Love it or hate it, the Washington Post is a fine newspaper and it is very rare to see a story hit its front page with a large and glaring hole in it. But that's what happened today, with the story that ran with the headline "Some Abortion Foes Shifting Focus From Ban to Reduction." The story is accurate when it states that there are major tensions inside the pro-life movement.
But the story misses the actual source of the conflict, insisting that the division is between those on the progressive side of things who want to focus on helping women and single-minded people on the right who still want to ban abortion -- period. You can tell that the story is too simplistic because it ends up suggesting that crucial leaders in the Roman Catholic Church are somehow opposed to new efforts to help those who are below the poverty line.
More on that later. Here's the top of the story:
Frustrated by the failure to overturn Roe v. Wade, a growing number of antiabortion pastors, conservative academics and activists are setting aside efforts to outlaw abortion and instead are focusing on building social programs and developing other assistance for pregnant women to reduce the number of abortions.
Some of the activists are actually working with abortion rights advocates to push for legislation in Congress that would provide pregnant women with health care, child care and money for education -- services that could encourage them to continue their pregnancies.
Their efforts, they said, reflect the political reality that legal challenges to abortion rights will not be successful, especially after Barack Obama's victory this month in the presidential election and the defeat of several ballot measures that would have restricted access to abortions. Although the activists insist that they are not retreating from their belief that abortion is immoral and should be outlawed, they argue that a more practical alternative is to try to reduce abortions through other means.
Now something huge is missing and it can be summed up with one date -- July 17, 2007. That's the day when candidate Obama told leaders at Planned Parenthood: "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That's the first thing that I'd do." The president-elect is a co-sponsor of this bill, which would, in the words of the National Organization for Women, "sweep away hundreds of anti-abortion laws [and] policies."
In other words, the real tensions inside the right to life movement are not about whether to back legislative efforts -- such as the Democrats For Life "95-10" package -- to support women and their children (although there are some debates about issues linked to birth control). The tensions are about FOCA and efforts to erase restrictions on abortion that are supported by many or most Americans, including conservative, moderate and even some liberal Democrats.
If you want to understand the real issue that people are debating, I suggest you look -- of all places -- in the editorial pages of the Post, where the outspoken Catholic Democrat E.J. Dionne, Jr., nailed it in a column with the headline "Obama's Promise to Pro-Lifers."
During the campaign, Obama stressed that, "Nobody's pro-abortion." Thus, Dionne writes:
Once he assumes office, Obama might be tempted to forget that moment, issue the pro-choice executive orders that the abortion rights movement expects and move back to the sagging economy. But doing this would be both politically foolish and a breach of faith with the pro-life progressives who came to Obama's defense during the campaign. They argued that Obama truly was committed to reducing the number of abortions. He shouldn't turn them into liars.
Rep. Tim Ryan, a pro-life Democrat from Ohio, stumped all over his state urging Catholic groups and others on his side of the abortion question to put their faith in Obama's pledge. He's confident Obama will keep it. In moving quickly, he says, Obama would "show that there is a new politics by acting on one of the most divisive issues of the last 30 years." This should not be hard, Ryan says, since the central elements of their bill are "bread-and-butter issues for Democrats."
In other words, the tensions inside the pro-life movement are linked to Obama's support for FOCA and other efforts to erase existing restrictions, not the new proposals to serve the poor and needy -- born and unborn.
You can see these issues at play during the recent coverage of the U.S. Catholic bishops meetings in Baltimore, where concern over FOCA was voiced early and often -- by bishops across a wide political spectrum. Over at Religion News Service, reporter Daniel Burke noted, focusing on the words of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago:
George devoted a sizable portion of his two-page statement to denouncing the legislation, known as FOCA, saying that it would "coerce" Americans into subsidizing abortion with their tax dollars, outlaw parental notification laws and "have lethal consequences for prenatal human life." The law would also threaten the Catholic health care system, which George said Tuesday comprises about a third of all U.S. hospitals, and force doctors to perform abortions against their will, according to the cardinal.
"The danger the bishops see at this moment is that a bad court decision will be enshrined in bad legislation that is more radical than the 1973 Supreme Court decision itself," George said.
The issue of FOCA's negative impact on health-care professionals who oppose abortion and the institutions in which they work also showed up in Julia Duin's "Stairway to Heaven" column at the Washington Times.
The bishops already were thinking out loud this week what they'd do in the face of such a law. Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki said the bishops must be prepared to close Catholic hospitals if they are forced to perform abortions. Selling such hospitals would not do, he added, because that would merely transfer the guilt to a different party.
Because the nation's 615 Catholic hospitals constitute one-sixth of our health care system, closing these institutions would be a very big deal.
Note the presence of the word "Chicago" in the titles of these bishops. That is not a coincidence.
Whenwhile, the Post A1 story argues that major anti-abortion groups are opposing the efforts to increase vital services to offer women more options other than abortion. Really? Are they opposing these efforts, or are they opposing the arguments that these bills alone are enough? Since the article does not even mention FOCA, it's hard to know.
Again, Dionne's column is right. FOCA is a dagger at the heart of the pro-life left and hopes for compromise and common-ground initiatives. The Post story should have addressed that or, at the very least, mentioned the issue. Instead, we read:
A study sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good cited recent research that found that the abortion rate among women living below the poverty line is more than four times that of women above 300 percent of the poverty level. The authors of the study found that social and economic supports, such as benefits for pregnant women and mothers and economic assistance to low-income families, have contributed significantly to reducing abortions in the United States over the past two decades.
"Clearly, poverty impacts the abortion rate," said Alexia Kelley, the group's executive director.
But established abortion opponents dispute that approach. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said last week during a meeting of the conference that social-service spending is no substitute for legal protections for the unborn. He also questioned research showing that improvements in areas such as employment and health care can reduce the likelihood that a woman will want to end her pregnancy. "It's still to be proven what the connection is between poverty and abortion," he said.
Now is that all that what the cardinal said? Does the cardinal of Chicago truly believe that there is no connection between reducing poverty and reducing abortion? Really? Or does he argue (a) that unborn life is worthy of legal protection and (b) that policies built on social-service spending -- alone -- are not enough to cut the abortion rate?
Is the Post really trying to tell us that the Catholic bishops and other leaders in the pro-life movement are divided over whether or not it is good to help the poor? I have serious doubts about that. Like I said, someone in the newsroom needed to read that Dionne column to understand what is going on.