Getting right with God and government

It was only four years ago that Catholic Charities of Boston announced that it was getting out of the adoption business in order to comply with new state laws dealing with sexual orientation discrimination and same-sex marriage. Last month the District of Columbia, where I live, voted to legalize same-sex marriage.

Let me be clear: Our notorious City Council decided to change the law on this matter and efforts to allow the actual residents of the city to vote were successfully fought. That means DC Catholic Charities had to choose between obeying church teaching on the sanctity of life and continuing to have contracts with the city government to assist with adoptions and foster care.

And that’s not the only unintended consequence of the new ruling. Here’s the Washington Post‘s William Wan reporting on the latest:

Starting Tuesday, Catholic Charities will not offer benefits to spouses of new employees or to spouses of current employees who are not already enrolled in the plan. A letter describing the change in health benefits was e-mailed to employees Monday, two days before same-sex marriage will become legal in the District.

“We looked at all the options and implications,” said the charity’s president, Edward J. Orzechowski. “This allows us to continue providing services, comply with the city’s new requirements and remain faithful to the church’s teaching.”

It’s been years since the warnings and concerns about how introducing same-sex marriage would affect religious freedom ceased being theoretical. This Post story is good. It’s a very straightforward account that focuses almost exclusively on the news and doesn’t include much analysis from folks on various sides of the religious and political issues. But before you do analysis, you need the news and this is a good piece packed with information.

But I don’t think we’ve seen anything close to the amount or type of coverage that this issue warrants. When I think of mainstream coverage of the tension between gay rights and religious freedom, I can think of one piece that ran in NPR two years ago. Consider this quote from the article I linked to earlier in the week by traditional marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher:

I PUT THE QUESTION to Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund is widely recognized as one of the best religious liberty law firms and the only one that defends the religious liberty of all faith groups, “from Anglicans to Zoroastrians,” as its founder Kevin J. Hasson likes to say (referring to actual clients the Becket Fund has defended).

Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?

“The impact will be severe and pervasive,” Picarello says flatly. “This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations.” Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don’t even notice that “the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it’s easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter.”

So we’ll have points of conflict everywhere, great uncertainty about how to resolve these issues, and have the media really treated the issue with the seriousness that it deserves?

Take this USA Today blog treatment of the most recent news. Here’s how a recent post looking at how Catholic organizations follow Catholic teaching begins:

If the sign says “Catholic,” then, by golly, it had better be by-the-book Catholic. That’s what U.S. bishops and agency heads are saying as they make moves across the country to ensure the Church’s directives, particularly on marriage and sexuality are followed to the letter by everyone who flies the brand flag.

As opposed to what, by golly? I’m not Catholic but I would hope that any church leadership worth their salt would encourage everyone in the church to follow both the letter and the spirit of God’s law. Some of us even think that what the church has to say is just as or possibly even more important as what my city council thinks at a given moment. Maybe some people think that “everyone who flies the Catholic brand flag” should just bend their practices to whatever winds blow their way, but that’s not really the way the traditional church has operated over the years.

And while some people think that the most important civil rights issue in the world right now involves allowing two people of the same sex to marry each other, others actually think that this is a pernicious idea on several fronts (none of which ever seem to be explored by the media). And no matter what people think about the issue of changing marriage law, few scholars will disagree that this will have affect religious freedom. There is major tension. It’s happening wherever legislators and judges impose same-sex marriage. Let’s start seeing some more substantive mainstream coverage.

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Abortion: black and white issue?

A fair piece on abortion? Believe it or not, it can be done. I was pleasantly surprised by the ground covered in Saturday’s front-page article on anti-abortion groups courting blacks in The New York Times. This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, but it has been in the news lately because of 80 billboards appearing in Georgia (right).

A search on suggests this is the first time the Times has covered Lila Rose’s work and made more than a brief mention of Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King Jr. Here are the key paragraphs from reporter Shaila Dewan:

The factors fueling the focus on black women–an abortion rate far higher than that of other races and the ties between the effort to legalize and popularize birth control and eugenics–are, at heart, old news. But they have been given exaggerated new life by the Internet, slick repackaging, high production values and money, like the more than $20,000 that Georgia Right to Life invested in the billboards.

Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.

Overall, the story packs in a lot of information and quotes from both sides, weaving in history, ethics, and anecdotes for a solid story. I was, however, disappointed to read this sweeping generalization:

Across the country, the anti-abortion movement, long viewed as almost exclusively white and Republican, is turning its attention to African-Americans and encouraging black abortion opponents across the country to become more active.

Almost exclusively white? Viewed by whom? I realize Houston may not be representative of the country (then again, neither is New York), but if you watch this Houston Chronicle video of an thousand-plus anti-abortion protest in January, you won’t see an exclusively white crowd.

If I can pick on a one more part of the story, I found this quote on Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, quite unsatisfactory.

Scholars acknowledge that Sanger did ally herself with eugenics, at the time a mainstream movement, but said she believed that birth control, sterilization and abortion should be voluntary and not based on race. She was also allied with black leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. King, who praised her efforts to bring birth control to black families.

“It’s unfair to characterize those efforts as racially targeted in a negative way,” said Ellen Chesler, a historian and Sanger biographer, who is now on the board of Planned Parenthood.

The quote feels pretty obligatory since it doesn’t offer anything but an opinion from someone who sits on Planned Parenthood’s board. Couldn’t the reporter find someone a little less connected to the organization?

Those points aside, it’s good to see the Times tackle a tough subject. If the story could have been lengthened, I’d be curious what people in the movement think about the rhetoric being used in these strategies. Are people on both or either side questioning the use of the word genocide, for example?

Joshunda Sanders of the Austin American-Statesman writes about her experience covering a 40 day vigil abortion clinics last fall.

[T]he New York Times piece points to a national trend I thought the activists mentioned to me because I’m black, not because it was a new angle for the anti-abortion movement …

When I talked to Sheri Danze and others outside of the clinic, they mentioned that Margaret Sanger had a plan to wipe out black people via abortion. While I took notes respectfully, it sounded like an extremist version of history that might take years to verify. So I disregarded that and wrote about what was verifiable. I honestly also felt like I was being baited, like they wanted me to lead any stories with the fact that abortion providers are not only, in their opinion, morally corrupt, but also racist.

I have a feeling that more reporters are reluctant to write about Sanger and these issues. Put race, abortion and religion into the same story and your letters inbox might explode.

Finally, I would have also liked to see the Times explore the role of the black religious community. It’s not absent from the story, but it doesn’t play a prominent role. Here’s more from Sanders:

Still, the cultural divide in the recruiting of black churches and abortion opponents might be underscored by an economic one. Studies have shown that abortion in the U.S. has declined, but there have been increased among low-income women who are black and Latino. This cultural argument in the anti-abortion movement also interests me because it might be the few places of activist overlap between traditionally black churches and predominately white churches. As black history month draws to a close, I’ve been thinking about what seems like a permanent gap between the world of black churches and other houses of worship, and what it will take to bridge that gap.

More reporters could look into stories along these lines. I’d be curious, for example, if pro-life groups are partnering with black churches. Hopefully more reporters can follow the Times‘s lead and put a local face on these issues.

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Family values and the NCAA

If you’re part of an organization trying to get your message out, you usually have to spend money to place ads where people can see them. Communications shops usually prefer getting stories written about them. Not only is it free but you can communicate more thoroughly with your audience. So while Focus on the Family seems to have been running more advertisements as of late, they have to be taking note of all the earned media they’re getting.

First there was the Superbowl ad controversy. And now there’s this:

The National Collegiate Athletic Association removed a Focus on the Family banner ad from one of its Web sites this week, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said Wednesday.

The NCAA made the decision after some of its members – including faculty and athletic directors – expressed concern that the evangelical group’s stance against gay and lesbian relationships conflicted with the NCAA’s policy of inclusion regardless of sexual orientation, Williams said.

The ad in question was not about sexuality. It featured a father holding his son and the words, “All I want for my son is for him to grow up knowing how to do the right thing.” Like the Tebow ad, it included the address of Focus on the Family’s Web site and the slogan, “Celebrate Family. Celebrate Life.”

Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger said that if such material were “all of a sudden labeled hate speech, we have deeper problems in our country than we even know.”

It’s enough to make the conspiratorially minded among us wonder whether Focus is baiting its critics into appearing intolerant and histrionic.

The above excerpt comes from an Associated Press report written by none other than Eric Gorski. He had moved on to the higher education beat, about which I’m still terribly upset, a few weeks ago. But here he was able to blend his understanding of the religion beat, his longtime coverage of Focus from his days as a reporter in Colorado Springs, and his new beat. It works well and the story is very balanced and informative.

Inside Higher Ed ran a piece that reads like it comes from inside higher ed. It’s very sympathetic to the NCAA position. So, for instance, we learn that Focus on the Family (but not its critics) “created a stir” when the group announced it would run a pro-family ad during the Superbowl:

(When the Focus on the Family ad actually aired, some commentators suggested that critics had overreacted, because the conservative group soft pedaled its often strident message by featuring Tebow’s mother celebrating the fact that he had made it “into this world” despite her very rough pregnancy — before showing the former University of Florida star, an outspoken Christian, apparently tackling her.)

I’m not sure why that excerpt is in parentheses but I think the use of the word “strident” indicates the perspective of the reporter. (Strident: making or having a harsh sound; grating; or having a shrill, irritating quality or character.) As does this excerpt which comes after a brief description of the ad:

That message may seem innocuous, Pat Griffin, an emerita professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in an interview Tuesday, “but if you have any awareness of what Focus on the Family is and their position on issues of family and life” — championing traditional definitions of marriage, deeming homosexuality to be immoral, and fighting to eliminate abortion — it’s very clear what their message is…. It’s very disingenuous to say, those are innocent messages, messages anyone can join in.”

The reporter doesn’t bother finding anyone to defend the ad (pictured below), defend free debate, or suggest that Pat Griffin’s views are in any way objectionable.

Now maybe the pulling of a small ad from a website isn’t big news. But one of the big reasons why I’ve developed an interest in media coverage of gay activism is because of the fact that so many stories about gay rights involve tension with religious organizations. I was reading this amazingly prescient 2006 story by traditional marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher that predicted quite a few legal, academic and civil rights struggles as they relate to the push for same-sex marriage. Here’s a brief excerpt from a portion dealing with scholarship on the topic:

Generally speaking the scholars most opposed to gay marriage were somewhat less likely than others to foresee large conflicts ahead–perhaps because they tended to find it “inconceivable,” as Doug Kmiec of Pepperdine law school put it, that “a successful analogy will be drawn in the public mind between irrational, and morally repugnant, racial discrimination and the rational, and at least morally debatable, differentiation of traditional and same-sex marriage.” That’s a key consideration. For if orientation is like race, then people who oppose gay marriage will be treated under law like bigots who opposed interracial marriage. Sure, we don’t arrest people for being racists, but the law does intervene in powerful ways to punish and discourage racial discrimination, not only by government but also by private entities. Doug Laycock, a religious liberty expert at the University of Texas law school, similarly told me we are a “long way” from equating orientation with race in the law.

By contrast, the scholars who favor gay marriage found it relatively easy to foresee looming legal pressures on faith-based organizations opposed to gay marriage, perhaps because many of these scholars live in social and intellectual circles where the shift Kmiec regards as inconceivable has already happened. They have less trouble imagining that people and groups who oppose gay marriage will soon be treated by society and the law the way we treat racists because that’s pretty close to the world in which they live now.

It’s safe to say that the values regarding marriage espoused my most religious groups are not shared by most people in newsrooms. And this is a really serious difference of opinion about what marriage is. I wonder if it’s not just scholars who live in social and intellectual circles where the shift has happened but for many journalists, too.

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‘Enjoy the baby, feed the baby’

Surely, somewhere in America or the world at large there are a few atheist or agnostic women who are active in the La Leche League network that encourages modern women to breastfeed their babies. There must be a few.

But if there are, I have never met any of them or read any coverage — mainstream or otherwise — of their work, and my wife and I tend to hang out with a pretty laid back, natural cotton, Birki-wearing, Earth Mother-esque kind of crowd. It seems that there is some kind of connection between a faith-friendly lifestyle and breastfeeding, a practice that remains counter-cultural in some social circles.

Thus, I enjoyed the wonderful New York Times piece this week — “The Breast Whisperer” — describing the life and times of Freda Rosenfeld of Brooklyn. Here is the top of the report:

Amy Brill, a writer who lives in Windsor Terrace, survived nine months and six days of pregnancy, then 40 hours of labor. But after a few days of nursing, she was in excruciating pain, crying every time her baby latched on. Ms. Brill’s pediatrician wrote out a phone number as if it were a prescription. “Call this woman,” he said. “She’s seen every new mom in Brooklyn.”

Not quite, but over the last five years this woman, Freda Rosenfeld, has seen some 2,000 new moms, some of them multiple times, and many with multiple babies at once.

Ms. Rosenfeld is part medical professional, part therapist and part sleuth; a hand-holder, tongue-coaxer, savior of sore nipples. At 52, she wears her chestnut hair in an ageless ponytail and bangs, dressing in long denim skirts — the better to get spit up on — and cruises the borough with a “got breastmilk?” bumper sticker on her minivan.

Clearly, this woman is a professional and the story does a good job of describing that. She knows her stuff.

Yet, early on, it’s easy to see that there is more to this for her than business. In every sense of the word, what she is providing for these women, children and their families is a ministry.

Thus, there is no surprise when we learn, near the end of the story:

… Ms. Rosenfeld has spent her whole life in Brooklyn; she knows alternate-side parking regulations well enough that she schedules appointments in certain neighborhoods at odd times, like 10:10 or 11:35.

A religious Jew, she starts each day with morning prayers, followed by yoga and 20 minutes jumping on the trampoline in the basement. Her face is makeup-free, usually framed by dangly earrings. When things get tense in a session, she lightens the mood by cooing, making faces and uttering ridiculous nicknames like “Bu-ja-boo!”

Having raised eyebrows as a teenager by going vegetarian and swearing off soda, Ms. Rosenfeld took a job after graduating from Brooklyn College at a nutrition center for low-income women, where her devotion to breast-feeding began. “To me, the breast-feeding was not just about better health for the baby, it was about these young girls realizing their baby is important,” she said. “I had 14-year-olds, and here was my opportunity not just to make these babies healthier but to make these mothers caring parents.”

The story is simply packed with carefully reported details, layer after layer after layer.

I, of course, would want to know more about her life as an Orthodox Jewish woman, which seems to be the case based in the content of the story, who helps modern women in this ultra-urban setting, a place where mothers may hear some smirking urbanites mutter “breeder” as they, with their multiple children, roll past on busy sidewalks.

But the key religion details are woven into the story. The ghost is there for all who have eyes to see.

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Covering conception complexities

Octomom Nadya Suleman and her entourage of nannies caravan the octuplets and the twins to a park in Los Angeles

My husband and I have been blessed with two wonderful children and we hope to have more. Sometimes I reflect on how grateful I am that we were able to conceive these children without any trouble. I have more than a few friends that have been unable to procreate and I know it has been terribly difficult for them.

As difficult and expensive as much reproductive assistance is, some people have even greater difficulty because they have religious objections to some of the most popular methods. One of the little-discussed issues with in vitro fertilization, for instance, is that it usually produces many more embryos than will ever be implanted. Assisted reproduction is a huge issue, with tons of difficult details. Considering how many great human interest stories surround the topic, I’m surprised at how little coverage we read of the issue. (Here was a great in-depth Tennessean report on the issue that we looked at last year.)

I was elated to read St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend’s piece on recent Catholic news about infertility treatment. The bishops approved a new document called “Life-giving Love in an Age of Technology” at their fall meeting in Baltimore.

The story has been published widely, appearing in the Washington Post.

Here’s how he begins, framing — with ease — the issue in terms of the Christian understanding of reproduction:

“Be fruitful,” God instructed Adam and Eve, “and multiply.”

They were the first words God spoke to his creation, and his creation has heeded them ever since. But over the years, God’s creation has become sophisticated enough to rewrite the original rules of being fruitful, and most of the new rules don’t sit well with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

Nice. He goes on to explain that Philadelphia’s Cardinal Justin Rigali believes there is great confusion among Catholics regarding the morality of reproductive technologies. Many bishops, we learn, hold masses for infertile couples:

On one hand, bishops need to educate Catholics about the church’s moral stance on assisted reproductive technologies. On the other, they also need to minister to Catholic couples suffering through the heartache of infertility, many of whom believe their church seems intent on contributing to that heartache by putting up roadblocks to medically assisted pregnancy.

The story gets into the nitty gritty of what is acceptable and what is not. Basically, any technology that supports conjugal acts and resulting conception is fine — anything else is not. We also learn why the Catholic Church teaches that way:

For instance, church teaching is compatible with tests and treatment for low sperm count or problems with ovulation, but not with artificial insemination by anyone other than the husband. Even using the husband’s sperm is forbidden if it is obtained in any way other than normal intercourse.

“Children have a right to be conceived by the act that expresses and embodies their parents’ self-giving love,” according to the U.S. bishops. “Morally responsible medicine can assist this act but should never substitute for it.”

The story even gets into a bit of politics. Noting that American Catholics have a reputation for ignoring the church on various teachings, Townsend quotes a few scholars vociferously disagreeing with the bishops’ position. But he also gets a response. He gives each side sufficient space that I can’t even quote here and do everyone justice. Here’s a sample:

“American Catholics are no more going to listen to this than they listen to the church about birth control,” said Glenn McGee, a scholar at the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City.

Barbara Collura, executive director of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, a nonprofit patient advocacy organization in Virginia, said the bishops would have a hard time trying to explain to infertile Catholics “that the medical technology is there but not available to them; that their dream of a biological child is gone.”

But Catholic bioethicists say the point of the church’s position is to protect the dignity of children by honoring the church’s conception of natural law.

Some pretty salacious claims are made — one guy says that the Vatican is “bringing the hammer down” and looking to excommunicate Catholics whose children are created outside of church-approved means. Townsend also gets quotes from others saying the bishops are simply trying to provide Catholics a frame of reference by which to understand what is right and wrong. The doctrine is explained, and argued over by various sides, throughout the piece. I don’t think either side in this particular debate would feel that their views weren’t accurately expressed — even if the church would probably like more space to explain its teaching.

You don’t have to be Catholic, Christian or even religious to struggle with the ethical questions surrounding assisted reproduction. But religion clearly plays a role for many and this story does a nice job of looking at some of the tensions in one church body.

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Absolutely normal home schoolers

Years ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about a pagan mother and some of the parenting choices that she was making during an age in which pop-culture was becoming increasingly fascinated with its own glitzy few of witchcraft and wizardry. It was a Mother’s Day column.

In addition to deciding not to read the Harry Potter books to her children, she was also actively considering becoming a home-school mom. Her reasons, I discovered, were typical of others who have made that choice, including her conviction that public schools in American really could not afford to take religion very seriously, especially the beliefs of religious minorities. She wanted to be able to pass her beliefs on to the next generation.

This brings us to a perfectly normal news report in the Washington Post about homeschooling. Actually, that is not quite right. This story treats home schoolers with complete and total respect, which is not always the case in the mainstream press.

The news hook, of course, is the fact that the story centers on the choices made by Muslim families — here in the United States. Here is the top of the story by Tara Bahrampour:

On a chilly afternoon in western Loudoun County, a group of children used tweezers to extract rodent bones from a regurgitated owl pellet. A boy built a Lego projectile launcher. A girl practiced her penmanship. On the wall, placards read, “I fast in Ramadan,” “I pay zakat” and “I will go on hajj.”

Welcome to Priscilla Martinez’s home — and her children’s school, where Martinez is teacher, principal and guidance counselor, and where the credo “Allah created everything” is taught alongside math, grammar and science. Martinez and her six children, ages 2 to 12, are part of a growing number of Muslims who home-school. In the Washington area, Martinez says, she has seen the number of home-schoolers explode in the past five years.

Although three-quarters of the nation’s estimated 2 million home-schoolers identify themselves as Christian, the number of Muslims is expanding “relatively quickly,” compared with other groups, said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. … Parents say it is an attractive alternative to public schools, with whose traditions and values they are not always comfortable, and Islamic schools, which might be too far away, cost too much or lack academic rigor.

Read on. One of the most interesting elements of the story is that many Muslims, at first, shy away from home schooling because — like many immigrants before them — they are determined to succeed in America on its own terms. They want to show that they can take advantage of what mainstream American culture has to offer, including educational opportunities.

What makes them change their minds?

Maqsood and Zakia Khan of Sterling, who emigrated from Pakistan two decades ago, say home schooling has allowed them to enhance and internationalize their children’s curriculum. Now, in addition to the standard subjects, their children, ages 15, 14 and 9, study the Koran for a half an hour a day, one-on-one, with a woman who teaches them online from Pakistan. …

The Khans decided to home-school four years ago after a kindergarten teacher, unaware of the religious issues, told their son that he could not refuse school food in favor of the Islamic-sanctioned food he had brought from home. The food incident was small, but it highlighted the issues many Muslims say their children face every day as minorities who don’t celebrate Christmas, Halloween or birthday parties, who don’t eat pork and who fast during Ramadan.

As a convert to her faith, Martinez makes another point that will sound familiar to other parents in religious minorities in this nation. Yes, when I say that I would include the minority of Americans who are very, very dedicated evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, etc. The key word is “worldview.”

There are also religious reasons. “We definitely do learn from a different worldview,” she said. “Everything has God as its center. We don’t just study the bee, but we study what the Koran says about the bee and the many blessings and the honey. … We get religious studies out of it, we get biology out of it and chemistry.”

Read it all. If anything, this story leans too far in the direction of avoiding critical voices. This probably was not necessary, since home-school families are used to those kinds of debates.

Most of all, I was impressed that the Post allowed these parents to state their beliefs, without pinning shallow labels on them. Dare I say that this is an approach that might work well with other parents, in other faiths, that make the same decisions for the same reasons?

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Want to reproduce? Check your DNA

You can make fun of me, but I do, on occasion, watch Private Practice, where attractive doctors magically fix people and cheesy romance abounds. Compared to its sister show Grey’s Anatomy, it appears to be one of the only prime time television shows that consistently deals with serious medical ethics. In one recent show, for example, a Catholic doctor’s 15-year-old daughter gets pregnant. (Spoiler alert: the doctor wants her to have an abortion, but the girl chooses to keep it). Writers use such ethical scenarios for television drama, but people are faced with these kinds of decisions more often than we might think.

Turning from planet Hollywood to planet earth, the Associated Press reports on how some inherited diseases appear to be declining or disappearing. Good news, right? The catch is that its because more couples are undergoing prenatal genetic testing. Not until the third paragraph do we learn the number of babies born with cystic fibrosis has been cut in half because of abortion.

More couples with no family history of inherited diseases are getting tested before starting families to see if they carry mutations that put a baby at risk. And a growing number are screening embryos and using only those without problem genes.

The cost of testing is falling, and the number of companies offering it is rising. A 2008 federal law banning gene-based discrimination by insurers and employers has eased fears.

Reporter Marilynn Marchione offers a few examples of how couples are deciding not to have more children or screening embryos. What do religious leaders have to say about these recent developments?

Although genetic testing can raise moral dilemmas, at least one conservative religious group–Orthodox Jews–has found ethically acceptable ways to use it to lessen diseases that have plagued its populations.

“I am a Holocaust survivor. I was born in the middle of the second World War. I hope that I am not a suspect for practicing eugenics. We are trying to have healthy children,” said Rabbi Josef Ekstein of New York, who founded a group that tests couples and discourages matches when both carry problem genes.

I applaud her for at least finding a religious voice, but I find it odd that she would use one rabbi’s opinion and apply it to all of Orthodox Jews. I’d also be eager to see more voices here, especially from religious leaders who might be able to explain some theological thinking in these areas.

The reporter explains the impact of genetic testing in one study:

In California, Kaiser Permanente, a large health maintenance organization, offered prenatal screening. From 2006 through 2008, 87 couples with cystic fibrosis mutations agreed to have fetuses tested, and 23 were found to have the disease. Sixteen of the 17 fetuses projected to have the severest type of disease were aborted, as were four of the six fetuses projected to have less severe disease.

What’s unclear to me from the story, though, is how common it is for couples to get screened for diseases before a pregnancy. For example, this couple chose to have their baby despite risks because she saw an ultrasound.

Beth Meese, the Cleveland nurse who discovered from prenatal tests that she and her husband are carriers, wishes they had been screened before pregnancy. By the time they learned of their risk, they had seen an ultrasound and decided to have the baby no matter what its tests showed.

“We saw the baby, saw it moving,” she said. “It makes that decision that much more difficult to make.”

I’m also curious when in the pregnancy do doctors recommend taking genetic tests? Before the woman sees an ultrasound?

The reporter finds one voice who expresses caution:

Eliminating disease is a noble goal but also “should give us pause,” Lerner, the Columbia historian, wrote recently in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“If a society is so willing to screen aggressively to find these genes and then to potentially to have to abort the fetuses, what does that say about the value of the lives of those people living with the diseases?” he asked.

I’m surprised she could only find a historian’s written work to quote. Are practicing doctors raising these kinds of questions? The reporter ends her story on a note that leaves us feeling pretty warm and gushy about the idea of genetic testing.

It’s a touchy issue. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation points out that the disease varies greatly in severity, and life expectancy with it is now 37 years.

Diseases like familial dysautonomia and Tay-Sachs, which kill before school age, are easier cases. If one of those vanishes, “thank God,” said Rabbi Ekstein of the Jewish testing group. “It gives me a very good feeling that we are a part of such life-saving efforts.”

Overall, the majority of the story quotes physicians and cites studies. I know it’s difficult to fathom, but people do look to more than their doctor for expertise when considering life and death issues. Something tells me other religious leaders would be itching to weigh in.

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Oh my, even NYTs gets Blind Sided

Honest, I tried.

I have tried to avoid writing — again — about the interesting, and very late, mini-surge of interesting, nuanced mainstream coverage of the hit movie “The Blind Side.”

You may recall that I praised the work of the Los Angeles Times on this story, which is logical in light of its zip code, after all. Now, even the New York Times is on the story as we march toward the Oscars. I decided to wait on this one, rather than stack “The Blind Side” posts one atop another.

You could, of course, say that the New York Times is chasing all of those Los Angeles Times stories. You could say that. I would simply like to say that the East Coast crew got the story — one way or another. Progress is progress.

So what is the story? No, it isn’t that this little hit movie that turned into a blockbuster is important because of its respect for religious faith. This is not about some niche, contemporary Christian movie approach to the marketplace. That is not the story. The story is precisely the opposite and it took time for journalists to see that. Thus, the headline: “‘Blind Side’ Finds a Path to the Oscars by Running Up the Middle.” And the top of the story says:

LOS ANGELES – The whoops and giggles, heard at 5:42 a.m. on Tuesday as Anne Hathaway announced that “The Blind Side” was in the pool of 10 best picture nominees at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, were the sound of Hollywood surprising itself.

The film’s makers had created a deeply earnest picture aimed less at tastemakers than at people in the middle: sports fans, families, churchgoers and do-gooders.

Ouch. Faint praise indeed, but that’s accurate.

Unexpectedly, those middle-of-the-road fans had turned the movie into not merely a smash hit — … “The Blind Side” had taken in more than $238 million at the domestic box office and was still playing in about 1,750 theaters — but a genuine Oscar contender. Both the film and its lead actress, Sandra Bullock, received nominations. And even some of its backers were left puzzling over a question that has not often troubled the movie business lately: What went right?

The movie is the true story of Michael Oher and his rise from the bad streets of Memphis to the Baltimore Ravens, with the help of a Christian school and a rich Christian family that walked its talks. But the story of the movie focuses on writer-director John Lee Hancock, superstar Sandra Bullock and some entrepreneurs you have never heard of — unless you know quite a bit about Christians in the world of Bible Belt business.

Then again, the big story may be that unusual list of fans who bought the tickets.

Later on in the story, the Times team has to admit that women played a major role in the success of this movie. Apparently, lots of women who are willing to buy movie tickets go to church. Who knew?

Also, it seems that African-Americans go to church and the movies, especially intact black families. Who knew?

Read the story. And like I said, after you have read it, ponder the implications of this quiet success story on the challenges facing executives in other forms of mass media. If Hollywood can make millions appealing to the “normal” American middle, might other entrenched media elites?

Just asking. Again.

Photo: The writer-director and the star.

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