Faith on both sides of abortion? Yes, according to AP — but this is why debate falls short

Over the weekend, an Associated Press national story highlighting the abortion battle in Kentucky got a bunch of play by major news organizations.

In general, this coverage impresses me as more balanced than most mainstream news reports on abortion. 

And the piece even delves -- a little bit -- into the religious beliefs of sources on both sides of the abortion debate. More on that in a moment.

But first, let's start at the top with AP's lede:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Both sides in the abortion fight raging in Kentucky agree on one thing: The stakes are as high as ever in a state that could become the first in the nation without an abortion clinic.
Political pressure has intensified since the Kentucky GOP took control of state government and moved quickly to pass new restrictions on abortions. And Republican Gov. Matt Bevin makes no apologies for waging a licensing fight against a Louisville clinic that is the last remaining facility performing abortions in the state.
Another battle-tested participant joins the fight this weekend. Operation Save America, a Christian fundamentalist group, plans to mobilize hundreds of activists to protest against EMW Women’s Surgical Center.
The group’s leaders state their purpose unequivocally: to rid Kentucky of its last abortion clinic. Some of the group’s followers were arrested during a protest outside EMW in the spring. The group has said it won’t use those same tactics in the coming days, but a federal judge on Friday ordered the creation of a “buffer zone” to keep protesters out of an area in front of the clinic. The pre-emptive move was requested by federal prosecutors to prevent protesters from blocking access to the surgical center.

A quick aside before I get to the real point of this post: You probably noticed that AP characterizes Operation Save America as "a Christian fundamentalist group." That's also how Wikipedia defines the group, previously known as Operation Rescue National. Is that proper usage of "fundamentalist," according to AP's own stylebook?

Here's what the stylebook says under its "religious movements" entry:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early-20th-century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalisthas to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.
In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

So does "fundamentalist" apply to Operation Save America? The "About Us" section of the group's website doesn't use that term. Alas, AP doesn't explain what makes the group "fundamentalist," outside of describing the group's stringently anti-abortion tactics. I'll admit that I don't know enough about the group or its history to offer a definitive opinion. I'd welcome insight from GetReligion readers with more expertise.

Now, back to the main peg of this post: As I mentioned, religion makes a welcomed appearance in this story with faith-based quotes from pro-life and pro-choice sources:

As a volunteer whisked another woman past a handful of protesters, a demonstrator clutching a rosary told the patient’s male companion: “Men don’t kill their babies. Man up.” The man turned and glared but said nothing.
The demonstrator, Chuck Jones, defended his harsh words.
“This is the last chance we’ll get to talk to them before they go in,” the retired sheet-metal worker from Indiana said. “I just wanted him to think about what he’s doing. If anybody believes in God, they can’t be for abortion, in my opinion.”

One question: Were Jones' words "harsh?" Would deleting that adjective have (1) changed the meaning of that sentence at all and (2) made the phrasing a little more impartial?

Given the earlier reference to Operation Save America, you may be wondering: So this is a fundamentalist Protestant with a rosary? That's a bit strange. And why do reporters love to say that these demonstrators are "clutching" their rosaries? But actually, I don't think this abortion protester is a part of that group, although AP could do a better job of pointing that out.

Let's keep reading as AP quotes Dr. Ernest Marshall, the abortion clinic's co-founder:

The 66-year-old Marshall -- the father of three grown children and grandfather of eight -- said he attends church every Sunday and is a former Sunday school teacher. He said abortion protesters don’t have a “monopoly on morals.” He condemned their tactics as “very harassing, very judgmental,” taking a toll on patients and staff.
“Some of the things I see out in front of our clinic, to me, by the pro-life people, don’t represent good Christianity,” Marshall said. “I just don’t think Jesus would harass people or name-call people or call doctors murderers.”

OK, the positive is that AP's story reflected voices of faith on both sides.

But I wish the wire service had provided just a few more details on the specific faith and beliefs of each individual. The rosary mention hints that Jones is Catholic, but AP doesn't specify that. Likewise, the wire service is vague on the specific nature of Marshall's church. Beyond those bare facts, I'd love for a single follow-up question for each source: Exactly what does your faith tell you about the practice of abortion?

I worked for AP for three years, so I understand the severe word count restraints that its journalists face. To that extent, perhaps I should just be happy with the glimpses of faith that the wire service provided. But it would only have taken a few more words to add those facts.

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