The evil of the age

For improvement by 2073, we need the courage of 1871

Issue: "Life Issues," Feb. 24, 2001

I don't usually soft-pedal the extent of the anti-Christian bias of many current journalists, but I felt like I may have done so when eating lunch early this month with a WORLD subscriber who used to be a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.

The ex-Sun reporter was asking for advice to give to young Christian reporters working at secular newspapers, and I responded with ways to beat editors at their own game. Since editors say things like, "Show, don't tell," and "give me specific detail," I suggested that Christians should do exactly that when reporting on partial-birth abortion. They should write of the sharp instrument puncturing the skull of a mostly-born child. They should show the horror so that readers will be moved to oppose it.

The ex-Sun writer suggested that big-newspaper journalism had changed and that editors were not the cranky old insisters on detail they used to be: Now, many are cranky young insisters on propaganda. Regardless of what good writing requires, she said, the new propaganda czars just would not allow the word pictures that could create critics of abortion.

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I hope she is not right, but she probably is-and that will make it hard to awaken public opinion to bring about the optimistic outcomes that some of the writers in this special issue predict. After all, newspaper use of specific detail played a key role in winning the first war against abortion in America, the one waged from the 1840s through the 1890s.

In 1870, New York Times editor Louis Jennings, a conservative Christian, began an anti-abortion crusade with a biblically referenced editorial titled "The Least of These Little Ones." He complained that "the perpetration of infant murder ... is rank and smells to heaven." He tried to raise public outrage by assigning one of his Christian reporters, Augustus St. Clair, to visit (along with a female friend) abortion businesses. What they learned in August 1871, while posing as an abortion-minded couple, came out in a hard-hitting feature, headlined "The Evil of the Age." It showed how "thousands of human beings are murdered before they have seen the light of this world."

St. Clair's specific detail skillfully contrasted powerlessness and power. He described the back of one abortionist's office: "Human flesh, supposed to have been the remains of infants, was found in barrels of lime and acids, undergoing decomposition." He showed the affluence of one abortionist, Dr. H.D. Grindle, and quoted Madame Grindle as saying, "Why, my dear friend, you have no idea of the class of people that come to us. We have had Senators, Congressman and all sorts of politicians, bring some of the first women in the land here."

Newspaper crusaders know that once the basic facts are laid out and readers become aware of a problem, a specific incident is still needed to galvanize the public. The sad but journalistically useful horror story arose within the week, and was headlined "A TERRIBLE MYSTERY." The story described how the body of a young woman was found crammed inside a trunk in a railroad station baggage room, with an autopsy showing she had died after aborting her child: "Seen even in this position and rigid in death, the young girl, for she could not have been more than eighteen, had a face of singular loveliness." She and her unborn child were victims of "the life-destroying arts of those abortionists, whose practices have lately been exposed in the TIMES."

During the next few days, the Times kept reminding readers that the two deaths had occurred because of what went on in "one of the many abortion dens that disgrace New York." The Times attacked "men and women whose profession, if it means anything at all, means murder made easy," and asked whether "the lives of babes are of less account than a few ounces of precious metal, or a roll of greenbacks." Soon, the American Medical Association was circulating a report emphasizing "the safety of the child" and denouncing "the perverted views of morality" underlying abortion.

The AMA language was resolute in its defense of "human life.... An honest judge on the bench would call things by their proper names. We would do no less." That's what journalists felt also. Out of their emphasis on both sets of victims, mothers and children, arose new preaching, new legislation, and a new development of "refuges"-19th-century crisis pregnancy centers-that helped save many lives.

When will today's New York Times-and, for that matter, today's AMA-show the reality of abortion? When will they at least call things by their proper names? In a few years? In 2073? When, God, when?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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