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Stereotyping Pro-Lifers


by Nat Hentoff
The Washington Post, May 16, 1992

The First Amendment does not mandate that the press be accurate. Indeed, James Madison, the press's abiding protector, emphasized that "some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything, and in no instance is this more true than of the press." If we are to stay free, Madison said, so must the "chequered" press be free. Yet there are readers and viewers who hope for not only accurate facts but also accurate characterizations of people in the news. For instance, R. W. Apple Jr., illuminating the pro-life heresy of Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey in the New York Times, has described him as "a conservative Democrat."

Casey, however, has made Pennsylvania one of the first states to mandate help for young, disabled children (with $ 45 million for the first year). He has set up a model child care program for state workers, he has been pushing for family leave legislation, and he has put together a program to ensure health care to every uninsured Pennsylvania child up to the age of 6.

This "conservative" governor has been lauded by the National Political Women's Caucus for his persistence in naming women cabinet appointees (40 percent) and increasing the participation of women and minorities in state construction contracts from one to 15 percent. He is also a friend of labor (a phrase that used to be said more often about Democratic politicians).

I asked Gov. Casey how he felt being preserved in the New York Times Index as a conservative. Casey laughed. "Well, that's the mind-set of a good many people in and out of the press. If you're pro-life, you must be conservative." The press has been cautioned about its bent toward stereotyping pro-lifers. In a long, carefully detailed series on press coverage of abortion around the nation, David Shaw, press critic for the Los Angeles Times -- after an 18-month study and more than 100 interviews -- found, in 1990, "scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play."

Accordingly, many readers and viewers have a decidedly limited sense of the diversity of pro-lifers. Feminists for Life of America, for example, includes women who came out of the civil rights and antiwar movements and now work for what they call "a consistent ethic of life." They lobby against death penalty legislation in their states and for economic justice.

Feminists for Life of America is based inKansas City, Mo., and was founded by Pat Goltz, whose membership in the National Organization for Women was thereupon immediately revoked -- for heresy. There now are members in every state and chapters in 35. Its lively president, Rachel MacNair, has been arrested at least 17 times -- for protests against nuclear energy plants and nuclear weapons, once for sitting on the sidewalk holding a sign at an abortion clinic, twice for passing out leaflets on clinic property and once for sitting in front of an abortion clinic door.

As I've discovered traveling around the country, not many people, including journalists and editors, know much if anything about Feminists for Life of America. They are convinced that much of the pro-life movement is led by males who think and sometimes look like Jesse Helms and are almost as passionately dedicated to speeding up executions as they are to closing abortion clinics.

As it turns out, according to National Opinion Research Center polls, "among the general public it is true that a majority of persons who are least permissive toward abortion [pro-life] are likely to favor capital punishment. It is also true that they are more likely to oppose capital punishment than those who are most permissive on abortion [pro-choice]." Feminists for Life of America, in any case, are, one and all, against executions of any kind.

Pro-choice feminists scoff at the possibility that any woman who is pro-life can accurately be called -- by the press or anyone else -- a feminist. But Feminists for Life of America answers: "Truly liberated women reject abortion because they reject the male world view that accepts violence as a legitimate solution to conflict."

Barry Nakell, a pro-lifer, a University of North Carolina law professor and a member of the ACLU state board, once reminded his fellow board members that the North Carolina affiliate was founded in opposition to the death penalty. Therefore, it should consistently respect the most fundamental civil liberty of all, the dignity of life. Nakell once told me approvingly of a bumper sticker he had seen: "Equal Rights for Unborn Women."

Copyright 1992 The Washington Post