“Equality” Before the Press: Survey of Coverage of Vatican Birth Technology Statement

That the New York Times had as its lead story the release of the “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day” might have been predicted. That it would have run the entire text of the document in the same issue quite clearly could not have been. Now that a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been accorded the same privilege as a Presidential State of the Union message, it is perhaps well to examine what the media does to religious controversy. Because such a study could well extend to a whole book about this single topic of Vatican-media relations on issues of human life, this essay is restricted to an investigation of the ways in which some prominent secular publications reacted in relation to the reportage of some Catholic publications and of the National Catholic News Service.

Building upon the prevalent attitude that Vatican officials are old men sitting on hard wooden benches, bent over busy at work to keep the rest of the world from having any fun at all, the New York Times devoted three of its six columns to its lead story, “Vatican Asks Governments to Curb Birth Technology and to Outlaw Surrogates.” With aplomb rivaling only its front-page Bella Lugosi look-alike photograph of John Cardinal O’Connor’s first try in the pulpit of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (March 1984), the Times ran a front page, single column photograph of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in which the prelate looks as if he has been recently exhumed (March 11, 1987).

In repeated negative language, the newspaper then proceeds to extrapolate what it considers the important points of the document. The news story begins “The Vatican condemned….” What the Vatican “condemned” includes “Such common practices as” test-tube fertilization, surrogate mothers, and experimentation on living embryos. In heavy type, immediately below the photograph of Cardinal Ratzinger, the Times noted “Technology Spreading Fast.” Many of the reproductive practices condemned by the Vatican are widely accepted, routine procedures in the United States.” This may in fact be true, but many of the procedures are not common in the United States or elsewhere, and common sense alone could call for their being outlawed.

The interplay between the Vatican and the newspapers gives each equal footing as moral arbiters, but on the newspapers’ terms. Whereas doctrinal statements were once singularly distributed under the control of the Church, via official bulls and consequent preaching, this method has become ineffective because of the lack of control over preaching and the lack of immediate access to Church members via any preaching. A number of people simply do not attend Church services, and whereas the preponderance of doctrinal information was once primarily controlled by the Church’s headquarters, the Church now finds a thousand rivals for every statement. Church statements therefore become just one more “opinion” in the flow of ideas. World-wide literacy, at least in terms of the spoken word, has created independent thinkers of huge segments of the population. Without doubt, television and especially radio have played their part in this and other controversies; in a world where nearly all have access to the controlled information of a few — and those few are not people bound to preach the teachings of the Church — an understandable confusion arises.

In order for Vatican teachings to reach the major portion of the world population, the Vatican must depend now not upon its own controlled information systems, but rather upon the uncontrolled information systems in place within the world media. In many places, such access is severely restricted, and only negative information is given. In the places where such access is not restricted, the negative information is generated. One need not have documentation to suggest that Communist bloc media played up the opposition to the document much more than they ever presented the logic of the document (or the document itself) to their listeners and readers.

When the companion piece to the New York Times’ lead story that first day bespoke of “Sharp Dissent From Theologians,” it comes as no surprise that the focus was on couples who wish of their own to have children and have turned as a means of last resort to technology to assist their conception of a child. In fact, in the ensuing weeks and months, the primary concentration has been on those couples, not on the document’s objections to pre-natal diagnosis for the purposes of abortion, non-therapeutic experimentation on living embryos, gestation of human embryos for experimentation, use of dead fetuses for commercial purposes, human-animal fertilization and gestation, freezing of embryos, non- therapeutic chromosomal manipulation, unnatural or test-tube artificial fertilization among married, unmarried or purely legally contractual partners, and surrogacy. Little has been said about approved methodology: technical supplementation of conjugal procreative acts, fertility drugs or medical intervention to cure infertility, and therapeutic pre-natal diagnosis, research, and treatment.

The lines of discussion were drawn early on. The continuation of the “dissent” article is headed “Some Theologians Disagree With the Vatican Document.” Two photographs appear with the continued story, those of Professor Daniel C. Maguire of Marquette University on the left of the article, and Bishop Francis J. Mugavero of Brooklyn on the right. Prof. Maguire’s immediate comment, in bold type beneath his photograph, was “The Vatican is squandering its moral authority on issues where it has no privileged knowledge or expertise.” The Bishop of Brooklyn, on the other hand, was found to “welcome the Vatican document for clarifying these medial-moral issues.” Few found it strange that the Bishop of Brooklyn and a laicized cleric were given equal footing in this discussion of Vatican teaching on moral matters.

With a similar, if sharper, focus on dissent, the Long Island newspaper Newsday headlined its story “Vatican Condemns Using Technology to Create Births.” The text of the lead paragraphs sets the tone for later reportage and discussion and bears repeating here:

The Vatican yesterday condemned as immoral nearly every form of new technology to overcome infertility, and called on Catholics to press for laws banning practices such as surrogate motherhood and fetal experimentaion.

The stand was endorsed by American Catholic hierarchy, and dismissed by other voices within the church as “completely out of touch with mainstream theology.”

Once again Professor Maguire of Marquette is cited as an authority: “What they’re doing is using what I call those pelvic issues to define their own authority and it’s not working. The center of the church is too sophisticated to accept these simplisms.” Other “Catholic spokesmen” who seemed in accord with Professor Maguire included Frances Kissling, president of the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice, and Hilary Hanafin, a Catholic psychologist at the Center for Surrogate Parenting in Beverly Hills. Newsday found only clerics to support the Vatican statement, including Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, and spokesmen for John Cardinal O’Connor and for Bishop John R. McGann of Rockville Centre. The New York archdiocesan spokesman, Msgr. Peter Finn, seems to have proved Professor Maguire’s point. He is quoted as saying that the guidelines were approved “after consultation with all the bishops of the world, including our own.”

Unquestionably, there was subtle and not-so-subtle line-drawing between women and the church, specifically, between women and the celibate Catholic hierarchy which was handing down guidelines for these “pelvic matters.” Newsday’s articles included a small box listing the U.S. statistics relative to “Laboratory fertilization” (900 births since 1981), “Surrogate mothers” (500 births in the past decade), and “Artificial inseminations” (500,000 births since 1980). The box was illustrated with the symbol for woman, a circle with a cross coming from its lower side, and inside the circle was a stylized fetus. That the supporters of the document, as far as this newspaper found, were all celibate male clerics, and the dissenters were either married men or women, is significant from the point of view of the propagandist. If the only supporters of a position are they who presumably know least about it, there is no need even to argue with the position. It can safely be ignored.

The second day of coverage afforded the document by the New York Times once again echoed the we-they possibilities between women and the church. The story, headed “Vatican’s Moral Mission” ran under a photograph of a woman holding a child. It turns out that the woman is a Catholic, she is holding her adopted son, and she and her husband have determined that they will participate in in vitro fertilization in order to conceive their own child.

Editorially, that day the New York Times linked the Vatican document with the then-pending “Baby M” case, the custody battle between the sperm donor and the mother of a child born after a surrogacy contract had been made. While the Times’ editorial neither agrees nor disagrees with the document, it leans in the direction of technical efficiency in the matters of life by arguing in part against purely technical efficiency in matters of death. It predicts that thoughtful people will “welcome the stimulus to think through ethical responses of their own” on these matters and finds that some parts of the document are hard to disagree with (without noting which ones).

The great amount of coverage given in ensuing coverage repeated what became the new focus of the document. The Vatican did not want to “help” couples who were willing to undergo medical procedures and great financial sacrifice in order to conceive their own children, the only available medical procedures were presented as dangerous or ridiculous. The prevailing attitude of critics was that the bishops were speaking outside of their competence, and that Catholics who wanted children would do as they pleased. Major supporters of the document continued to be major clerics or their spokesmen, detractors and opponents repeatedly told the public that women and married people were not consulted in the drafting of the document.

Reports of world-wide support and rejection followed the American model. For example, the Brazilian bishops’ conference accepted the document, while in Ireland a physician said it would have no impact on his hospital practices. In Italy, the president of an association of fertility centers was quoted as saying that the document would have no practical consequences, and the head of the Italian Association for Demographic Education said the document “shocks not so much because it goes in an opposite direction to the development of science, but because it lacks humanity.”

This sort of discussion continued for a while, and when weekly newspapers and magazines came out the reaction was similar. The document was best ignored as the ramblings of a few old men. The American education weekly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, headed its story “Vatican Document on Birth Technology Unlikely to Alter Research, Ethicists Say,” and relied for implied opposition to the newest teaching document on Daniel Callahan, director of the Hastings Center in New York and LeRoy Walters, director of the Center for Bioethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. For direct support, the newspaper found the Rev. Richard A. McCormick, professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame whom it quoted as saying, regarding Vatican opposition to artificial insemination by married couples, that “People just can’t see it, and many theologians just can’t see it.”

In addition to a yawn from academe, the document reportedly received outright opposition, according to the New York Times, one week after its release: “Catholic Hospitals in Europe Defy Vatican on In-Vitro fertilization.” Reporting from Paris, Times writer Paul Lewis wrote that the medical faculty at the University of Lille, France’s only Roman Catholic medical school, as well as Catholic medical faculties and hospitals in Belgium and the Netherlands said they would continue their usual practices despite Vatican opposition. Rather than focus on the ethical questions regarding the procedure itself, the article instead presents ethical arguments for use of the procedure only among the married. The authority in the discussion becomes the rector of the University of Lille, who is also president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities. He said only “stable” couples would be able to participate in the procedure, and that they alone must provide the sperm and ovules to be used. Similar statements came from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium and from the Catholic University Hospital at Nijmegen, Netherlands. Such seeming world-wide, ethically based and responsible use of in vitro procedures creates once again the implicit spectacle of medieval monks stumbling out from the darkness to discover what the world has already amply thought about without them and without their church.

Within a week major American news magazines carried long articles on the document. The lead sentence of Newsweek’s story, headlined “Rules for Making Love and Babies” reads: “The Vatican made it plain last week that it considers high-tech methods of conception just as sinful as most forms of birth control.” The article concludes that the statement is the “Vatican’s rigid response to the technology of fertility” which will override the fact that the “message is a timely warning against scientific indifference to human life at its origin,” an observation made by other editorial writers as well.

Still, the major message presented to the world at large was the “Vatican’s rigid response” to the possibilities of assisting procreation, even (and increasingly, “especially”) within marriage. Because the Catholic press consists primarily of weekly diocesan tabloids, it was nearly one week before any extensive coverage appeared in it. In a March 9 advisory to its subscribers, the National Catholic News Service related that the Vatican press office had released the document with a strict embargo against transmission of news stories until March 10 at 6:00 p.m. EST. Since the embargo was broken by “another wire service NC News said it was transmitting anyway and asking for self-embargo by the recipients. Such points out the weakness in the Church’s use of the media. Independent of the fact that NC News and other services like it are independent and profit-making entities which service the secular as well as the Catholic press, by releasing this sort of document simultaneously to secular and religious press alike the Vatican runs the now obvious risk of having the story run first in the secular press, with all the editorial baggage attendant to secular coverage of such delicate matters. No matter how well or carefully Catholic or other religious writers are willing to deal with such a subject, once it has run in the secular press the majority of readers of Catholic publications will not read straight reportage about the document a second time. So even Catholics, even the small percentage of Catholics who have access to some sort of Catholic media, will not first have heard about this or any Catholic teaching with similar explosive news value directly from a Catholic or quasi-Catholic source, because whether the secular press scooped the story by a day or by a week, it was very soon “old news.” In addition, it is unfortunate to note that some “Catholic” media are willing to pander to anti-Vatican sentiment in their own wire stories.

In recognizing this, it is well to note that the NC News story accompanying the document began: “A new Vatican document on procreation rejects as morally illicit in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and experiments with human embryos.” No doubt, Catholic stereotypes die hard, and any story about the Vatican and moral matters uniformly appears with negative terminology. As a result, a goodly number of NC News stories presented the growing controversy among Catholic theologians. Early in the original NC News story, however, there is positive note that some technologies might be used to facilitate conception and birth. Similarly, in an accompanying wire release entitled “The Procreation Document at a Glance,” NC News presents nearly immediately what the document has called “two ‘fundamental criteria’ for judging the morality of new biomedical techniques affecting the origins of life: ‘the inviolability of the innocent human being’s right to life’ from the moment of conception, and the ‘special nature of the transmission of human life in marriage.’ ” The next line is that which received virtually no play in the secular media: “a human being must be respected ‘as a person’ from the moment of creation.”

The dreary recitation of arguments for and against ensoulment or personhood could be used to weaken this last statement, if it were to be included, but such is matter for “Catholic” argumentation which is both implicitly and explicitly against the document and which will no doubt continue for years to come. (Professor Maguire, cited earlier, over a year ago used the occasion of a “Donohue” show to call the fetus “pre-personal human tissue” but had no answer when challenged on the genetic differentiation among mother, father and fetus.)

While straight recitation of the document eventually ran in Catholic periodicals, a good amount of controversial material was supplied by NC News. In “Theologians See ‘Simple Case’ of Test-Tube Babies as Key,” the discussion revolving around the in vitro fertilization with sperm and ovum of a married couple becomes that on which the argument of the rest of the document is made or broken. The conditions are set by Catholic University’s Professor William E. May, and the objections are given by Notre Dame’s Rev. Richard McCormick, S.J. Within two days of the first New York Times story NC News released a story headed “Vatican Clarifies Church Stands on Procreation, Theologians Say” which would not have run in diocesan papers until at least a week or two later. The final paragraphs give one of the few quotes directly attributed to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Asked about the “wave of criticism” against the document, the Cardinal replied, “it is not a wave (of criticism) but a balanced panorama with some discordant voices. Our effort was to renew the respect for life and the value of the human person. The problems are difficult. One must at least recognize that our position is clear and coherent with our anthropological vision.”

Another release which received little if no play in the secular press, and which would have only appeared in the Catholic press weeks after the story had died from the front pages of major publications, notes that the Vatican consulted “about 60 moralists and theologians, more than 20 scientists and mothers” in preparing the document. No names were released, according to Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, for fear of giving the impression that the weight of reliability and truth in the document came from those consulted rather than from the magisterium. Such is in obvious contradiction to the prevailing belief, but ran too late to be seen by any but those who wished to carefully study the topic. In addition, it is an obvious response to criticism, rather than an offensive to eliminate potential criticism. Later NC News releases included a history of Vatican life documents and a story about a Dayton, Ohio couple who were expecting a child conceived via approved technological assistance. In its weekly round-up of March 16, 1987, NC News included the sentence “but in the United States some critics accused the document of simplistic thinking about the relationship between law and morality in modern pluralistic societies.”

As the Catholic press began to run stories about the document, the secular press was beginning to run letters to the editor and opinion pieces. By the end of March, the New York Times had four letters to the editor under the general title “Vatican Wages Costly Wars Against Women.” One, from Jeanne-Marie Vecsey, said the document “shows an alarming disregard for pluralistic religious-ethical standards among citizens of these governments and a renewed arrogance on the part of the Roman Catholic Church in implying that its voice is the world’s only mentor.” Walter Geary wrote, “The issue is not religion but public policy.” Rev. Paul Surlis of St. John’s University, New York wrote that the newspaper oversteps its bounds by declaring that one or another act is a “sin,” and Rabbi Stanley Boylan of Touro College argued that there is no standard Jewish opinion on these matters. What is important to note is that the letters do not focus on a “war against women,” but merely raise specific objections to either the document or the reportage about it.

In the beginning of April, feature stories and opinion pieces began to appear. A major feature story in the Wall Street Journal discussed sperm banks, focusing on “cryobanking” which insures disease-free sperm for later use. An accompanying box notes fairly prominently that the banking of frozen sperm was first suggested by an Italian monk. The story features the case of a twenty-nine year old California artist, who receives $25 for each of his donations to the sperm bank, and who knows he presently has eleven offspring (currently the informal industry limit) somewhere in the world. He has signed an agreement saying that any of these children can reach him when they become eighteen. The Journal’s look at the sperm bank includes the information that the donors are listed anonymously in a catalogue from which clients may choose. Donor number 092, for example, is a 5’ 10” Hispanic man of Mexican descent with brown eyes and black hair. Number 268, on the other hand, is a 6’ 1” Caucasian man of Scots-Irish-German descent with blond hair and blue eyes. The tone of the article clearly implies that people want babies for good reasons, and there is little which should be done to stop them outside of testing for disease, especially for AIDS.

On the same day, in Newsday, Professor Daniel C. Maguire is once again heard from under the headline “Vatican’s Misbegotten Edict on Birth Technology.” His full-page opinion piece begins with the objection that the document as “a serious effort to lobby the nations of the world to limit the reproductive choices of all citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.” A point-by-point analysis of his arguments need not be reiterated here if only for its predictability. Some of the language may be worth noting, however. The document is “infelicitous.” It revolves around “pelvic issues.” Those who oppose Vatican teaching on birth matters are “mainstream Catholic theologians.” This is an effort to impose a “narrow religious test on the practice of medicine.” Church statements are “ethics by edict.” He closes with an appeal to the “Earth’s power holders” to consider the “42,000 children who die daily due to lack of food and medicine.”

No doubt coverage, or non-coverage, of the document will continue, probably under the general rubric of “Catholic controversy.” The “controversy” will spread across the pages of secular and religious press alike, and will be covered in those same pages. The underlying rationale, that the Vatican is possessor of just one more opinion on these matters, and the concomitant argument that we must all “think through ethical responses of (our) own,” perhaps independent of religion and of religious teaching, will underscore what is already a serious erosion of the possibility of Vatican teaching having any real effect either within the church or without. Whereas ordinarily magisterial moral teaching would at least be respected major, well-developed and serious religiously-based ethical reasoning, it is now being attacked at its root as an attempt to meddle in affairs which are none of its business. The propaganda war in which the Vatican is presently engaged will not soon end, but it is at least clear that the Vatican is losing.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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