All narrative, all the time

mybabyThe cover story on this week's Washington Post Sunday magazine was a 7,000-word treatise on a medical student deciding whether to become an abortion doctor. The article is beautifully written. The narrative flows smoothly and quickly and doesn't feel nearly as long as it is. The heroine of the piece, Lesley Wojick, is described in detail over the course of a few years.

The essay is simply too long to excerpt in any meaningful fashion, so interested parties should read it in its entirety. In fact, I wish people would read the article before reading our discussion of same here. There are some interesting angles that I don't want to give away.

Stylistically, the piece is enjoyable. Content-wise, it's a bit troubling. It asserts with certainty that the moral actors in the abortion debate are the abortionists, perennially threatened by violent pro-lifers. There are no facts to really test this construction -- no facts about attacks on abortion clinics over time or the number of abortions performed per year. It's so bad that one commenter on the piece noted that if all one knew about abortion came from newspapers, one could easily believe that pro-lifers have taken more human lives than abortionists have. The article is also written from the perspective that providing abortions is the most altruistic career choice Wojick can make. It's treated as a given.

The piece begins in such a promising fashion, with an abortion doctor lecturing medical students:

You think you are pro-choice, Carole Meyers was saying. But, really, "how pro-choice are you? What does it mean for you? What's your limit? Will you do an abortion on a woman who is 12 weeks pregnant? Twenty-four weeks pregnant?"

What's your limit with birth defects? she asked. "Would you do an abortion at 28 weeks if the baby had a club foot? How about hemophilia?"

Meyers, a 51-year-old obstetrician and genetics expert, has performed hundreds of abortions over the course of her career and, until earlier this year, served as the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. She loves her work -- it's very rewarding, she said, and women always thank her -- but she doesn't shrink from examining abortion's ethical dilemmas or from setting her own limits. The truth, she told Lesley and the other medical students, is that abortion is not a black-and-white issue, not for patients and not for doctors.

"If you are going to perform abortions, how is your family going to think about it?" she asked. "How will you tell your kids? What are you going to do if your church doesn't want you to come anymore?"

As Wojick learns more about the abortion procedure, these questions might have provided a nice narrative structure for engaging the morality of the practice. Instead, they're introduced in the beginning of the article and then summarily dropped.

One interesting feature of the article was the brief arrival, late in the piece, of a Catholic medical student. The student, Litty Smelter, is pro-life and she and Wojick are friends who discuss abortion. I wanted so much for the piece to be a lengthy profile of both students, one devoted to her pro-choice views and one devoted to her pro-life views. I wanted their discussions and moral quandaries to be fully played out in the lengthy piece. The article doesn't ask Wojick why she doesn't believe an unborn child is a person. It doesn't ask Smelter, in her brief appearance, why she thinks a fetus is a person. If the subjects of the piece aren't asked to question their prejudices, readers certainly aren't challenged.

And why is the pro-lifer given just a brief cameo? Given the sheer amount of time the reporter must have spent with Wojick and assuming the piece was always supposed to be about the declining number and greying of abortion providers, the favoritism to the pro-choice student makes sense. But it's also hard -- almost impossible -- to imagine a similar favorable story about a pro-life medical student being assigned or written. The disparity is striking. But perhaps the Washington Post will shock me and run a 7,000-word feature next week about Smelter and the challenges she faces in medical school where the killing of an unborn child is treated as just another routine medical procedure. It could happen.

By the end of the piece, when Wojick decides against performing abortions, the lack of moral discussion -- either about the lack of altruism that was assumed or the implications of ending life from abortion -- is disappointing. Still, the unpleasant nature of the abortion act is not shied away from:

As for obstetrics . . . Lesley hadn't loved very much about it. Even as she'd shadowed the abortion doctor, Lesley knew in her heart that this would not be the right place for her to make a difference. It was a big disappointment, she said. "I really thought I'd love it."

The things she cared about -- taking care of women, seeing them through the process -- hadn't happened. It was the nurse practitioner who cared for the patient. Vacuuming out a uterus and counting the parts of the fetus did not seem like a desirable way to spend her work days. It took a unique person to do that on a daily basis, she said.

The strength of the piece is in the emotional detail provided. And if one assumes the morality of the pro-choice perspective, the piece does a great job of presenting Wojick's virtue and that of abortionists. But the actual facts of the piece are minimal. It keeps the story from developing any helpful context. There's nothing about the number of abortions in the United States, for instance.

There's also a surprising lack of science. Despite the academic and scientific setting, there's absolutely no scientific discussion of the central question surrounding abortion. There's tons of context from the perspective of women who feel that they need an abortion, but there's no discussion of the life that is being ended via abortion. It keeps the story from achieving its full potential and continues a pattern of weak and one-sided media coverage of this topic.

Having said that, I still think this is a worthwhile story to read and ponder. Even if only to think about how the story could have been more fully reported.

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