A woman is shot in the back, and her unborn twins die. She mourns them for months as her deceased babies, but local law says they weren't old enough to be considered alive.
What an anguishing clash of views of humanity: one religious/spiritual, the other rigidly legal. It's a topic ripe for exploring, yet the Washington Post manages to avoid doing so. The 1,500-word feature doesn't even include the words "faith" or "church."
LaKira Johnson's story -- with its implications for the issues of abortion and life in the womb -- has gained much media attention ever since she was caught in an apparent revenge shooting among thugs in Washington, D.C. And the Post has stayed on top of the case ever since it broke the story in September.
But its follow-up story, on Johnson's ordeal, leaves the spiritual dimensions as half-viewed ghosts.
The print headline offered enormous promise: "An enormous tragedy with the tiniest of victims." So did the subhead: "A woman is shot, and her unborn babies die. But is it homicide?"
So does some of the text:
Gun violence is such a constant in the District that it is not measured in bullets fired but in lives claimed. Normally that is a clear-cut number.
But what happened to LaKira’s pregnancy raises a complicated set of legal and moral questions about what constitutes a life when taken by a stranger. Does it begin when a newborn can survive on its own? Does it start with a first breath? Does it matter that the twins were already loved?
The Post shows great tenderness as it enters LaKira's grieving world. We see her hold her prematurely born twins for hours, even after they stopped breathing. We learn how she keeps their tiny white gowns and matching hats in a mint-green box. We read how she decided on cremation for them, rather than burial: "She wanted something — even if it was only their ashes — to hold."
Later, the article points out the unusual circumstances of Johnson's shooting, and the stony silence of the law:
Because the bullet never touched the twins and because they were too young to survive outside her womb, LaKira knew her case presented a unique legal question. Not only would the medical examiner’s office have to make a determination, so, too, would police and prosecutors if someone were arrested.
The District does not have a fetal homicide law, and the twins, at 22 weeks gestational age, were not at a stage normally considered viable. A majority of states set limits on abortion at 24 weeks and later, generally considered the beginning of viability for newborns to survive outside the womb. The District, along with seven states, does not have a law prohibiting abortion after a specific point in pregnancy.
But this loss was not her choice, LaKira said, making it different from an abortion. "My babies were murdered," she said.
What contextual lights does the Post shed? None in this article. No pastors, no theologians, no bioethicists. It's all about LaKira's warm but helpless emotions versus bloodless, faceless legal decrees.
Even the paper's breaking story on Sept. 6 did better:
Sonia M. Suter, a law professor at George Washington University, said it could be difficult to bring charges if the fetuses were 21 or 22 weeks old when they were born. “It’s right in that gray area,” said Suter, whose emphasis is legal issues pertaining to medicine. She noted that the line defining viability changes as technology improves but cautioned that “not many people would call 21 weeks viable.”
But that's only a little better. We've often discussed this in GetReligion: More than nine years ago, tmatt wrote that "conflicts over issues linked to the sanctity of human life are at the heart of many, many clashes between mainstream journalists and their critics in church pews."
The Post article embodies this dissonance. Before the twins were born, "She had already decided to name them Heaven and Nevaeh (Heaven spelled backward), even before she had to trust that’s where they were going," the article says. What religious resources was Johnson drawing on to make that consideration?
Also in the article: "After the shooting, her family noticed her reading the Bible more and distancing herself from her living daughters as she mourned her lost ones." Where did she get that Bible? From her church? Her mother? Her sister?
It would have been easy to ask. Her mother, Cassandra Johnson, was the family spokesperson to the media. She could surely have answered questions about the Johnsons' spiritual heritage. And she could have given the name of their pastor, who could have provided more insight on how faith was affecting their tragedy.
But from all appearances, the Post showed little curiosity about any of that. And that's a tragedy in itself.
After all, who most often gets the late-night call when someone is hurt or killed? Who spends hours listening and counseling as people pour out their grief? Who leads the funerals and offers hope and consolation to whole families? Ministers and other spiritual leaders. The very people who get ignored in stories like this one.
Photo: Life-size model of a fetus at 12 weeks after conception (FreeImages.com/Bill Davenport).