One of the most important things that journalists get to do is pick the right words to describe complex situations, especially when defining what religious believers do or do not believe.
Thus, I have a question about the top two paragraphs in a Washington Post report by Christopher Lee about the work of the Bush White House’s choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Pay close attention, because here’s the lede:
Despite his work for a Christian pregnancy counseling group that opposes contraception, the physician who yesterday began overseeing federal family-planning programs has prescribed birth control for his patients, a Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman said.
And here are the two subsequent paragraphs:
Eric Keroack, a nationally known advocate of abstinence until marriage, served for more than a decade as medical director for A Woman’s Concern, a Massachusetts nonprofit group that discourages abortion and does not distribute information promoting birth control. But HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson said yesterday that most of Keroack’s professional time had been devoted to his private practice of 20 years, not the group.
“When he was in private practice as a doctor, he did prescribe birth control,” Pearson said. “And he did family planning with patients at their request as part of his private physician role.” She said Keroack has prescribed contraceptives for both married and unmarried women.
Now forget for a moment the issue of whether Keroack, as a private physician, prescribed contraceptives. Note that the work of A Woman’s Concern is described in two rather different — I would say inconsistent — ways.
In the lede we are told that this countercultural women’s center “opposes contraception.”
Then, in the second paragraph, we are told that the group “does not distribute information promoting birth control.”
Well, which is it? Does the center actively oppose contraception, which I would assume means that it attempts to convince women and men not to use contraception, or does it simply decline to actively provide information about how to obtain and use contraception? Is the group trying to remain silent on the issue?
And why would that be? I would assume A Woman’s Concern is a ministry that works with volunteers, donors and doctors who are Roman Catholic, as well as Protestant. In other words, the coalition that backs the center may include people who have a spectrum of different beliefs — a diversity of beliefs, even — on moral issues linked to birth control and when it should or should not be used.
The Roman Catholic Church heirarchy actively opposes contraception, although most American Catholics do not. Many Protestant groups do not oppose contraception, but many Protestants hesitate to urge the use of birth control by young people without the knowledge of their parents. There are a variety of other stances that modern pro-life Christians take on issues linked to contraception. Members of all of these groups are often active in the work of crisis pregnancy centers. These are ecumenical and, in some cases, interfaith coalitions.
I bring this up because there are signs — note this E.J. Dionne Jr. column — that Democrats, including some pro-life Democrats, are going to do everything they can to craft legislation that will allow them to be seen as opposing abortion without having to make any legislative compromises that might actively limit some abortions. In a way, I think this is a good thing, especially if it focuses more attention on the ways that poverty forces many women into abortions they do not want. It will be good to have public debate on these issues.
However, this is going to lead to complex debates about moral and religious issues linked to birth control, and I think it would be a good thing for journalists to realize that it will be important to accurately describe who believes what.
At the same time, it will be interesting to see if Democrats — as well as journalists — can find a way to work with conservative Roman Catholics and to let them remain active in public life. It’s hard to address issues of poverty and health care in North America without running into the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants who respect the Catholic Church.