Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Persistent Narrative: The Media, Religion, and Abortion

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“Christian conservatives in Trump administration build global antiabortion coalition”

The headline to the story in the Washington Post, linked above, may seem innocuous to the everyday consumer of news, but such a reaction only testifies to how successful the media have been in framing the issue. Indeed, the headline to the story tells you all that you need to know about the media and its never ending quest to portray the pro-life movement as ineluctably religious—a cabal of fanatics bent on imposing a particular tenet of Christian belief on an unwilling, secular and pluralistic society.

This headline is only the latest example of a long-running phenomenon.

In the 1960s, well before the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wadecreating a constitutional right to abortion, the media propagated and honed this narrative.  For example, on April 5, 1965, CBS News broadcast a documentary “Abortion and the Law” hosted by Walter Cronkite.  (The video was available on YouTube and the CBS News site, but has since been taken down). As Clarke Forsythe notes in his book Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade (2013)(p. 67), “the program framed the Roman Catholic Church as the only opponent of ‘reform,’ and the only argument against abortion as an ‘ethical or religious’ one.”   Framing the pro-life movement in this manner, the documentary served as “a powerful advertisement for the repeal of abortion laws” (p. 68). Indeed, according to Germain Grisez in his book Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (1970), the ostensibly neutral press was “so effective in promoting the pro-abortion cause” in the program that it was “subsequently widely used on film by groups favoring relaxation of the laws” (p. 214).

Likewise, when the television networks announced the Court’s decision in Roe, they immediately framed it in terms of liberty and privacy on the one hand and a sectarian religious viewpoint on the other.  On January 22, 1973, the day Roe was decided, CBS News on its evening broadcast chose to depict opposition to the Court’s ruling in religious terms, featuring a Catholic priest as the spokesman for the pro-life movement (see video here).  The network did not analyze the arguments against abortion exposing their supposedly religious premises.  It believed more strongly in the power of suggestion.  CBS could have turned to any number of prominent women leaders in the pro-life movement, but the network chose to show the nation a man—a  Catholic priest in a Roman collar.

In the years immediately following Roe the media demonstrated an unwavering commitment to this narrative.  On April 23, 1978, CBS News broadcast a television program entitled “The Politics of Abortion” hosted by Bill Moyers.  As John Noonan notes in his book A Private Choice (1979) (p. 78), “The program opened with a shot of a priest selling rosaries; the camera then panned to a statue of the Virgin Mary.” This is how the network chose to characterize the participants in the March for Life.  “Without words the camera let the hawker of religious goods and the image of the Virgin declare that whoever was there was guilty of mariolatry and a probable bigot.”  The show also featured  “[a] priest in clerical dress . . . preaching against abortion in a pulpit.  The bishops’ spokesman on abortion, Monsignor James McHugh, was interviewed presenting the Catholic opposition to abortion.”  As Noonan observes, the program did not mention the deep scholarly criticism of Roe or the widespread opposition to abortion in various religions.  Instead, “[t]he message of the program was that Catholic theology, conveyed by priests at the beck of bishops to a fanatical laity, was the basis for the opposition to the funding of abortion and the reason for discontent with [Roe and Doe].”

This practice of portraying the pro-life cause as a peculiarly Christian and specifically Catholic crusade has continued up to the present day, of which the Washington Post piece is but the latest example.  More certain in practice than Godwin’s Law is the likelihood that, in a newspaper article or television report on abortion, the pro-life cause will be attributed to religious sentiments, suggesting—sometimes overtly, but more often indirectly—that the pro-life cause is religious at its foundation and that this precludes its legitimate inclusion in the formation of public policy.

As an example of this indirect approach, the Washington Post story linked above does not analyze any of the arguments behind the Trump administration’s policies concerning abortion for signs that these policies constitute an establishment of religion.  It merely identifies those seeking to advance these policies as conservative “Christians,” and it refers to a group aligned with the administration’s efforts as “a think tank with Catholic ties.”  Written as a smear, this identification does all the work that needs to be done.  It clearly communicates the only idea that needs to be conveyed:  The policies that these individuals and groups seek to advance are wrong not simply because they restrict access to abortion.  They are wrong because they are religious, promoted by religious actors.

As such, the headline to the Post story alone succinctly captures the narrative that the mainstream media and those on the political Left use to frame the abortion issue: Free and open access to abortion is an unqualified good—one that should be enjoyed by women around the world.  A tiny minority of determined Christian theocrats in government, together with a network of religiously affiliated misogynist NGO’s, conspire behind the scenes to undermine a cherished human right.

If asked to explain it, members of the media would no doubt aver that the act of reporting the religious identity of “anti-abortion” political actors is straight news reporting. But such an assertion is hardly credible.  The tell-tale sign that the reporting of abortion opponents’ religious affiliation is not news is that the media does not report the religious identity of those who defend and promote the abortion license as a matter of course.  This fact is deemed irrelevant to the meaning of the policy itself.  But on their face, the substance of pro-life measures are not religious, but secular—the preservation of innocent human life.  The alleged religious quality is only an accusation.  This religious quality is derived from the presumed motivation of its sponsors.  But why isn’t the motivation of abortion supporters subject to similar suspicion and scrutiny?  Yet the media never report the religious affiliation of abortion supporters unless doing so will support the narrative, as when a clinic worker or abortion activist is identified as Catholic or Evangelical.  Their support of abortion is meant to signify that people can resist the theocratic impulse that their co-religionists fail to overcome.

Why do authors in the media continue to frame the story in this way?  No doubt because they judge it effective in achieving the ends sought.  They continue to trade on the libel that Catholics are untrustworthy as citizens – that they are conspiring to undermine the religious neutrality of our pluralist society.  While they do not call pro-lifers “papists” they want the public to smell the gunpowder that Guy Fawkes plans to set alight.  And so they regularly employ a casual slur that enjoys the plausible deniability of mere description. 

No matter the cost to our republic, no matter the harm caused in rending the social fabric, the proponents of abortion in the media and elsewhere seem determined to perpetuate a lie, all in order to preserve the abortion license.  Just to let the killing go on.

This is a shameful and despicable tactic that should be called out at every turn.



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