Editor's Note

Emergency upon Emergency

December 6, 2022
Darrel Frost

In June, a few days before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, an article was published in a medical journal called Clinical Infectious Diseases. In the United States, from January 2020 to December 2021, researchers found, pregnant women with covid-19 were nearly four times more likely to be admitted to intensive care than those who were not pregnant. Pre-covid, maternal mortality rates in the United States had already been higher than in countries of comparable wealth; during the first two years of the pandemic, covid contributed to a quarter of maternal deaths. Pregnant Black women died at a rate nearly three times that of their white counterparts—yet again, the pandemic underscored existing disparities. After the Dobbs decision, the Biden administration considered declaring a public health emergency, then opted not to.

Emergency upon emergency is hard for anyone to process, and we’ve come to know how much the press struggles to communicate what’s going on when crises compound. Not that we didn’t see this coming. In May, Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward, of Politico, published a draft opinion leaked by “a person familiar with the court’s proceedings”; that quickly became a story as much about the mystery of the source—and, gosh, the sanctity of the court—as the document itself. Rebecca Traister wrote for New York magazine’s The Cut, “The overturn of Roe, whatever form it takes, will not be the product of the ‘party of Trump,’” as Democratic leaders had been suggesting. “It is the party of Ronald Reagan, who came to power in 1980 on a platform that included a ‘human life amendment.’” And onward: Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, other “justices who had been grown in a Federalist Society lab to strike down freedoms supported by a majority of Americans.” Anyway, as of April, nearly 90 percent of counties already lacked a clinic that provided abortions; as Jessica Bruder noted for The Atlantic, since Roe, states have passed more than thirteen hundred antiabortion laws, and “for people struggling to get by, those restrictions can be insurmountable.”

A glib assessment: quotidian tragedy is a bummer; panic makes for good copy. The people who run newsrooms tend not to be those especially likely to experience a high-risk pregnancy, or those for whom child-rearing is an economic impossibility. Reproductive justice sounds lovely, but we are not really talking, writing, or broadcasting in those terms; for the most part, we are reactive. “After Roe fell, I was watching how people responded online,” Mia Sato, a reporter for The Verge, tells Haley Mlotek for this issue. “I use the term ‘meme’ pretty loosely, but one thing that I saw become a meme was something that usually went, ‘If you are in Seattle and need a place to stay for your abortion, my couch is open.’” Sato continues, “What struck me was that it was a profoundly individualistic way to try to meet the moment of this need.” In their conversation, Sato and Mlotek appreciate the impulse—and wonder, too, what became of all the pandemic lessons about infrastructure and mutual aid and the rest.

For journalism, a major takeaway from the past couple of years was supposed to be the importance of grasping multiple story lines at once—keeping them connected instead of artificially breaking them apart. That is not necessarily easy, but it’s more realistic, more honest, and more relatable than compartmentalizing: life is everything that spills out and over, like it or not. An example being why someone gets an abortion—not that anyone needs a reason—and how the answer is connected to the person’s access to care, financial circumstances, health coverage, race, gender identity, ambition, religious background. Anna Altman writes in this issue about Shefali Luthra, a reporter for The 19th, a newsroom focused on politics and policy through a gender lens. Luthra was hired in 2020 to cover health in general, but abortion surfaced quickly as the center of her beat. “This is not a niche topic,” she tells Altman. “I don’t mean that in the metaphorical sense that abortion rights is part of broader privacy rights. I mean abortion in and of itself is now only a few degrees removed from you.”

Covering abortion in the South, Becca Andrews is in touch with sources whose lives have been totally upended in the past six months. That has to be acknowledged, she argues: post-Dobbs, reporters cannot continue on as they were; in particular, outlets ought to reconsider their policies regarding anonymity. Andrews introduces us in this issue to a woman who works for an abortion fund: she suddenly found herself bombarded by media requests; around the same time, her home was broken into, her car window smashed. This person is not named in the story; Andrews describes her predicament and protects her privacy, demonstrating that a journalist can do both. “Most of us are not feeling comfortable putting our faces or names on anything,” the woman tells Andrews, referring to conversations she’s had with colleagues across the abortion services field. Andrews writes, “Granting anonymity—and making clear the stakes for the source—may be the only option for reporters seeking to include those voices.” 

Elsewhere in this issue: Pesha Magid, Mercy Tonnia Orengo, and Emily Russell hear from people who have been sources in abortion coverage on how they weigh the potential benefits and risks of talking with the press, what those interactions have been like, and consequences they’ve faced. Amy Littlefield describes the role of a national abortion reporter now covering fifty breaking local stories. Mary Retta considers the role of Google Docs as service journalism in moments of crisis, particularly post-Dobbs. Feven Merid identifies the latest battleground of reproductive-health disinformation: antiabortion activists—many of them religious, operating as or alongside “wellness” influencers—have set their sights on birth control.

A lot feels bleak, but that isn’t the end of it. Journalism has a role to play telling stories not only about what’s bad—what constitutes a public health emergency—but also about how people are carrying on, what could be done, and the ways in which having an abortion, safely, is an act of love.

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.