March for Life 2018: Washington Post wrestles with Trump's statement on late-term abortion

It's hard to have a discussion of any topic linked to abortion in the United States of America without starting debates about the basic facts -- especially when abortion is discussed in news reports by mainstream journalists.

It's hard to quote the most basic of facts -- the number of abortions in any give year -- without starting fights over the specifics. In part, this is because different kinds of statistics on this subject are released by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (with its history of complex ties to Planned Parenthood) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What happens when a story focuses on an ultra-controversial topic, such as the number of abortions that take place after an unborn child has, to one degree or another, reached the point of viability outside the mother's womb? At that point, it's especially crucial to be transparent about sources of information, with the clear attribution of sources.

I bring this up because of a hot-button passage in President Donald Trump's address to the 2018 March for Life, the one that stated:

As you all know Roe versus Wade has resulted in some of the most permissive abortion laws anywhere in the world. For example, in the United States, it’s one of only seven countries to allow elective late-term abortions along with China North Korea and others. Right now, in a number of States, the laws allow a baby to be born [sic, aborted] from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month.
It is wrong. It has to change.

I mentioned that quote in my GetReligion post on the day of the march, but didn't really discuss it because I assumed these controversial words would draw lots of coverage in the mainstream press.

Well, I was wrong.

It's especially amazing that Trump's reference to this issue drew little mainstream news attention because of an embarrassing verbal stumble. The president (whose history with Planned Parenthood is complex, to say the least) noted that laws in some U.S. states "allow a baby to be born from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month." He clearly meant to say "aborted," instead of "born."

This reference was addressed in a long, detailed Washington Post "Acts of Faith" feature about the march. Readers were told:

Trump repeated a claim he made during a presidential debate against Hillary Clinton in 2016 -- that a fetus in “a number of states” can be aborted “in the ninth month.”
“It is wrong. It has to change,” he said about those late-term abortions. As the Post’s Fact Checker pointed out in 2016, 89 percent of abortions occur in the first 12 weeks and only 1.2 percent occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute. All but seven states prohibit some abortions after a certain point in pregnancy, making “ninth month” abortions exceptionally rare and largely banned already.

This wording is interesting, to say the least, as noted by a former member of the GetReligion team -- a veteran journalist who now teaches Catholic theology at the seminary and college level.

Let's back up into the world of statistics. As stated earlier, it's hard to pin down a specific number of abortions in the USA in a given year. I looked for recent stats and the CDC reported 652,639 legal abortions in 2014 and Guttmacher put that year's number at approximately 926,200.

How many abortions took place after viability? Once again, the estimates vary. But let's go with the estimate cited by the Post -- 1.2 percent. You will see numbers a bit higher than that.

Do the math. The bottom line: 1.2 percent of 926,200 produces a number that is, for some activists (and journalists), quite small, yet for others frighteningly real.

Yes, I know that "viability" is not the same thing as, in the unattributed Post language, "ninth month" abortions. However, a crucial issue for those opposed to abortion is the U.S. legal regime that affects unborn children who stand some chance to survive after delivery. If you have doubts about that, see the thin media coverage of debates about the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which passed in the U.S. House on the day of the March for Life.

The journalistic question here is easy to see: Would there be debate over a loaded phrase such as "exceptionally rare and largely banned already"?

Yes, there is.

Now, I would like to stress that the rest of the Post story about the 2018 march covers lots of interesting and newsworthy terrain -- beginning with the complex relationship between the Trump administration and many leaders in the pro-life movement.

What do liberal pro-lifers (yes, they exist) think about Trump? Do you need to ask? What about mainstream pro-lifers who stress the dignity of all human beings from conception to natural death? Yes, many are sickened by some of Trump's rhetoric on lots of issues, beginning with immigration.

Thus, the Post story offered passages such as this:

Megan Ensor, who came from Atlanta to attend her first March for Life, expressed her enthusiasm that Trump took the time to speak to the marchers. “When it comes to the greatest moral evil of our time, the question that is most important is that he cares. . . . When he comes today, that’s a good thing. We don’t have to agree with him on everything,” she said.
Anna Rose Riccard, 25, works for antiabortion organizations and called the president’s appearance not a boon but an “unfortunate distraction.” Riccard, of Alexandria, said she doesn’t believe the antiabortion cause is a priority for Trump, and she saw fellow Catholics disagreeing on social media about his appearance.
“I give him credit for appointing a conservative justice,” she said, referring to Neil M. Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. ...
Most leaders of the antiabortion movement don’t blame Trump for what they perceive as a lack of progress; they fault Republicans in Congress for inaction.
“It’s because of the Senate. I put the blame with the Senate,” Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, said in an interview last week. “I think that some of our members of Congress are afraid to be courageous on these issues.”

Also, there was this:

... A group of Franciscan priests stood near the front of the stage during the rally. When Trump appeared on the screen, they raised banners saying: “Keeping families together is pro-life! Keep God’s dream alive!”
“I’m here to stand for the integrity of my faith and of the gospel. I’m not willing to sacrifice that for political expediency,” said the Rev. Jacek Orzechowski, a community organizer with Catholic Charities of Washington. “For someone to say they’re pro-life but display callous policies that tear families apart is reprehensible.”
A Catholic priest from New York City said some in his parish -- a heavily Central American congregation that includes many undocumented immigrants -- didn’t come to Washington out of fear. The priest, who said he was afraid to use his name, still praised Trump’s talk at the rally. “We put our faith in no man. Our faith is in Jesus.”

That's the reality at ground level, right now, and it was good that the religion-desk team at the Post pulled a wide variety of voices into this long report. I would also note that Religion News Service did similar work this year, with a solid March for Life-related report about the status of Democrats For Life.

Now, could journalists have found a wide range of voices -- at the march and elsewhere -- about Trump's statement on late-term abortions? Of course.

Would that have required more space, perhaps even a sidebar? Of course. Is this issue divisive enough and important enough to justify accurate, balanced coverage of believers on both sides?

Do I need to ask?


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