News coverage of abortion should go beyond quoting Catholics and Catholics alone

It looks as if 2019 will be the year where abortion takes center stage as one of the key politics issues in the ongoing feud between liberals and conservatives. Sometimes lost in all the political debates — and the news coverage — is that these issues revolve around religious beliefs.

The media’s coverage of this contentious issue can be summed up this way: secular society largely views this as a “reproductive rights issue,” while religious people see it as “murdering a baby.” Can there be some middle ground? Not likely. It explains why Supreme Court nominations have gotten messier and fueled the culture war.

What has been lacking, from a media coverage standpoint, has been broader context. This is especially true of covering those who are adamantly opposed to abortion. Evangelicals and Catholics are on one side, sharing the burden of having to defend why they believe abortion should be outlawed. On the other are educated and enlightened people (women mostly) who attend rallies and hold up placards. These are the primary mainstream media narratives fed to us each day.

This is where we are as a society. Where any issue is boiled down into a five-minute screaming match that passes for a news segment on a 24-hour cable channel to an internet meme safely shared on social media with those in your Facebook bubble. Journalism is meant to go beyond that. Which takes me to the main point here: news stories that rely on stereotypes don’t further the discussion, but only help divide us. In an age where the internet has turned many journalists into activists, it’s time to look at some data and shatter some myths.

Covering abortion in a different way since Roe v. Wade made it legal in 1973 can be a challenge. The events of the past few months — where New York state made abortion legal up until the due date to Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana’s recent new laws that place major restrictions on it — once again makes this a very big story. Heck, even President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence differ on the issue.

What about how religious people view the issue? What does it tell us about where we are as a society? How can it better inform readers and break away from the “us versus them” approach so common these days? Editors and reporters take note: Roman Catholics aren’t the only ones who largely oppose abortion.

In all my years as a reporter (and later editor), there were people we relied on for a “reaction quote.” A story about New York’s abortion law would elicit an editor to say something along these lines: “Let’s call the New York Archdiocese for reaction.” Another may be to send a reporter to St. Patrick’s Cathedral or the nearest local church for reaction. It’s easy at a time of short turnarounds on a story. It’s also predictable and lazy.  

What that does is make the Catholic church the stand-in for whenever there is a need to “get the other side.” That makes it seem as if the church is the only one against abortion. What about Protestants (and its many denominations)? Orthodox Jews? Muslims? There are no shortage of any of these groups in New York’s vast melting pot of faiths.

A Pew Research Center study dating back a decade ago shows some interesting trends that have been overlooked in news coverage. I’d like to highlight two very important findings from the report: Jehovah's Witnesses were the religious group with the highest percentage of people (75%) who favor outlawing abortion in all, or most, cases. Seventh-Day Adventists are at 54%. Catholics, in that same survey, are at 47% who favor a ban. By comparison, U.S. adults in general are at 40%.

Another survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute last year, found that Catholics are largely split on the issue. Here’s the key paragraph:

White evangelical Protestants are the only major religious group among which a majority believe that Roe v. Wade was decided incorrectly. A majority (56%) of white evangelical Protestants say that it was the wrong decision and should be overturned. By contrast, a majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans (75%), white mainline Protestants (67%), and black Protestants (58%), say it was the right decision. Catholics overall are more divided, with 48% affirming the decision and 40% expressing disapproval of it. However, there is a sharp divide among Catholics. A majority (54%) of white Catholics believe Roe v. Wade was correctly decided. Hispanic Catholics are more divided: only 42% believe Roe v. Wade was the right decision, compared to 47% who say it was the wrong decision and should be overturned.

A wonderful piece by Kelsey Dallas in the Deseret News points out that religion isn’t the only factor among those who oppose abortion. You wouldn’t know that from how often the Catholic church — or just the word “Catholics” — appeared in news stories. Why not just call the local Republican club?

Some news sites, such as The Huffington Post, went as far as to do a story about New York Sen. Kristin Gillibrand, who is also running for president, about how anti-Christian are laws that restrict abortion. Here’s what Gillibrand said, according to CBS, in the HuffPo story:

Gillibrand, who identifies as Catholic, said that laws restricting abortion are “against Christian faith,” according to CBS.

“If you are a person of the Christian faith, one of the tenets of our faith is free will,” Gillibrand said at a press conference. “One of the tenets of our democracy is that we have a separation of church and state, and under no circumstances are we supposed to be imposing our faith on other people. And I think this is an example of that effort,” CBS quoted her as saying at a press conference.

Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have all recently passed so-called “heartbeat” bills, which effectively ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. This week, Alabama adopted a law that makes performing abortions at any stage of pregnancy a felony offense ― even in cases where the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape. The near-total ban is now the strictest abortion law in the United States.

The slate of bills in Republican-controlled states across the country are ultimately aimed at bringing the issue before the Supreme Court, experts say, and potentially chipping away at Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

The other side quoted in this news story? There weren’t any. Instead of a Catholic who opposed abortion, they quoted one who agreed with Gillibrand. Here’s what the story includes further down:

Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, vice president of the reproductive rights group Catholics for Choice, said Catholic teaching is “crystal clear on the reverence for individual conscience as the first and final arbiter for any moral decision.”

Ratcliffe believes many Catholics support a woman’s ability to make her own decisions about reproductive health because “we know her conscience must guide her to make the best decision for herself and her family in light of her own circumstances and beliefs.”

These progressive Catholic views on abortion reflect a growing fissure between the Catholic hierarchy and lay Catholics. While Catholic bishops have adamantly spoken out against both abortion and artificial contraception, studies show that Catholics in the pews have reached different conclusions.

“Catholic bishops” — without ever actually quoting one — stand in for abortion opponents. Maybe quoting Catholics is better than nothing. This that takes me back to those Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists who also largely oppose abortion. They exist, but remain largely absent from news coverage at a time when quoting anti-abortion Catholics (or just referencing them) is both easy and lazy. It’s also predictable.  

Gillibrand’s own faith came into focus on May 29 during an interview with The NPR Politics Podcast and Iowa Public Radio. She revealed to having been raised Catholic, but doesn’t agree with almost anything the church stands for. In other words, she’s put her politics ahead of her faith.

“I have very strong faith that guides me. But I think the Catholic Church can be wrong on many things. And I don't agree with their views on reproductive rights," Gillibrand said. “I think they're wrong on those three issues. And I don't think they're supported by the Gospel or the Bible in any way. I just — I don't see it, and I go to two Bible studies a week. I take my faith really seriously.”

At a time when the press is seeking diversity in newsrooms and in its coverage voices in news stories, ones about abortion include far too many Catholics. Like Gillibrand, many of those Catholics don’t even agree with the church.

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