Euthanasia

That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

As your GetReligionistas have explained many times, abortion is an issue that isn’t automatically religion-beat territory. However, most public debates about abortion (and euthanasia) end up involving religious groups and the arguments almost always involve religious language.

Yes, there is a group called Atheists Against Abortion and there are other groups on the religious and cultural left, such as the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. I was converted to the pro-life position as a young adult through articles at Sojourners, including a famous essay by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But in the mainstream press, liberal pro-lifers hardly exist, if they exist at all. You would never know that somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of Democrats (depending on how you word the question) hold positions on abortion that most journalists would call “anti-choice.”

Thus, questions about abortion have long been at the heart of surveys linked to religion and media bias, with journalists, especially in elite urban zip codes, consistently backing America’s current regime of abortion laws to a much stronger degree than the public as a whole. It’s been that way since I started studying the issue in the early 1980s.

If you were looking for a recent Armageddon moment on this topic (other than the current U.S. Supreme Court fiasco), it would have to be the media coverage, or non-coverage, of the criminal activity of Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia.

Here at GetReligion, the blogging and chutzpah of M.Z. Hemingway played a key role in forcing debates about that topic out into the open.

In the past week or so, several GetReligion readers have sent me the URL of a commentary at The Daily Beast that ran with this headline: “Leaked NPR Emails: Don’t Call Kermit Gosnell an ‘Abortion Doctor’.”

This piece focuses on one of the key issues raised during the Gosnell trial — what professional title should reporters describe to this member of the abortion industry?

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Are Catholic hospitals being deceptive? The New York Times says, 'Yes'

Are Catholic hospitals being deceptive? The New York Times says, 'Yes'

The rush of recent news about sexually abusive priests and erring bishops has moved our critiques of other things Catholic to the side for several weeks.

Thus, I want to flash back and spotlight a story that ran Aug. 10 in the New York Times about Catholic hospitals.

Such hospitals do not offer direct sterilization, abortion, euthanasia or assisted suicide. They also don’t do hysterectomies for transgender people and tubal ligations. 

Here, readers learn, Catholic doctrine is not only the enemy but the cause of endangering womens’ lives. The opening salvo, about a hospital refusing to offer what could be life-saving care, is an attention-getter.

After experiencing life-threatening pre-eclampsia during her first two pregnancies, Jennafer Norris decided she could not risk getting pregnant again. But several years later, suffering debilitating headaches and soaring blood pressure, she realized her I.U.D. had failed. She was pregnant, and the condition had returned.

At 30 weeks, with her health deteriorating, she was admitted to her local hospital in Rogers, Ark., for an emergency cesarean section. To ensure that she would never again be at risk, she asked her obstetrician to tie her tubes immediately following the delivery.

The doctor’s response stunned her. “She said she’d love to but couldn’t because it was a Catholic hospital,” Ms. Norris, 38, recalled in an interview.

Experiences like hers are becoming more common, as a wave of mergers widens the reach of Catholic medical facilities across the United States, and the Trump administration finalizes regulations to further expand the ability of health care workers and institutions to decline to provide specific medical procedures for moral or religious reasons.

We learn that one in six hospital patients in the United States is in a Catholic hospital, but that in most cases, it’s tough to learn on the web sites of these hospitals just which services they do not offer.

The article definitely gave both sides their day in court but what struck me was the overall tone of the piece. It was that Catholic hospitals are restrictive places that forbid all manner of services and are deceptive about what they don’t offer, so buyer beware.

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Doing some thinking, with the Catholic left, about Pope Francis, death penalty and LGBTQ future

Doing some thinking, with the Catholic left, about Pope Francis, death penalty and LGBTQ future

One of the ways that journalists can tell a Pope Francis controversy has legs is when it quickly becomes clear that conservative Catholics and liberal Catholics are offering very similar readings of the same text.

The difference, of course, is that Catholics on the doctrinal left are excited about the text and many on the doctrinal right are worried.

In this case, I am talking -- of course -- about the pope's "evolution of doctrine" statement on the death penalty. (In candor, let me again note once again that I am totally opposed to the death penalty, with no exceptions.) As a refresher, let's listen to the gospel according to The New York Times:

... Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity, the Vatican announced on Thursday, adding that the church would work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment worldwide.

Francis made the change to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the book of doctrine that is taught to Catholic children worldwide and studied by adults in a church with 1.2 billion members. Abolishing the death penalty has long been one of his top priorities, along with saving the environment and caring for immigrants and refugees. ...

The pope’s decree is likely to hit hardest in the United States, where a majority of Catholics support the death penalty and the powerful “pro-life movement” has focused almost exclusively on ending abortion -- not the death penalty.

Kudos for the restraint shown in avoiding a reference to "the so-called 'pro-life' movement."

 Now, in my post with this week's podcast -- "So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up" -- I quoted the following reference from an email to Rod Dreher from a Catholic reader, referring to this "evolution of doctrine" debate:

From the Catholic Catechism of 2030:

“Sexual relations between persons of the same sex were long considered to be intrinsically disordered acts.

“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost when a person engages in same-sex relations. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the meaning of human sexuality.

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So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up

So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up

St. Pope John Paul II condemned the death penalty and urged government leaders to end it. 

Pope Benedict XVI did the same, in language just as strong as that used by his beloved predecessor.

Now Pope Francis has gone one step further, saying that the church can now say that the faith of the ages has evolved, allowing the Catholic Catechism to condemn the death penalty in strong, but somewhat unusual language. Is use of the death penalty now a mortal sin, like abortion and euthanasia? Well, the word is that it is "inadmissible."

This is, of course, a major news story and, no surprise, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the early press coverage in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

But what does this change really mean?

Did Pope Francis simply take the work of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI one step further? Thus, Catholic traditionalists can chill. 

Or is this an example of Pope Francis the progressive, moving one piece on the Jesuit chessboard to prepare for further shifts in the future on other doctrines? If the church was wrong on the death penalty for 2,000 years, who knows what doctrine will evolve next?

So, is this doctrinal shift a big deal or not? 

It appears, after looking at lots of commentary on social media, that the answer to that question depends on whether someone trusts Pope Francis or not. 

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Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Death penalty doctrine: Francis builds on insights of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

Have you ever noticed that the amount of news coverage granted to the writings of Pope Francis tends to rise or fall based on the degree to which his pronouncements mesh with the editorial pages of The New York Times?

Notice, please, that I said the "amount" of coverage, not the "quality." This pope has made important, and complex, statements on hot-button topics that led to the spilling of oceans of ink and pixels in coverage that missed the point of his words. His comments defending traditional Catholic teachings -- think gender, for example -- often draw little or no response.

Then again, who am I to judge?

The news, today, is that Rome has changed the Catholic Catechism on an important issue linked to the defense of life, from conception to natural death. We are, of course, talking about the death penalty (confession: which I have always opposed, with no exceptions).

So far, the coverage has been good -- since this is a change welcomed by the religious left. However, let me note some information that really needs to make it into the coverage, to show readers how this change came to pass. So, here is a question: Who said the following?

"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

That would be the late St. Pope John Paul II, of course, in a 1999 sermon. That wasn't the only time that he signaled that the death penalty didn't align with pro-life doctrines.

Did the words of John Paul II make it into the early coverage that you read?

I am pleased to note that the evolving Times story about this issue now includes the following. Yes, this language pushes a political button, but that button is real:

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Seeking complex reactions to latest Pope Francis ink? Head over to Crux, not New York Times

Seeking complex reactions to latest Pope Francis ink? Head over to Crux, not New York Times

So Pope Francis has spoken, once again. This time we are talking about an apostolic exhortation -- Gaudete et Exsultate ("Rejoice and Be Glad") -- that includes pastoral comments aimed at Catholics in general, but also specific shots at his critics on the doctrinal right.

So let's say that you are looking for news coverage that includes voices on both sides of the Pope Francis debate. You want to hear from people who have just been attacked by the pope. You also want to hear from doctrinal conservatives, as well as liberals, who embrace what the pope had to say, or who see his message as consistent with that of other recent popes.

So, where do you look for coverage that does more than -- let's be honest -- serve as a public-relations office for Pope Francis?

Do you choose a website that specifically focuses on Catholic news or do you turn to America's most powerful newsroom, a newspaper that in the past has been highly critical of Catholic leaders?

That's a trick question, right? In this case, you want to check out Crux to get complex reactions to this apostolic exhortation, while The New York Times gives readers all Francis, all of the time (with zero input or information from critics of this pope).

Which newsroom showed the most independence from the papal powers that be? That would be (drum roll please) the website for a Catholic audience. It's also interesting to note which report framed this document primarily in political terms. Here's the overture at the Times ("Pope Francis Puts Caring for Migrants and Opposing Abortion on Equal Footing").

VATICAN CITY -- Caring for migrants and the poor is as holy a pursuit as opposing abortion, Pope Francis declared in a major document issued by the Vatican on Monday morning.
Pushing back against conservative critics within the church who argue that the 81-year-old pope’s focus on social issues has led him to lose sight of the true doctrine, Pope Francis again cast himself, and the mission of the Roman Catholic Church, in a more progressive light.

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Stephen Hawking explored the universe: Were the mysteries of his heart newsworthy?

Stephen Hawking explored the universe: Were the mysteries of his heart newsworthy?

So here is the question of the day: Does it matter that famed physicist Stephen Hawking was -- as best one can tell from his complex and even impish way of expressing himself -- an atheist who still had moments when he could hint at doubts?

Does it matter that the mind that probed the far corners of the universe couldn't handle the mysteries of the human heart and that this pained him? After all, in an empty, random universe, there are no moral laws to explain the physics of love and attachment.

If you pay close attention to the major obituaries, it's also clear that Hawking's giant reputation and celebrity was the black hole that sucked some thoughtful coverage into nothingness.

On one level, I thought that some of the best material on Hawking's faith questions was found in a compact, logical sequence in The New York Times. As always, things begin with the book that made him a global phenomenon:

In “A Brief History of Time,” Dr. Hawking concluded that “if we do discover a complete theory” of the universe, “it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.” He added, “Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist.”
“If we find the answer to that,” he continued, “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God.”

But Hawking kept writing and, as always, his opinions grew more provocative.

Nothing raised as much furor, however, as his increasingly scathing remarks about religion. ...
In “A Brief History of Time,” he had referred to the “mind of God,” but in “The Grand Design,” a 2011 book he wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, he was more bleak about religion. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper,” he wrote, referring to the British term for a firecracker fuse, “and set the universe going.”
He went further in an interview that year in The Guardian, saying: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

So what is missing from that version of Hawking? What did the Times skip over in its main obituary?

The answer can be found over at The Washington Post, where the main obituary wrestled -- briefly -- with a faith angle in the other part of Hawking's life that produced headlines.

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March for Life 2018: Washington Post wrestles with Trump's statement on late-term abortion

March for Life 2018: Washington Post wrestles with Trump's statement on late-term abortion

It's hard to have a discussion of any topic linked to abortion in the United States of America without starting debates about the basic facts -- especially when abortion is discussed in news reports by mainstream journalists.

It's hard to quote the most basic of facts -- the number of abortions in any give year -- without starting fights over the specifics. In part, this is because different kinds of statistics on this subject are released by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (with its history of complex ties to Planned Parenthood) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What happens when a story focuses on an ultra-controversial topic, such as the number of abortions that take place after an unborn child has, to one degree or another, reached the point of viability outside the mother's womb? At that point, it's especially crucial to be transparent about sources of information, with the clear attribution of sources.

I bring this up because of a hot-button passage in President Donald Trump's address to the 2018 March for Life, the one that stated:

As you all know Roe versus Wade has resulted in some of the most permissive abortion laws anywhere in the world. For example, in the United States, it’s one of only seven countries to allow elective late-term abortions along with China North Korea and others. Right now, in a number of States, the laws allow a baby to be born [sic, aborted] from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month.
It is wrong. It has to change.

I mentioned that quote in my GetReligion post on the day of the march, but didn't really discuss it because I assumed these controversial words would draw quite a bit of coverage in the mainstream press.

Well, I was wrong.

It's especially amazing that Trump's reference to this issue drew little mainstream news attention because of an embarrassing verbal stumble. The president (whose history with Planned Parenthood is complex, to say the least) noted that laws in some U.S. states "allow a baby to be born from his or her mother’s womb in the ninth month." He clearly meant to say "aborted," instead of "born."

This reference was addressed in a long, detailed Washington Post "Acts of Faith" feature about the march. Readers were told:

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First do no harm: People, as well as politics, are crucial when covering medical conscience fights

First do no harm: People, as well as politics, are crucial when covering medical conscience fights

It's one of the most famous phrases in the world of medical ethics: "primum non nocere." That's Latin, of course. It means, "First do no harm."

Ah, but who gets to make the ultimate decision about whether a particular medical procedure or strategy for care will do harm to a patient? Is that ethical/moral call up to the patient, the doctor, the doctor's boss, an insurance company or even lawyers representing the U.S. government?

Now flip that question around. What if doctors pledged something like this: "First, do good." Who gets to decide what is good? Clearly, there are legal, ethical and, yes, religious questions linked to these decisions and that has been the case for centuries.

So let's pull these ancient questions and values into our litigious age.

A patient requests an abortion, perhaps even in the second or third trimester. The doctor (or perhaps a nurse) is an orthodox Catholic, a Mormon, a traditional Muslim, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, an Orthodox Jew or someone else with a deep and consistent belief that it would be wrong, a mortal sin even, to take part in this procedure. Some questions linked to medical care for trans patients, especially children, would create a similar ethical/theological crisis. Doctors do not agree on what causes "harm." Many disagree on what is "good."

How do reporters cover stories linked to these debates? First, do no journalistic harm?

Hold that thought. Here is the top of a Washington Post feature -- from the national desk, not the religion team -- on this semi-new front in America's culture wars.

The Trump administration will create a new conscience and religious freedom division within the Health and Human Services Department to ease the way for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to opt out of providing services that violate their moral or religious beliefs.

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