Neela Banerjee of The New York Times wrote about pro-choice couples who, with the help of perinatal hospital programs, decide not to abort an unborn child with a likely fatal condition. Her story was like few others that I have read. (Hat tip to GR reader Jerry.) It was biased, failed to answer essential questions, and suspect politically. It also gave readers a powerfully sacramental view of reality.
In a promise of greater things to come, Banerjee started off well. Her lede hooked readers into the story:
The day after Alaina Kilibarda was born, her breathing started to falter, as her family knew it might. During the pregnancy, doctors had told James and Jill Kilibarda that their baby had a lethal genetic problem that would probably end her life within hours of birth.
Most couples choose to have an abortion when they learn that the fetus has a fatal condition. But experts say about 20 to 40 percent of families given such diagnoses opt to carry the pregnancy to term, and an increasing number of them, like the Kilibardas, have turned to programs called perinatal hospice for help with the practical and spiritual questions that arise.
For the next dozen or so paragraphs, however, the story suffered from characteristic weaknesses of the Times' coverage of abortion. While a few Times stories about abortion are even handed and fair, most depict pro-lifers as religious zealots or autocrats:
Some in the anti-abortion movement strongly support perinatal hospices. In Minnesota, a law was passed last year that called for women to be informed about perinatal hospices. But many hospice workers seem free of ideology.
That last phrase is prejudicial. In the interest of fairness, perspective or outlook would have been better than ideology.
Later, Banerjee's story suffered from the sin not of commission but rather omission. She gave readers this tantalizing fact without the necessary specificity:
About 30 percent of children go home with their families, where most eventually die.
So are the diseases 100 percent fatal? What about those kids diagnosed with a fatal condition who don't die within a few years? Banerjee should have answered those questions for her readers. After all, reporters write plenty of stories about inmates sentenced to death row who end up being innocent of their alleged crimes.
Banerjee's story also raised political questions. The two couples she profiled shared remarkable similarities. Both are Roman Catholic, support legal abortion, and continued their difficult pregnancy. Was this a coincidence? Perhaps it was. Yet I'm not sure why the story failed to quote any pro-life couples who are part of the program.
But toward the end, Banerjee's story picked up. She described the religious ghost that had haunted its text. In fact, she described her interview subjects' sacramental view of their experiences:
Alaina's birth and the family's discussions with Mr. Lund have made them think a great deal about God's role.
"When we were expecting Alaina, people said, "You're in our prayers,'" Mrs. Kilibarda said. "But people were praying to make it a mistake, to make it all better for us.
"We weren't asking, 'Make it all better,'" she said. "God doesn't come down and touch you to heal you. He sends people to be with you."
For the kicker to the story, Banerjee quoted Mr. Kilibarda:
"I want to go through this with my eyes open," he said, explaining why he turned to the hospice program. "I want to feel every ounce of pain, of happiness, because if I avoid it now, it will come back to bite me. I want to experience grace. What does that mean, because it's such a vague term?
"I'm still trying to figure it out. I think I'll experience it when this event comes complete," he said, as his voice cracked, "when she passes."
An interview subject who wishes to feel pain and happiness and grace: a reporter can't ask for much more. To her credit, Bannerjee let her interview subject speak. Perhaps she might have tied his experience of grace with his religions' conception of grace. But that is a lot to ask.
If this story represents the future for the Times' coverage of abortion and religion, the future bodes well, if still problematic.