‘Equally Sacred’: What Media Get Wrong on Pope Francis & Abortion

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As the media report on Pope Francis calling born humans “equally sacred” to the unborn, many forget that his words also mean that unborn lives are just as sacred as born lives.

On April 9, Pope Francis released his latest apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), on the “call to holiness in today’s world.” While the Catholic document boasted 177 paragraphs, the media focused on one in particular – where the pontiff urged that the lives of “those already born” are “equally sacred” to the “innocent unborn.” But that’s not exactly how the media reported it.

In the exhortation, this comment came shortly after Pope Francis warned of a “harmful ideological error” that is “found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others” or “they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend.”

To illustrate that last point, the pontiff pointed to “our defence of the innocent unborn.” It “needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development,” he affirmed.

But, he added, other lives are “equally sacred,” including the “lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”

He also pointed to the “situation of migrants” and called out Catholics who “consider it a secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions.”

While Pope Francis never once used the word “abortion,” the media did in their headlines. And in their use of “abortion,” they excluded the word “unborn”:

  • New York Times: “Pope Francis Puts Caring for Migrants and Opposing Abortion on Equal Footing”
  • NPR: “Caring For Migrants Is As Important As Opposing Abortion, Pope Says”
  • CNN: “Pope Francis says helping the poor and migrants is as important as opposing abortion”
  • Huffington Post: “Pope Francis: Helping Poor And Migrants Is ‘Equally Sacred’ As Fighting Abortion”
  • Slate: “Pro-Lifers Dismiss Pope’s Declaration that Protecting Migrants Is Just as Important as Abortion”
  • ThinkProgress: “Pope admonishes Catholics that poverty and immigration are just as important issues as abortion”

In other words, while Pope Francis called the lives of the unborn equal to migrants and the poor, the media treated them differently in their wording. Imagine if, for example, the headlines switched “opposing abortion” to “caring for the unborn.” It would look something like this [words in bold indicate edits]:

  • New York Times: “Pope Francis Puts Caring for Migrants and Caring for Unborn on Equal Footing”
  • NPR: “Caring For Migrants Is As Important As Caring for Unborn, Pope Says”
  • CNN: “Pope Francis says helping the poor and migrants is as important as caring for unborn
  • Huffington Post: “Pope Francis: Helping Poor And Migrants Is ‘Equally Sacred’ As Helping Unborn
  • Slate: “Pro-Lifers Dismiss Pope’s Declaration that Protecting Migrants Is Just as Important as Unborn
  • ThinkProgress: “Pope admonishes Catholics that poverty and immigration are just as important issues as the unborn

Yes, the born are as sacred as unborn. The beauty of the Catholic faith is that it realizes the intrinsic dignity and worth of each human person. But it goes both ways: If the lives of the born are “equally sacred” to the lives of the unborn, then unborn lives are “equally sacred” to born lives.

But the media, many of whom so frequently spin abortion as positive and prioritize other lives before the unborn, poked and prodded pro-life Catholics with Pope Francis’s comments.

Huffington Post religion reporter Carol Kuruvilla wrote about the pontiff’s “scathing rebuke of Catholics who prioritize some church laws and doctrines ― including those condemning abortion.” CNN Vatican correspondent Dehlia Gallagher noted the “pointed rebuke to Catholic anti-abortion activists.” ThinkProgress health policy reporter Amanda Michelle Gomez went so far as to say the move meant that Pope Francis had “softened the Roman Catholic Church stance on abortion yet again.”

One of the best responses to the attacks of pro-lifers following the publication of the exhortation came from CatholicVote managing editor Stephen Herreid.

“Of course, the human dignity of the poor is the same as the human dignity of the unborn,” he stressed. “As soon as the Supreme Court legalizes the ‘right’ to kill poor people, I’ll advocate for the poor just as strongly as I now advocate for the unborn.”

He added that “it’s a question of which one is more urgently under attack and in need of defense.” While “pro-lifers are advocating for the unborn because of their human dignity,” he continued, “they would do the same for the poor if they were just as much under threat.”

If only the media agreed.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

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Katie Yoder serves as the associate culture editor at NewsBusters and is a columnist for CatholicVote.org. She is also the Joe and Betty Anderlik Fellow for the Media Research Center’s culture division. Follow her on Twitter @k_yoder.

9 Comments

  1. Rob Schroeder on

    I am always flummoxed at the need for conservatives to tell the rest of us what Pope Francis really meant to say. You literally cite in your article that Francis tells us to treat the “grave ethical issues,” as he puts it, on equal footing with care for the poor, or care for migrants, as examples. Then you close your article by describing why the issue of abortion should take greater weight than the issue of the care for the poor.
    Didn’t Pope Francis literally write the opposite, and didn’t you literally cite the exact passage in which Pope Francis writes the opposite?
    Or conversely, if Pope Francis’ point was that abortion should take on greater weight than care for the poor, why did he not write that?

    • Rob-

      With all due respect, I didn’t read this piece as applying higher priority to abortion; rather, I took it as a critique of media coverage of the Pope’s piece as his having somehow subordinated care/concern for the unborn.

      • Rob Schroeder on

        Hi Ram-
        The Pope’s explicit message was that “grave ethical issues” should not be considered lesser than, for example, care for the poor or care for migrants. Also, his explicit message is that care for the poor or care for migrants should not be considered lesser than “grave ethical issues.” I don’t know what else to say besides that is explicitly what he wrote.
        In that light, it doesn’t make sense to criticize the media for getting this wrong when the author literally writes that abortion should be considered a more important issue than care for the poor. She includes this quote:
        “As soon as the Supreme Court legalizes the ‘right’ to kill poor people, I’ll advocate for the poor just as strongly as I now advocate for the unborn.”
        The phrase “just as strongly” is an obvious refutation to what Francis wrote. He calls us to advocate for both just as strongly now and at all times.
        That’s my point. There’s no point in criticizing the media if the author is going to do the exact thing she claims the media is doing.

        • I’m not arguing about what the Pope said.

          I agree with what you took from it.

          RE: this line ““As soon as the Supreme Court legalizes the ‘right’ to kill poor people, I’ll advocate for the poor just as strongly as I now advocate for the unborn.”

          I received this as “yes, the poor would receive the same concern for that particular situation the unborn now encounter”, not, “I won’t worry about the poor until they are also being executed en masse”.

          • Rob Schroeder on

            Right, but that interpretation doesn’t make sense in light of what the Pope wrote. If the Pope meant that abortion should get more weight because the lives of the poor are not at stake, he would have written that. Assuredly, the Pope is aware that the vast majority of poor people aren’t at risk of dying at this moment, right? That’s my entire point. Why do we feel the need to rewrite what the Pope said with a claim he explicitly did not make?

          • I must not be seeing what you’re seeing in the piece here.

            Yoder:

            “Yes, the born are as sacred as unborn.”

            Herreid, the site EIC here is quoted:

            “Of course, the human dignity of the poor is the same as the human dignity of the unborn,”.

            Human dignity is a grave ethical issue; the Pope reinforces this, you, Yoder, Herreid and I agree here.

            Media coverage, not the author here, assigns priority in their coverage.

            Abortion, the author correctly notes, was never mentioned by the Pope. The press did in their reportage in an attempt to spin the piece as a diminution of abortion as a concern of the Pope/Church.

  2. Gloria Hensley on

    Agree with Rob. Pope Francis did not sound at all like he thought the murder of the unborn was the most pressing matter. Every day 3,000 or more unborn people are murdered. Yes, those already born deserve care, but 3,000 of them are not murdered every day, also, they have had the opportunity to be born. Abortion, murder of the unborn, should be the number one priority because without life what good is the rest? I love my Catholic Faith and i respect our Pope for the position of Peter that he holds, and pray for him every day, but I surely pray also that he chooses his words, and his advisors very carefully. If he truly believes that all matters are equal to murdering the unborn, I pray the Holy Spirit show him Truth. The unborn are not on equal footing with the rest. They are murdered by the thousands before they even have a chance to take a breath. God hates child sacrifice but this is exactly what is being done.

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