Of Catholics, RNS and Zika virus: Questions of original reporting

Like mosquitos that carry the disease, a story by the Religion News Service buzzes with Catholic concerns over how to address the Zika outbreak currently coursing through Latin America. The article strains mightily to provide a many-sided view of the matter, but not always successfully, and not always originally.

The headliner is a warning this week by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras not to use abortion in the fight against the virus.   As RNS says, Zika is a prime suspect in microcephaly, in which children are born with small heads and brains. If a pregnant woman is bitten by a mosquito that's carrying the virus, children may be born with the defect.

Apparently, Maradiaga read someone recommending so-called "therapeutic abortion," or terminating a pregnancy for risk of abnormalities like microcephaly. That freaked him, according to RNS:

"We should never talk about ‘therapeutic’ abortion," the cardinal said in his homily, according to Honduran media reports.
"Therapeutic abortion doesn’t exist," he said. "Therapeutic means curing, and abortion cures nothing. It takes innocent lives."

It hasn't come to that yet, but RNS notes that the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency. And some Latin American officials have recommended women there to delay pregnancy for up to two years.

RNS is right to highlight Maradiaga's words; as it says, he is a top adviser to Pope Francis as well as chief shepherd of Honduras. It could have added that he was also considered a papabile, or papal candidate, in 2005 and 2013. That's especially rarefied atmosphere.

But the cardinal's comments were just the first few paragraphs of this article -- what we in journalism call a shirttail lede -- for a more indepth treatment:

The advice to delay pregnancy raises questions for Catholics about using artificial birth control, which is against church teaching except in certain circumstances. Because discerning those circumstances is like threading "a fine theological needle," as one theologian told CNN, the bishops in many countries have so far largely avoided making blanket statements on the issue.
The question of aborting fetuses with abnormalities, however, takes the issue to another level.
Abortion rights supporters have been using the crisis as an argument for liberalizing the region’s generally strict abortion laws, and that is putting pressure on church leaders to remind the flock that direct abortion is never acceptable.

I would have faulted the labeling of abortion advocates "rights supporters" -- a common media practice of assigning white and black hats -- but RNS then labels as prolife the Catholic Bishops Conference of Colombia. That term seldom appears in mainstream media, unless it's imprisoned in sarcasm quotes. So, thumbs up for RNS.

This article suggests that the Catholic Church has a dilemma in the question of abortion and congenital illness. On the one hand, the bishops are reluctant to make blanket statements about the issues. On the other, they may feel they must speak out when some people are calling to abort children for birth defects. Clearly, Maradiaga himself chose to land on one side of the matter.

The report briefly acknowledges fast-growing Latin evangelical and Pentecostal churches. It observes that while they don’t oppose all birth control, they stand with the Catholic Church in opposing abortion; but it doesn't substantiate this. It quotes a prolife doctor, Scott James, in a Southern Baptist publication, but doesn't say how influential he may be with Latin pastors.

This article, in fact, was researched the way many stories are done nowadays: through websites, public statements and scraps of other media. I'm not sure I see a single fact or quote here that comes from original reporting. Even the contextual sections are borrowed, though with acknowledgment.

That part about the reticence of South American bishops to make blanket statements? That's from America, a Jesuit magazine in New York. And that unnamed theologian in the RNS story? Quoted from a CNN story on the church and the Zika outbreak. But CNN calls him an assistant professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan, and an expert on Latin American religious culture -- not a theologian. So does the university.

You can get a fuller, more original treatment of the church and Zika with CNN's report itself. It quotes not only Ramirez but two CNN medical correspondents and three Catholic thinkers -- a bioethicist, a prolife priest and a real theologian.

Finally -- and this may sound strange in a conservative blog like GetReligion -- the RNS story quotes no one who favors therapeutic abortion. Yes, it has Maradiaga quoting some "medical professional." Who was it? Where did he/she write?  The cardinal's office probably could furnished that.

We should have gotten at least a sense of the arguments on the other side to evaluate them for ourselves. As I've said before, it's only a controversy when it has at least two sides.

So, kudos to RNS for an overall view of a complex issue: how the Catholic Church tries to deal with an illness while upholding reverence for life. But this report should have been a bit more original. Otherwise, it starts to resemble one of those mosquitos -- flitting and alighting, drawing from one host or another.


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