Two of the nation's leading newspapers, theLos Angeles Times and The Washington Post, ran stories within days of each other that deal with the apparent recent crackup in the pro-life movement. The news is not an earthshaking development but another note in the history of the abortion wars in the United States. Here's the lede from the Post's June 4 story:
In a highly visible rift in the anti-abortion movement, a coalition of evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic groups is attacking a longtime ally, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson.
Using rhetoric that they have reserved in the past for abortion clinics, some of the coalition's leaders accuse Dobson and other national antiabortion leaders of building an "industry" around relentless fundraising and misleading information.
At the center of the dispute is the Supreme Court's April 18 decision upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a federal law against a procedure in which a doctor partially delivers a late-term fetus before crushing its skull.
Both articles were quick to acknowledge that splits in the pro-life movement are nothing new, but they did little to explain the history of the splits or ask anyone why there have been little public splits in recent years. Or maybe it's the case that there have been recent splits and they just haven't received any coverage. If the reporters wanted to go deeper into history they could have compared the splits in the "let's ban abortion" movement with the repeated splits in the "let's ban slavery" movement in the United States and Great Britain. There's a comparison to be made, but it's probably a bit of a stretch for a daily newspaper story.
The Post's story, written by Alan Cooperman, reads like any Washington political advocacy story: There is this movement that wants to do something that would change American society, but they can't agree on whether they should go for the Hail Mary or take three yards for a possession and work the clock.
It's pretty standard stuff and Cooperman should be credited for getting the story first. But the story lacks context. We get a quick definition of a partial-birth abortion and what the new law bans (a procedure in which a doctor partially delivers a late-term fetus before crushing its skull), but that's it. The Times' story, written by Stephanie Simon, provides some helpful background data:
Some of the biggest groups in the movement, including Focus on the Family and National Right to Life, are under attack from fellow activists who accuse them of turning a godly cause into a money-grubbing industry.
Those groups have raised tens of millions of dollars and trumpeted victory after incremental victory in the 34 years since Roe vs. Wade legalized abortions. But about 1 in every 5 pregnancies in the U.S. still ends in abortion. Deeply frustrated, several small antiabortion groups have launched a campaign to force their movement back to an absolutist position: No more compromises, no more half-steps, just an all-out effort for an all-out ban.
How often do you hear that 20 percent of all pregnancies in the United States are terminated, or that there are an estimated 1.3 million performed a year (according to the Guttmacher Institute)? How often do you hear that abortion has been legal in the country for 34 years?
When reading news stories about anti-smoking groups and their attempts to restrict people's ability to light up, one is frequently told how many people smoke, that kids smoke and that people die from smoke. When you read news reports about the number of people who lack medical insurance in this company, you frequently hear the 40 million-plus number tossed around with the subset of children who lack insurance. Why not with abortion stories?
Simon, who probably had an extra couple of days to work on this story, also includes the broader picture in the anti-abortion fight, including dustups in the South Dakota legislature over a state ban that included no exceptions for women who are pregnant from rape or incest. Simon also included this help statistic involving Brian Rohrbough of Colorado Right to Life:
In general, organizations committed to an incremental strategy take in far more money than the absolutist groups. Rohrbough's group runs on a budget of about $150,000 a year. By contrast, the National Right to Life Committee raised more than $9.7 million last year, according to Internal Revenue Service filings. Americans United for Life raised $1.9 million.
Overall I found both stories thorough in covering both sides' positions and stating them clearly. But Simon's piece excelled in fleshing out the helpful details (numbers) and providing a broader context for the battle between incrementalists and purists in the pro-life movement.