All (abortion) politics is national

State policy on other issues is increasingly national, too. Here's how local reporters can tell more complete stories

PRAIRIE VILLAGE, KS — “An abortion facility in Missouri would need to be inspected at least four times annually under a newly proposed measure in the state House,” began a Jan. 18 article in The Kansas City Star.

The sentence actually might have begun, “The abortion facility in Missouri”—because, as the story goes on to point out, there is only one.

Yet that single Planned Parenthood office in St. Louis has been targeted by a wave of anti-abortion legislation from Jefferson City, of which the inspections measure is only one example. So far in the nascent 2014 state legislative session, bills have been introduced that would impose a 72-hour waiting period for abortion procedures; stiffen parental-consent requirements for minors; boost fundraising for “pregnancy resource centers,” which abortion-rights advocates argue give biased information to women; and mandate that doctors give ultrasounds to women seeking abortions.

Although Missouri anti-abortion activists have been focusing their ire on the facility in St. Louis, this legislative effort is not about one clinic. In fact—contrary to Tip O’Neill’s maxim that “all politics is local”—it’s not just about Missouri at all; it’s a national battle being fought by proxy in dozens of states.

Few of the local press reports about this legislative wave in Missouri have pointed out that variations of these bills have popped up all over the country in just the last three years. The 72-hour waiting period has become law in South Dakota and Utah. Enhanced parental-consent requirements have been enacted in Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and Oklahoma. Measures protecting or promoting pregnancy resource centers have been approved in South Dakota, New Hampshire, Alaska, Kansas, and other states. And stiffer ultrasound requirements were enacted in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, and Wisconsin. (This list is not exhaustive, and it does not include the many versions of these measures that have been introduced but not yet passed.)

And with occasional exceptions, few news reports in any of the affected states have pointed out the important role that one organization, Americans United for Life, has played in this national movement.

That should change, and there are fairly simple ways to change it. But for journalists, this isn’t just about how to cover the abortion battle better. The resources and the mindset that can bolster coverage of this issue apply to taxes, regulation, and more—any of the many issues on which state-level policy is being influenced by coordinated action among national groups.

The model-bill mill

Founded in 1971, Americans United for Life is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that bills itself as the country’s first national pro-life group, and it has played an influential role for decades in fighting abortion through judicial and legislative venues. But the Republican takeover of statehouses across the country in 2010 opened the door to unprecedented legislative successes for the organization.

Like the American Legislative Exchange Council—the free-market advocacy group that has successfully pushed many measures in the states in recent years—AUL enjoys relationships with conservative legislators across the country and drafts model bills for their use.

AUL claims that it helped push 28 new anti-abortion measures into law in 2011, 19 in 2012, and another 16 last year—by providing model legislation that was adopted by states, or by consulting with legislators on language.

And yet, despite AUL’s influence in dozens of states, media coverage of the group remains scarce at the local level. As with ALEC, much of the reporting on the group has come from national liberal-leaning outlets whose audiences are opposed to the group’s goals, like Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, and The Rachel Maddow Show, and international ones like The Guardian.

Of course, tracking legislators’ activities and associations is not always easy. Tracking model legislation, on the other hand, can often be accomplished via easily accessible web resources, since AUL, like ALEC, puts much of its model legislation online.

In 2012, an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation found significant “text overlaps” between AUL’s model “Women’s Ultrasound Right to Know Act” and 13 bills that were then pending in state legislatures, as well as a Texas measure that had already become law.

Reporters everywhere can conduct similar analyses by using free Sunlight Foundation tools such as Scout and Open States, which allow users to search legislative language and track bills as they move through legislatures.

“What these tools do is empower local reporters to take that national look,” says Sunlight Foundation managing editor Kathy Kiely.

All a reporter needs in order to find copycat legislative language is a little knowledge, a little curiosity, and some linguistic finesse.

“The art of this is trying to figure out what these phrases are,” Kiely says. “Oftentimes they’re technical phrases that you think are likely to repeat.”

That means, Kiely adds, “You don’t search for ‘abortion,’ you search for ‘fetal heartbeat.’”

The AUL ultrasound model bill, for instance, contains some unusual technical phrasing. To wit: “The auscultation of fetal heart tone must be of a quality consistent with standard medical practice in the community.” This might seem odd language for state legislation, but plugging the first part of the phrase into the Sunlight Foundation’s Scout tool yields matching language in bills dating back to 2011 from Missouri, North Carolina, Indiana, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Massachusetts, and Virginia.

In the case of Missouri’s abortion-facility inspection proposal, a check of Open States actually doesn’t turn up a direct linguistic match for AUL model legislation—but some of the language does match pretty closely with a 2011 bill from North Carolina. An enterprising reporter might look into why. Many groups on both the political left and right, Kiely says, “are trying to use a cookie-cutter approach, state by state.”

And legislators appreciate the help. The Missouri House adopted a resolution in 2012 honoring AUL and its president, Charmaine Yoest, for “producing constitutionally-sound model legislation and expert advice on bills pending before this body….” As far as this reporter could determine, the resolution went unremarked in state media.

Sunlight and exposure

For its part, AUL sees no problem with the lack of attention it has received from reporters in the states.

“Often at the state level, the focus of reporting is on the legislators involved—which is as it should be,” AUL spokeswoman Kristi Hamrick said in an email. (The group declined a request for a phone interview.) “Legislation is the work of legislators, and AUL hopes only to provide any support as desired … but the leadership at the state and federal levels are office holders, who are featured in their states and who are making the decisions about what to introduce and how it is debated, etc.”

There’s obviously some truth to that. A basic element of accountability reporting involves local reporters making sure their audiences knows who at the statehouse is responsible for major legislation. And in many cases, local advocacy and activist groups have played a key role in support or opposition, and are appropriately featured in coverage—as in the Kansas City Star story mentioned above, which cited both Missouri Right to Life and the regional Planned Parenthood chapter.

But increasingly, the full story requires the national context. In part, that’s just about delivering sophisticated, complete political coverage that informs people about how an idea becomes a bill becomes a law. In part, it’s about identifying opportunities to explore a law’s impact—if an identical bill was passed in another state a year or two earlier, you’d want to see how conditions in that state have changed.

And in part, it’s about delivering clearer coverage about the motivation behind new laws. AUL uses anodyne language in naming its model legislation, emphasizing women’s health and safety: the Women’s Health Defense Act, for instance, or the Abortion Patients’ Enhanced Safety Act. But admonitions on the organization’s website to help “reverse Roe,” and boasts that, thanks to AUL efforts, “only one abortion clinic remains” in Mississippi, make it clear that the group’s ultimate goal is a ban on legalized abortion. (The group’s name is obviously a clue, too.)

Local voters and readers will respond to those motivations according to their own political values—but either way, journalists owe the public the full story behind these legislative collaborations. As the Sunlight Foundation’s Kiely says: “We feel like information is power.”

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee. Tags: , , ,