Ghost in Alabama 'personhood' case? New York Times produces religion-free front-page story

It’s the kind of dig-below-the-surface, front-page takeout for which the New York Times is famous.

It’s certainly a meaty subject matter: the arrest of an Alabama woman whose unborn baby died in a shooting.

But here’s what I noticed: A holy ghost (refresh yourself on that term if you’re new to GetReligion) most certainly haunts this in-depth but religion-free report from Monday’s Times.

I mean, this is a story that’s impossible to tell without acknowledging the huge role that religion plays in the South, right?

Somehow, though, the nation’s most elite newspaper attempts to do so.

Let’s start at the top:

PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. — In the days since police officers arrested Marshae Jones, saying she had started a fight that resulted in her unborn baby getting fatally shot, the hate mail has poured in.

“I will encourage all U.S. business owners to boycott your town,” a woman from San Diego wrote on the Facebook page of the Pleasant Grove Police Department.

“Misogynist trash,” wrote another.

“Fire the chief and arresting officers,” wrote a third.

But Robert Knight, the police chief, said his officers had little choice in the matter.

“If the laws are there, we are sworn to enforce them,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Around the country, the case of Ms. Jones — who was indicted by a grand jury for manslaughter — has served as a stark illustration of how pregnant women can be judged and punished when a fetus is treated as a person by the justice system.

A quick aside before I ask you to stay off my lawn: How sad is it that we live in an age in which unnamed Facebook critics are deemed worthy of the Times’ cover? Seriously, are there no opposition sources who could speak intelligently in that prime dead-tree real estate against the arrest and the Alabama law? But I digress.

Back to the main point of this post: Keep reading, and the Times boils down the debate this way:

Activists have also cited it as a demonstration of the dangers of the “personhood” movement, which pushes for the rights of fetuses to be recognized as equal to — or even more important than — the rights of the mothers who carry them. And many are now watching as the movement gains momentum in Alabama, which already has some of the most restrictive reproductive rights laws in the country.

But in Pleasant Grove, a city of 10,000 people on the western outskirts of Birmingham, the case appears to have caused little controversy. Gun rights are popular here. Reproductive rights are not. Many conversations in the city focused on how harshly Ms. Jones should be punished, not whether she was culpable.

Here’s my questions: Is there any chance — any chance at all — that religious beliefs are a factor in how this community views the rights of unborn babies?

Granted, religion isn’t the only factor that drives Americans’ views on abortion (as we’ve noted in praising coverage by Kelsey Dallas of the Deseret News). And certainly, as CNN’s Daniel Burke has reported, partisan politics make it difficult to “dissect religion's complicated role in the nation's fraught abortion debate.” Nonetheless, religion plays a mighty role in influencing individual Americans’ positions on abortion.

More religion-free background from the Times story:

The notion that the law should treat a fetus like a person is widely held in Alabama. Lawmakers passed the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in the country in May, banning abortions at any stage of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A protest against the measure in Birmingham drew only about 2,000 people, in a metropolitan area that is home to more than one million.

Last November, Alabama voters approved a ballot measure that amended the state’s constitution to recognize the “sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children.”

Dictionary.com defines sanctity as “holiness, saintliness, or godliness.” It certainly sounds like “sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children” could have a religious connotation.

So why not explore it — or at least acknowledge it — in a story of this nature? That’s my question.

Please respect our Commenting Policy