South Dakota reconsiderations

dcfightEven though our reputation is only slightly above ex-cons, I'm extremely proud to be a reporter. Most journalists, or at least the ones I'm privileged to know, strive to be fair and helpful in their coverage of contentious and confusing stories. Most succeed. In fact, the number one thing that surprised me about reporters -- when, in my second career, I became one and dwelt in their midst -- was that they managed to be so fair given how liberal they are personally. It's true, reporters are more or less liberal. But having personal convictions does not make you biased. Being a sloppy, lazy and unethical reporter makes you biased.

But there is one issue where it's harder to find good coverage than bad. There is one issue where we do such a horrible job covering it that it makes me ashamed: abortion. I have thought about it for years and have been unable to figure out why reporters tend to botch portrayals of the opposing sides or fail to dig into the non-political aspects of the issue. From style guides on down to local reports of protests, journalists forget much of what they learned when they work on this issue.

Which is why I continue to be so thankful for Stephanie Simon on the faith and values beat at the Los Angeles Times. She found a really interesting angle for her story on the South Dakota abortion ban: how opposing sides on the abortion issue are dealing with making political compromises for their cause.

Some foes of abortion -- fearful that South Dakota has moved too far, too fast -- now find themselves reluctantly opposing efforts to protect all fetal life from the moment of conception. They are even angling to block another abortion ban that seems likely to pass in Mississippi.

For their part, some abortion-rights activists feel they must acknowledge the sentiment behind the South Dakota ban by assuring America that they, too, regard abortion as a grave moral concern. But such language outrages others in their movement, especially abortion doctors, who feel it stigmatizes and alienates their patients.

That some pro-lifers wish this South Dakota ban had not passed is fairly well known. But that pro-choice activists are considering reshaping their message is news. Mark Stricherz, a really smart friend who is a Roman Catholic and populist writer, has been following the Democrat abortion debates regularly. Yet I haven't really seen good mainstream news coverage of the political questions pro-choice activists and Democrats are asking.

While the Republican Party is officially pro-life, many of its members and elected representatives are not. On the Democrat side, there has been a striking decline over the last couple of decades in the percentage of elected members of Congress who oppose legalized abortion. There has also been a striking decline in political power, which I wrote about recently. That's leading some Democrat strategists to wonder whether pro-choice orthodoxy is such a good idea. Of course, this debate is happening at the same time that Kate Michelman is considering entering the Pennsylvania Senate race to thwart the chances of Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat.

abortionIn other words, this is a great story for the political and religion beats. Here, Simon looks at the various views on the pro-choice side:

The liberal think tank Third Way is circulating a memo on Capitol Hill advising politicians who support abortion rights to recalibrate their message. Instead of stressing a woman's right to choose, they should tell voters that they support "personal liberty," but accept that it's a "moral responsibility" to reduce the number of abortions. (That number has declined steadily from a peak of 1.43 million in 1990 to 1.29 million in 2002, the latest year statistics are available.)

A number of abortion-rights activists have bought into that strategy. They've been on the defensive for more than two decades, ever since conservative and fundamentalist Christians began pushing social issues like abortion to the forefront of political debate. . . .

Such tactical positioning infuriates Dr. Warren Hern, who runs an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colo. He, too, would like to see fewer women with unwanted pregnancies; he counsels all his patients on contraception. But in his view, the availability of safe, legal abortions should be a cause for national pride -- not shame. . . .

One out of every three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. . . .

Above all, [National Women's Health Organization president Susan Hill] said: "We have to stop apologizing" for the nation's abortion rate -- and start mobilizing the millions of women "who believe it was the best choice for them."

This jockeying among Democrats and the pro-choice advocates with whom they are so closely entwined should not have caught reporters by surprise. Strategist James Carville has been openly discussing losses in membership from Roman Catholics for almost a year.

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