is most certainly true. It’s also remarkably generous for him to include in a story about two women’s deaths. Especially since those deaths followed medical consultations with Planned Parenthood that included instructions contrary to what the FDA approved for an extremely controversial and dangerous drug. I think it’s good that he mentioned it, so I’m not criticizing him. But it’s good to think about whether all sources get this treatment.

To draw a comparison, let’s say that seven men from around the country all died after hunting trips. The only thing they had in common was that they used the same make and model of gun, which had just been put on the market. Would we expect most reporters to put the best construction on the gun manufacturer? I don’t know.

Reporters, and most of us are guilty of this whether we’re reporters or not, tend to put the best construction on those with whom we agree while attacking the motivations or practices of those with whom we disagree. If you want to write an attack piece, putting the worst construction on one group’s actions — and the best construction on their opponents — is the easiest way to do it. It’s also unethical and fails to provide a news service to readers. Generously explaining everybody’s side is more difficult but it ends up providing a better — albeit much more complex — story.

In the meantime, someone should probably dig a bit more into all these complications from abortion pills, not just the deaths.

What is a sanctuary?

wrecking ballLast year the Supreme Court issued a wildly unpopular decision that enabled governments to seize property for no other reason than economic development. A recent New York Times article says that almost every state legislature in the country is advancing bills or constitutional amendments to limit the spread of this ruling. Despite the tenuous legal state that the ruling (Kelo v. New London) is in, a Long Beach, Calif., government is using it to replace a church with an apartment complex. Sigh.

The Long Beach Redevelopment Agency voted 6-0 March 13 to condemn the Filipino Baptist Fellowship’s church building, ostensibly because it does not produce enough economic benefit for the city.

Because the Filipino Baptist Fellowship is just one of eight churches that governments are currently using eminent domain against, I wish that reporters were all over this. Unfortunately, it seems that print coverage has been more or less limited. Let’s look at how the Associated Press characterized the issue which, I’ll note, was very similar to the way the Long Beach Press-Telegram put it:

“We are a church. We are helpless. We have no place to go,” church pastor Roem Agustin said.

But redevelopment agency bureau manager Barbara Kaiser said the church was offered 13 alternative sites and the agency offered to pay for moving costs.

Well, if you’re like me and think that private property owners should have the right to keep their land no matter how much the government wants it for a baseball stadium or condominium developments, it doesn’t matter if the church doesn’t like the government’s offer. And if you’re like me and think this goes double for houses of worship, it really doesn’t matter if the church doesn’t like the government’s offer. But most people would see this and think the church was being unreasonable. Is that the end of the story? Is there any other information readers should have? Baptist Press, which has covered this story well, spoke with the church’s attorney, John Eastman:

“Well, let me tell you about the properties they’ve offered. Most of them were vacant lots,” he told BP. “It’s a little hard to hold a church service in a vacant lot. Several of them were leases, not buildings to own. [The church members] own this one, and they want to have a church that they own so they’re not at the whim of a landlord.

“So you take all those off the table. Almost all of the others were in other parts of the redevelopment area, where they could be forced to move out a couple of years down the road when the city gets around to developing that block,” he added. . . .

Some of the alternative sites the city offered the church included a bar and two gas stations. Most of the properties had no parking or less parking than the church has at its current location, and there was no guarantee that the city would give the church a conditional use permit without ensuring the parking was up to code, Eastman said.

“None of these were suitable alternatives because they wouldn’t have been able to have their church,” he said. “Giving you 13 different addresses doesn’t mean they’ve given you 13 different suitable alternatives.”

This level of explanation should be available in the wire or local news reports. But, more importantly, this broader story should be getting more coverage.

Every body is religious

05328151425 eyesA few years ago I was in Czech Republic to witness the baptism of a dear friend. We went to Kutna Hora, home to the beautiful Sv. Barbory (Saint Barbara) Cathedral, one of the most famous Gothic churches in Europe. From Jan Svankmajer’s film, I knew of an ossuary nearby that I wanted to visit. Hana repeatedly told me that I shouldn’t go, but I insisted.

She was probably right. A chapel made out of creative arrangements of the bones of 40,000 humans is, it seems, not for the weak. Finding out that it was made in the late 19th century, instead of 500 years earlier, only made it worse. It provoked in me a deeper appreciation for more private cemeteries and resting places.

I thought of this experience when reading Denver Post writer Eric Gorski’s interesting piece on an exhibition of human bodies that is touring the country. I enjoy reading Gorski because he takes the time to understand the nuances of religious issues. So many religion reporters think that they can explain complex religious issues by talking to people on opposite sides of an issue. Gorski tries to explain issues by differentiating seemingly similar views.

He looks at an exhibition in which corpses have their skin removed to show muscles and nerves. The corpses are put in bizarre positions, too, like swinging a baseball bat:

The exhibit raises questions about the existence of a creator, when life begins and the afterlife. Displaying actual cadavers — a sight usually reserved for medical students — also raises ethical and religious issues.

He talks to various religious leaders about their concerns, finding most clerics to be generally supportive. However, two of his Muslim sources disagree about whether the exhibit is okay. I found the following quote from the executive director of the Colorado Southern Baptist General Convention to be very interesting:

“The body is a beautiful miracle — a major proof of the creator,” [Mark] Edlund said. “In a cadaver there is no soul, no spirit. I see no Christian ethics involved.”

bodyworksI am sure this is the view of Southern Baptists, but I just thought it was fascinating. Think of how the spread of Christianity — with its central belief in the resurrection of the body — led to major changes in the way people dealt with the human body after death. The early Christians would have universally disapproved of such treatment of the human form. They strenuously advocated burial of the human body — contrary to many customs of the time. Obviously things have changed drastically in Christianity — with many churches supporting the cremation that early Christians worked so hard to eradicate. I am certain that some scholars or religious leaders who represent the historic Christian position could have been found, but the wide variety of belief mentioned in Gorski’s piece was interesting. I also appreciated that he found out a bit about the religious views of the exhibit’s creator:

As for the man behind it all, [Dr. Gunther] von Hagens told Colorado reporters last week he was baptized a Protestant behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany and did not see the inside of a church for 17 years.

Von Hagens describes his belief system now as largely agnostic.

Does the master anatomist believe in an afterlife? Did souls once dwell in his ballet dancer, his soccer player, his man at leisure?

“I think my brain is not constructed to answer those questions,” he said.

Too many reporters would listen to an agnostic such as von Hagens and deem his religious views unworthy of mention. But it’s important when writing about one source’s religious motivation to seek out information about everyone’s religious motivation.

Data sets are our friends

mathematicsDahlia Lithwick, an intrepid senior editor for Slate, has a piece up (a version of which also ran in the Washington Post yesterday) that makes the case for gay marriage and laws protecting gay parents. Reporters frequently cover gay marriage issues, but gay parenting rights are also in need of thoughtful analysis (the links below are to PDF files):

A heads-up to those of you still fretting about the alleged evils of gay marriage: The parade has moved on. Try as you may to vote or legislate your way out of a country that solemnizes such relationships, committed gay couples are already giving birth to, adopting, and fostering children. Whether or not same-sex marriage becomes widely legal in America, same-sex parenting is a done deal. . . .

According to the 2000 census, 34 percent of female same-sex households and 22 percent of male ones include children. Good data are extremely hard to obtain here, but the Lambda Legal Defense Fund estimates that 6 million to 10 million gay parents are caring for 6 million to 14 million children in this country.

And that does seem very decisive. One of my close gay friends is in a relationship in which he helps care for his partner’s children every other weekend. Another friend and former colleague moved with his partner to Ohio to be near his offspring. In both cases the men with children were previously married and seem to be very loving fathers. In neither case do the men serve as primary caregivers. But the data made me pause because the vast, vast majority of gay men and women I know who have absolutely no children in their lives. It could be that I know an extremely non-representative sample of gays, but let’s look deeper at the data.

There are only 78.1 million children under the age of 18, according to 2000 census data. Even though reliable data suggest the percentage is much smaller, let’s be generous and say that 5 percent of the United States population is gay. Does it really make sense that 5 percent of the population is caring for up to 18 percent of the children?

The census data that Lithwick links to says:

A reflection of changing life styles is mirrored in Census 2000′s enumeration of 5.5 million couples who were living together but who were not married, up from 3.2 million in 1990. These unmarried-partner households were self identified on the census form as being maintained by people who were sharing living quarters and who also had a close personal relationship with each other. The majority of these unmarried-partner households had partners of the opposite sex (4.9 million) but about 1 in 9 (594,000) had partners of the same sex. Of these same-sex unmarried-partner households, 301,000 had male partners and 293,000 had female partners.

mathbookOkay, so if 22 percent of male-male households have children, that’s 66,220 male gay couples with children they care for. And if 34 percent of female-female households have children, that’s 99,620 female couples that have children they care for. Same-sex households that aren’t gay are also included here, I should note, but let’s just leave that out of the equation.

So if gay couples are caring for up to 14 million children, as Lathwick states, that means that the 165,840 gay households with children in America care for an average of 36 to 84 kids.

Now perhaps she meant to include gay households such as the ones I mentioned earlier — which would completely change her argument since her point is “Try as you may to vote or legislate your way out of a country that solemnizes such relationships, committed gay couples are already giving birth to, adopting, and fostering children.” Also, from both a judicial and social analysis standpoint, caring for children and caring for children occasionally are two very different things.

Anyway, perhaps it is true that the average gay household with children includes 84 kids under the age of 18. Or, perhaps, Lithwick got a bit overzealous in her attempt to make a point.

Big Love, bigger questions

BigLoveMy fiance reviewed the new HBO drama Big Love for the New York Sun this week — which meant I got to watch the first several episodes before they air. It’s a very compelling show that normalizes polygamy. In real life, polygamists are known for raping family members, forcing underage girls into marriage, and living on the dole. In HBOland, polygamists are attractive and upright citizens who you’d let watch your children. But, again, if you set apart the obvious agenda against traditional values, it’s an excellent show that begins airing tomorrow night.

There have been many thought-provoking criticisms of the new show, and nearly everyone is in agreement that it’s well done. On National Review Online, Louis Wittig wrote that the slippery slope has become a high-speed luge track:

In late 2004, amid a boiling gay-marriage debate, law professor Jonathan Turley argued the case for legalizing polygamy in a USA Today op-ed. But, he added:

[The] day of social acceptance will never come for polygamists. It is unlikely that any network is going to air The Polygamist Eye for the Monogamist Eye or add a polygamist twist to Everybody Loves Raymond.

Ha ha ha! Fifteen months later and a cable network has, in fact, built an entire show around polygamy. The show goes out of its way to note that the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints banned polygamy in the late 19th century. In fact, much of the show is about a breakoff Mormon sect that does support polygamy coexisting in the same Utah as the Mormons who do not support polygamy. What’s more, the main polygamist family actually doesn’t go to any church at all, having broken away from a polygamist compound. The show, and the disclaimer at the end, are causing quite the stir in Utah.

The Salt Lake Tribune, which has to be one of the few papers with an actual polygamy category, looks into the controversy. Unfortunately, the piece is poorly written and lacks an understanding of the religious issues at hand. I wonder why Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Trib‘s excellent religion reporter, didn’t cover it. Thankfully, AP writer Debbie Hummel wrote a great piece about the stirrings in Utah:

Everyone from practicing polygamists to the Mormon church — which shunned the practice more than a century ago — are anxiously anticipating the fallout from the show about a Utah polygamist and his three sometimes desperate housewives.

Some worry that the series will perpetuate stereotypes from which the state and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long sought to distance themselves. Others fear it will diminish the crimes, such as child abuse, reported in some of the state’s secretive polygamous sects. And polygamists say they’re sure the series won’t accurately portray the “boring” reality of their lives.

polygamy pinThe entire article is well-written and very interesting. Polygamy is definitely a bigger issue in some areas of the country — with rather large compounds in Arizona and Utah and — than others. The Rocky Mountain News has done an excellent job with polygamy coverage for many years. The paper has run lengthy investigative series and short updates on the abnormal communities. But for this story, Hummel kicks the competition. Here’s more:

In 1843, church founder Joseph Smith said he had a revelation from God allowing the practice of plural marriage. In 1890, a subsequent church president, Wilford Woodruff, made public a revelation declaring that church members should stop practicing polygamy. The federal government had required the Utah territory end its endorsement of polygamy as a condition of statehood. Utah became a state in 1896.

Speaking not in a theological way at all, Joseph Smith did an amazing job of launching a successful church. But that polygamy thing has had a staying power that I bet many Mormons regret. Polygamy was only practiced for 47 years, although it was huge during those years, and has been banned for 116 years. And yet “Mormon” is probably one of the first words people think of when they hear the word “polygamy.” For that reason, it’s important for reporters to be very clear about the relationship Mormons have with polygamy:

Polygamy isn’t an issue for modern-day Mormons, said church spokesman Michael Otterson, adding that members understand why polygamy is no longer practiced. . .

He’s also worried that the church could lose some of the ground it has gained in educating the public about the differences between the mainstream church and splinter fundamentalist groups that practice polygamy.

“This, I think, is going to undo some of that. Because you only have to mention Salt Lake City and polygamy and Mormons in the same breath and people will start to get those old stereotypes again,” he said.

I’m not so sure. The show is so obviously a thinly veiled campaign for gay marriage that I think the Mormon issues are secondary. Also, I’d sure love a reporter to ask Turley about his failed prediction.

The difference between Jesus and God

GodBless2Cathy Grossman has a profile of Franklin Graham in USA Today. It’s a really thorough and conversational piece that contrasts Franklin with his more famous father, Billy:

Billy Graham, who told the world everyone would be welcome in heaven if they just walked God’s way, retired after his June crusade in New York.

Now comes the controversial son, who never fails to say Jesus is the only way.

Did you catch that? I’m convinced Grossman can’t write about the Grahams without describing the father as inclusive and the son as exclusive.

Here’s a passage from her story last May, headlined “The gospel of Billy Graham: Inclusion“:

Franklin, however, has a more exclusive view of where and how to share the faith. Billy Graham always prayed “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” at nine presidential swearing-in ceremonies or related events.

But Franklin caused a stir by praying at George W. Bush’s first inauguration “in Jesus’ name.”

I remember this passage because I found it so interesting that praying in the name of the Triune God could be considered inclusive and yet mentioning Jesus — just one part of the Triune God — was exclusive.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that Franklin has a different style than his father, but I really am not sure that the examples she cites show a different understanding of either the exclusivity or inclusivity of Christ.

It turns out I’m not the only person who feels this way. This is from this year’s article:

Franklin objects to his media image as the “exclusive” counterpart to Billy’s image of “inclusion,” although the only way visitors will be able to enter the library is through doors cut into a three-story glass cross on the end of the building.

“You have to go through the cross,” he says, again with that crinkle-eyed smile. . . .

Americans of every faith — and none — were accustomed to Billy Graham, who used more inclusive language at civic events, such as Lord, God, Father, than he did at crusades intended for winning souls to Christ.

pledgegodIt wasn’t until I got to this part of the story that I realized what was going on. Grossman is pointing out, possibly without realizing it, that Billy Graham was the master practitioner of two religions — the Christian religion, in which he ran crusades and worked as an evangelist, and the civil religion, in which he supported the state by praying with presidents and marking sad and happy national events.

In civil religious ceremonies it is considered rather gauche to mention that you believe your fellow countrymen’s souls are in eternal jeopardy. That’s because the job of civil religionists is to unite the country behind shared values like patriotism. Like it or not, the cross of Christ is not a shared value of Americans. At civil religious events, the gathered pray to or acknowledge an anonymous, generic, all-purpose God who blesses Americans more than any other people. Civil religion also honors the country’s military and remembers the saints (usually presidents) who went before. The Pledge of Allegiance is a good example of civil religion. Despite the love affair some Christians have with it, it is not in any way distinguishably Christian. The battles over whether to recite the pledge — with the dreadfully imprecise God phrase — are battles over civil religion.

A guide for journalists trying to understand the issue mentions the importance of not getting doctrinally specific when using civil religion in inaugural events:

It is crucial that presidents never mention “Jesus” or “Christ” in this context, which would cross the line from civil religion into sacral religion. American civil religion transcends denomination and religious affiliation. The “Almighty” of civil religion could be Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Even Wiccans might feel kinship with Jefferson’s “Nature’s God.” Strict atheists, however, would be alienated.

So there you go. It would be good for reporters to help readers see the distinction between Christianity, other religions and civil religion when making the case about exclusivity or inclusivity.

South Dakota reconsiderations

dcfightEven though our reputation is only slightly above ex-cons, I’m extremely proud to be a reporter.

Most journalists, or at least the ones I’m privileged to know, strive to be fair and helpful in their coverage of contentious and confusing stories. Most succeed. In fact, the number one thing that surprised me about reporters — when, in my second career, I became one and dwelt in their midst — was that they managed to be so fair given how liberal they are personally. It’s true, reporters are more or less liberal. But having personal convictions does not make you biased. Being a sloppy, lazy and unethical reporter makes you biased.

But there is one issue where it’s harder to find good coverage than bad. There is one issue where we do such a horrible job covering it that it makes me ashamed: abortion. I have thought about it for years and have been unable to figure out why reporters tend to botch portrayals of the opposing sides or fail to dig into the non-political aspects of the issue. From style guides on down to local reports of protests, journalists forget much of what they learned when they work on this issue.

Which is why I continue to be so thankful for Stephanie Simon on the faith and values beat at the Los Angeles Times. She found a really interesting angle for her story on the South Dakota abortion ban: how opposing sides on the abortion issue are dealing with making political compromises for their cause.

Some foes of abortion — fearful that South Dakota has moved too far, too fast — now find themselves reluctantly opposing efforts to protect all fetal life from the moment of conception. They are even angling to block another abortion ban that seems likely to pass in Mississippi.

For their part, some abortion-rights activists feel they must acknowledge the sentiment behind the South Dakota ban by assuring America that they, too, regard abortion as a grave moral concern. But such language outrages others in their movement, especially abortion doctors, who feel it stigmatizes and alienates their patients.

That some pro-lifers wish this South Dakota ban had not passed is fairly well known. But that pro-choice activists are considering reshaping their message is news. Mark Stricherz, a really smart friend who is a Roman Catholic and populist writer, has been following the Democrat abortion debates regularly. Yet I haven’t really seen good mainstream news coverage of the political questions pro-choice activists and Democrats are asking.

While the Republican Party is officially pro-life, many of its members and elected representatives are not. On the Democrat side, there has been a striking decline over the last couple of decades in the percentage of elected members of Congress who oppose legalized abortion. There has also been a striking decline in political power, which I wrote about recently. That’s leading some Democrat strategists to wonder whether pro-choice orthodoxy is such a good idea. Of course, this debate is happening at the same time that Kate Michelman is considering entering the Pennsylvania Senate race to thwart the chances of Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat.

abortionIn other words, this is a great story for the political and religion beats. Here, Simon looks at the various views on the pro-choice side:

The liberal think tank Third Way is circulating a memo on Capitol Hill advising politicians who support abortion rights to recalibrate their message. Instead of stressing a woman’s right to choose, they should tell voters that they support “personal liberty,” but accept that it’s a “moral responsibility” to reduce the number of abortions. (That number has declined steadily from a peak of 1.43 million in 1990 to 1.29 million in 2002, the latest year statistics are available.)

A number of abortion-rights activists have bought into that strategy. They’ve been on the defensive for more than two decades, ever since conservative and fundamentalist Christians began pushing social issues like abortion to the forefront of political debate. . . .

Such tactical positioning infuriates Dr. Warren Hern, who runs an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colo. He, too, would like to see fewer women with unwanted pregnancies; he counsels all his patients on contraception. But in his view, the availability of safe, legal abortions should be a cause for national pride — not shame. . . .

One out of every three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. . . .

Above all, [National Women's Health Organization president Susan Hill] said: “We have to stop apologizing” for the nation’s abortion rate — and start mobilizing the millions of women “who believe it was the best choice for them.”

This jockeying among Democrats and the pro-choice advocates with whom they are so closely entwined should not have caught reporters by surprise. Strategist James Carville has been openly discussing losses in membership from Roman Catholics for almost a year.


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