Explaining facts and their significance

25146683A few months ago we looked at media coverage of the promulgation of a Bush administration rule dealing with the legal right of health care professionals to practice according to their consciences. Health care professionals who work at organizations that receive funding from the federal government have been protected from being forced to perform abortions since the 1970s. This rule -- which costs "only" $44 million to implement -- is about making sure those protections are enforced since some medical organizations and societies have penalized or were planning to penalize medical professionals who objected to various abortion-related procedures. I think it's safe to say that this distinction hasn't been made clear in much media coverage -- when the Bush rule was proposed last August, when it was finalized in December or . . . now.

It's back in the news because the administration of President Barack Obama announced its plan to rescind the rule. The Los Angeles Times broke the story on Friday. It began with the perspective of the Obama administration but tried to get the perspective of defenders of the regulation as well. Here's how the story ended:

In promulgating the rule last year, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said it was necessary to address discrimination in the medical field.

Leavitt criticized "the development of an environment in the healthcare field that is intolerant of individual conscience, certain religious beliefs, ethnic and cultural traditions, and moral convictions."

But critics complained the language of the rule is overly broad, covering any "activity related in any way to providing medicine, healthcare and other service relative to health and welfare."

Obama officials said the administration's goal is to make the rule clearer rather than force doctors to provide abortions.

"The Bush provider-refusal regulation has created confusion about the scope and original intent of the law," one official said.

"It went into effect in the last days of the Bush administration, claiming to bring clarity to current law. But instead it created much confusion. . . .

"Not only does it potentially make it harder for women to get the care they need, but it is worded so vaguely, that some have argued it could limit counseling, family planning, even blood transfusions and end-of-life care."

This perspective of Obama officials -- always anonymous -- was included in most every story. I wish it had been fleshed out a bit more. Would the Bush rule protect Catholic doctors at federally-funded facilities who have conscientious objections to prescribing birth control? Would Obama officials really oppose job protections for such doctors working at federally-funded facilities? Many stories described these two perspectives but didn't quite get past the dueling sides talking points and spin. It left me confused. Also, how in the heck would blood transfusions and end-of-life care be involved in this discussion? If you're going to quote someone making that claim, could you at least explain what in the heck they're talking about and whether it is reasonable? NPR's story had similar problems to the Times story, albeit with less balance.

Bloomberg reported a more narrow disagreement -- dealing solely with provision of abortions or assistance in providing abortions. It also made clear that the rule dealt with groups that take federal funds.

Here's the Associated Press. CNN.com had a rather one-sided account. The New York Times piece was much more interesting and included the best religion angle:

The rule prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating against doctors, nurses and other health care workers who refuse to perform or assist in abortions or sterilization procedures because of their "religious beliefs or moral convictions." Its supporters included the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals.

In praising the Bush administration last fall, Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, said that in recent years "we have seen a variety of efforts to force Catholic and other health care providers to perform or refer for abortions and sterilizations."

The New York Times story also explained opponents' objections in greater detail! It said that some opponents said the rule could have voided state laws that require insurance companies to cover contraceptives and, for rape victims, drugs that prevent implantation of embryos. Others said that the rule could allow drugstore employees to refuse to fill contraception prescriptions. I wonder if this means that there are federally-funded drug stores or how such a claim could be made. Finally, some opponents say the rule isn't needed because it's duplicative. Not a bad story.

But I really thought Rob Stein's write-up for the Washington Post advanced the story better than anything else. He included all the same details that everyone else did but wrote a story that was so much more interesting (even if he still uses the annoying scare quotes around "conscience"):

The administration's plans, revealed quietly with a terse posting on a federal Web site, unleashed a flood of heated reaction, with supporters praising the proposal as a crucial victory for women's health and reproductive rights, and opponents condemning it as a devastating setback for freedom of religion.

Perhaps most tellingly, the move drew deep disappointment from some conservatives who have been hopeful about working with the administration to try to defuse the debate on abortion, long one of the most divisive political issues.

"This is going to be a political hit for the administration," said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of the Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., whom Obama recently named to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. "This will be one of those things that kind of says, 'I knew it. They talk about common ground, but really what they want is their own way.'"

Exactly. It's not terribly surprising that abortion rights supporters are pleased with Obama's move and that the rule's supporters think it's an abomination -- we're used to those sides of the debate lining up exactly as they are. But the big story with Obama has been that he's drawn support from some pro-lifers. How do they feel? Particularly since this isn't he first abortion-related decision to go completely against their wishes?

Stein gets plenty of perspective from all sides and even lets sources go back and forth a bit. He ends with a discussion about whether compromise is possible. A woman with a progressive group says another rule could be promulgated that protects some conscience objections but doesn't give medical professionals the right to opt out of contraception work, the Rev. Frank Page notes that some health-care workers have conscience objections to providing pills that prevent implantation of embryos, and it ends with a liberal woman saying compromise isn't something her group would support anyway. It may not be hopeful but it's definitely interesting and a more full discussion.

As a reporter, I tend to write stories with "just the facts, ma'am." I've had more than a few editors ask me "so what?" or "why should general readers care?" Stein did a great job of answering those questions while also laying the facts out. Good work.

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