Babies and holy ghosts in Texas surrogate pregnancies story

Give the Austin American-Statesman credit for a couple of things.

First, the Texas newspaper has the start of a potentially fantastic, enlightening trend piece:

AUSTIN — A nurse spread gel on Nicole Benham’s pregnant belly and slowly moved a sonogram wand over it, describing the images on nearby monitors. This scene, in which parents get an early glimpse of baby, is played out many times a day in medical offices across America, but this plot has a twist.

Benham is carrying twins, but they are not her babies. They belong to Sheila and Kevin McWilliams, a New Jersey couple who lost their firstborn and can’t have another child together. They provided the eggs and sperm, and they will bear all costs, which average $75,000 to $100,000 and include fees to the surrogate, the matchmaking surrogacy company and lawyers for both parties, experts said.

Despite such costs, U.S. surrogate births have jumped 250 percent in eight years, and experts expect them to continue rising because of advances in reproductive technology, increasing numbers of same-sex marriages and growing acceptance of surrogacy.

In the vast majority of surrogate births today, the intended parents provide the egg and sperm, minimizing the risk of custody battles. Data suggest that there are fewer multiple births, and, perhaps surprisingly, more surrogates bearing babies for others more than once.

Second, the American-Statesman doesn’t totally ignore religion:

Even so, surrogacy remains controversial. State laws vary widely, with such liberal locales as New York and the District of Columbia banning it outright. The Catholic Church also forbids it, along with in vitro fertilization, the process in which the egg and sperm are combined in a lab before being transferred to the carrier.

“It removes procreation from that intimate act of love and puts it in the realm of science and medicine,” said Marie Cehovin, director of the Office of Pro-life Activities and Chaste Living for the Catholic Diocese of Austin. “The whole idea of creating life in a petri dish is horrendous to us.”

The church also opposes the destruction of embryos and terminating the fetus, which could happen, for example, if a different gender is preferred, she said.

But overall, this story fails to deliver.

Granted, it would be impossible for a newspaper story — particularly in the 1,100 words afforded to this one — to cover every religious and ethical issue associated with surrogate pregnancies. On a basic, Journalism 101 level, however, this piece leaves too many unanswered questions. That’s even before the rather large holy ghosts that — even if those general points were addressed — would cause concern here at GetReligion.

The basic stuff first: Way up high, readers are told:

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The Boston Globe veers into the doctrines of ‘Kellerism’

Just the other day, I heard a long-time GetReligion reader use a very interesting new journalism term — “Kellerism.”

Wait for it, faithful readers. Let’s walk through this with newcomers to the site. What, pray tell, are the key beliefs in the journalistic philosophy that is “Kellerism”?

Yes, this is another reference to the pronouncements of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, with an emphasis on this 2011 remarks (video) at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. Here, once again, is a chunk of an “On Religion” column I wrote about that event, when the newly retired Keller was asked if — that old question — the Times is a “liberal newspaper.”

“We’re liberal in the sense that … liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. … “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.” …

Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

So here is first core “Kellerism” doctrine: There is no need for balance and fairness and related old-fashioned journalism values when one is dealing with news linked to morality, culture, religion, yada, yada. Newspapers should resist the urge to slip into advocacy journalism when covering politics, but not when covering — uh — moral, cultural and religious issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters. You know, non-political issues. Things like Roe v. Wade and Romer v. Evans.

The second “Kellerism” doctrine is related to that and can be glimpsed near the end of Keller’s response (.pdf here) to the famous “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” self-study of the Times, during troubled ethical times in 2005. The key is that Keller insisted that he was committed to diversity in the newsroom on matters of gender, race, etc. However, he was silent or gently critical when addressing the study’s calls for improved cultural and intellectual diversity. The Times was diverse enough, it appears, on those counts.

Yes, criticism of the newspaper’s coverage of traditional religious believers was raised as a concern by the committee that wrote the report.

So why bring up this new term in a post topped with a photo of The Boston Globe building?

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Back in Boston with abortion protesters and fair reporting!


I wasn’t expecting gifts for July 4 weekend, but I feel like I got one in this feature story in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a follow-up on the Supreme Court’s recent decision that overturned a law in Massachusetts meant to keep protesters away from abortion clinics.

The article is a good example of old-school long-form journalism. It’s nuanced, detail-rich and balanced — at least more balanced than I might have feared. We’ll discuss my reservations later.

For now, the Times joins Eleanor McCullen and fellow prolifers in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. McCullen, you may recall, was the main plaintiff in the case decided by the Supreme Court.

First lesson is not to judge a story by its headline, any more than you’d judge a book by its cover. This story starts with a hostile-sounding “Abortion foes get up close and personal after court erases buffer zones.” Sounds like they’re waving and yammering in people’s faces.

But no. Times reporter Alana Semuels joins the protesters on the sidewalk, watching as they gently try to dissuade women from aborting their babies:

The two women climb out of the car in front of Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue and Eleanor McCullen reaches them in two quick steps. She tries to hand them a white rose and a pamphlet about alternatives to abortion, and beseeches them to let her help.

“I can help with housing, medical — we work with St. Elizabeth’s, just down the road, and everything is free,” she says, walking with the women as they approach the door.

Just a week ago, McCullen could not have gotten this close to the women in Massachusetts because of a law passed in 2007 that required that protesters stay behind a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances to abortion clinics.

But the Supreme Court struck down that law on June 26, ruling unanimously that the buffer zone violated protesters’ 1st Amendment rights to free speech. McCullen, a cheery 77-year old grandmother who carries knit baby hats outside the clinic, was the lead plaintiff in the case.

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How does that HHS mandate ruling affect American religion?

THE RELIGION GUY EXPLAINS:

So far, no-one has yet posted a question on the June 30 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing certain religious exemptions from the Obama Administration’s birth control mandate. So The Guy is posting his own analysis of an important case that highlights the nation’s religious, moral, legal, and political divisions.

The case involved the Hobby Lobby craft stores and two smaller businesses wholly owned by evangelical Protestant families. They believe that because human life begins at conception it’s sinful to pay for intrauterine devices (IUDs) and “morning-after” pills that may constitute early abortion by (a disputed point) preventing implantation of fertilized eggs. Other Christians disagree. Justice Alito’s opinion for a spare 5-4 majority said such “closely held” commercial companies enjoy religious freedom protection just like churches and individuals.

Two religious denominations that favor total birth control coverage charge that the Court violated liberty rather than respecting it. The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association said the ruling “dangerously diminishes the religious, moral, and legal rights of every American, but especially women,” and decried “the growing use of the religious freedom argument as a tool of discrimination and oppression.” Reform Judaism’s top four officials jointly declared that the Court majority “denies the religious liberty” of these women employees and “the compelling interest of ensuring all women have access to reproductive health care.”

The Protestant businesses were supported by the Catholic and Mormon churches, numerous evangelical groups, Orthodox Jews, a prominent Muslim educator, 107 members of Congress (mostly Republicans), and 20 of the 50 states. The president of the U.S. Catholic bishops said the Court upheld “the rights of Americans to live out their faith in daily life.” The public policy spokesman for America’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, hailed “an absolute victory for religious liberty” and for “common sense and conscience.”

The Baptist also accused the Obama Administration of “cavalier disregard of religious liberty” and lamented that not long ago no-one could have imagined such an attack on religious rights. That might sound overwrought, but traditionalists express alarm that getting all contraception without cost would overrule Constitutional protection of conscience. An April Kaiser Health poll showed 55 percent of Americans think companies should cover birth control “even if it violates their owners’ personal religious beliefs.” More broadly, last year’s Newseum poll found 34 percent believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in upholding citizens’ freedoms, up from 13 percent in 2012.

A few technicalities: Many articles said this ruling denies “access” to birth control, but the Court guaranteed that 49 years ago. Rather, the issue is whether women employees must pay $500 to $1,000 for IUD placements or the modest cost of the pills. Hobby Lobby opposes only those two methods and, like most Protestants, has no problems with the 16 other birth control options in the federal mandate. (The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress doesn’t actually mandate birth control coverage, which the Obama Administration added later.) Though some ridicule the idea that companies have rights the way individuals do, the Court cited well-established precedents for treating corporations as ”persons” for legal purposes.

The ruling was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed overwhelmingly by a Democratic House and Senate and signed by President Clinton in 1993, when the two political parties were more united on religious matters.

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Sun leaves Hobby Lobby out of its timely higher-wages story

So, are there any Hobby Lobby stores in the greater Baltimore area?

Yes, it appears that there are. Hold that thought for a moment, because I would like to connect two dots that I just read in two different newspapers.

We will start with an op-ed page column by Ross Douthat of The New York Times. Yes, it’s an editorial column — but I am interested in his timely news hook. The headline: “A Company Liberals Could Love.”

Douthat’s goal is to note that there are companies that model what can be called communitarian, if not old-guard “liberal,” values when it comes to policies that impact their employees. The leaders of some of these companies — whether they are religious or not — would even say that they are making choices that reflect their moral worldviews, even if that would appear to slice some dollar signs off their bottom line. Thus, Douthat writes:

One such company was hailed last year by the left-wing policy website Demos “for thumbing its nose at the conventional wisdom that success in the retail industry” requires paying “bargain-basement wages.” A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering, as Demos put it, a clear example of how “doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.”

Of course I’m talking about Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1, for its successful suit against the Obama administration’s mandate requiring coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and potential abortifacients.

OK, there is no need to repeat the rest of his argument here. Like I said, what interested me was the hard-news hook in that passage, especially the reference to higher wages in the current service-industry marketplace.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, the business section at the newspaper that lands in my front yard had an interesting local feature this weekend on the timely topic of fair wages, in an era of debates about the minimum wage. Here’s the top of that Baltimore Sun story:

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Al Jazeera America: a solid piece of religion journalism?

Let’s see: a meaty, 3,200-word religion story — part profile, part trend piece.

Quick, name the national news organizations producing such in-depth journalism on the Godbeat these days. Did Al Jazeera America make your list?

That relatively new U.S. media organization spotlighted “Downwardly mobile for Jesus” over the weekend. The superb feature drew praise from ordinary readers and journalism pros alike.

“Good reporting,” said the subject line on an email from a GetReligion reader.

The reader wrote:

This article could have been much more cursory but instead goes the distance on showing motivations, pitfalls, wins and losses along the way in this report on attempts to live a ministry in distressed urban areas.

Godbeat pro Eric Marrapodi of CNN complimented the story, too:

The piece introduces readers to Matthew Loftus, a 27-year-old white man who moved into a poor, high-crime, nearly all-black neighborhood in Baltimore.

This section up high makes it clear that holy ghosts won’t haunt this report:

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Pod people: White House vs. the Wheaton College covenant

From the very beginning, some mainstream news organization have — appropriately so — emphasized that many, if not most, progressive religious organizations have not only supported Obamacare, but the controversial Health & Human Services mandate as well.

This raises a logical question: What are the doctrinal fault lines that are dividing religious groups on the many moral issues linked to the mandate?

Obviously, some groups oppose the mandate — period. Catholics oppose its requirement that all forms of contraception be covered. Then there are evangelicals, such as the Hobby Lobby owners, who have no problem with most forms of birth control, but oppose the so-called morning-after pill and other contraceptives that they believe — scientists are split on the issue — induce abortions.

That would seem to be that. However, there is another moral complication that is affecting many doctrinally defined ministries, non-profits and schools that continue to oppose the mandate. Yes, this is the Little Sisters of the Poor camp, which also includes many schools and universities, such as Wheaton College.

More on that in a moment, since this was the topic that drove this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen in.

So what is going on with Wheaton, the Little Sisters, et al.?

This brings us back to the infamous “tmatt trio,” those three doctrinal questions that I have long used — as a journalistic tactic — to probe the differences between warring camps inside various churches. Remember the three questions?

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Think about that third question for a moment. In recent decades, churches have been fighting about the moral status of homosexual acts and same-sex marriage. At times, it’s hard to remember that progressive and orthodox churches are also divided over the moral status of premarital sex and, in a few cases, even extramarital sex (some liberal theologians have argued that the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit can even been seen in some acts of infidelity).

This bring’s us back to Wheaton College and the other ministries, non-profits and schools that do not want to cooperate with the HHS mandate in any way. As I wrote the other day, many:

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You can confess — but not to an Anglican priest

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The Adelaide Advertiser reports the Anglican Church of Australia has lifted the veil of secrecy between priest and penitent, no longer requiring its clergy to maintain the seal of the confession.

I expect many people will be surprised and some upset by this development. Not least of all the writers of mystery thrillers who will see one of their favorite plot devices disappear.

Alfred Hitchcock used this motif in his 1953 picture I Confess. In the film a priest, Montgomery Clift, hears the confession of his gardener, who has just killed a shady lawyer. A police inspector, played by Karl Malden, investigates and comes to suspect the priest — who may have been blackmailed by the lawyer. The killer plants evidence in the priest’s room and our hero is arrested and brought to trial.

The Quebec jury finds Clift not guilty, but a mob assembles outside of the court house and threatens him. This proves to be too much for the killer’s wife, who shouts that her husband the gardener was the killer. The gardener tries to kill the priest, but is himself shot and fatally wounded by the police. The film ends with the killer dying in Montgomery Clift’s arms after he gives him absolution. Classic.

Without the seal of the confession, Hitchcock’s story makes no sense and is much less fun.

Unfortunately the Roman Catholic understanding of the priesthood and the sacrament of confession a la Hitchcock has been applied to this Advertiser article about Anglicans. The reporter has used Catholic language and Catholic assumptions to report an Anglican story. While they share a common heritage, haberdashery and vocabulary — Anglicans are not junior Catholics with the addition of women — they have different doctrines. Confession is one of them.

The lede states:

Church leaders have unanimously backed a historic change that starkly sets Anglican policy against that of the Catholic Church, which maintains that “the Seal of Confession is inviolable”, and creates grounds for a major rift between the nation’s two most powerful Christian bodies.

About 250 members of the Anglican Church, including bishops and clergy representatives, voted to amend the 1989 canon on confession at the General Synod in Adelaide on Wednesday. The Christian convention of strict secrecy of confessions is believed to be more than 1000 years old.

The article cites the local Anglican archbishop who favors the change, while the layman who proposed the initiative notes priests should be required to report instances of child abuse and other crimes: “it seemed to me that protecting children and the vulnerable takes precedence over the confidentiality of confessions.”

The details of the charge are:

The existing law says the confession of a crime is to be kept confidential unless the person making the confession consents to a priest disclosing it. But the new policy will allow priests to report serious crimes if the person making the confession has not reported the offence to police and director of professional standards. These crimes include child abuse, child pornography or other offences that would lead to a jail term of five years or more.

The article closes with comments from the Catholic archbishop.

But Australia’s most powerful Catholic, Archbishop of Sydney George Pell, insisted that priests who hear confessions of child sex abuse must keep quiet because “the Seal of Confession is inviolable”.

The article is nicely crafted and well laid out. However it suffers from the handicap of thinking private confession or auricular confession in the Anglican sense is the same thing as private confession in the Catholic sense. Private confession in the Catholic Church takes place in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation followed by absolution.

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