Carole Hénaff

Everywhere and Nowhere

Notes from a parachuting national reporter on abortion’s local stories

December 6, 2022

Over the summer, on assignment for The Nation, I boarded a flight to Kansas City. Kansans were about to vote on whether to repeal their constitutional right to abortion; it would be the first direct vote on abortion in the country since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The Kansas legislature, which is led by Republicans, had scheduled the referendum during a primary—an effort to suppress turnout and ensure an easy victory. But I thought there was a chance abortion-rights supporters would pull off an upset win. 

The morning of the election, as I prepared to head to the polls, I was feeling good: optimistic about the outcome and pleased that I’d made it to the scene of a major story. Then a message appeared on my phone from a professor in Indiana. “Why isn’t The Nation also covering Indiana, the first state in the nation to attempt to ban abortions legislatively after Roe?” the man wrote. Abortion-rights activists there had waged an aggressive counteroffensive, which was showing signs of success—they’d managed to sow division among Republicans and to persuade several that the ban was too extreme. While reporters from major outlets descended on Kansas, however, the action in Indiana was getting only limited press. “Direct elections are important, but you are truly missing an important story if you don’t cover legislative efforts such as Indiana as well,” the professor wrote. 

I felt deflated. By focusing on Kansas, I’d neglected something pivotal elsewhere. That tension is inherent to journalism—there is only so much column space, only so many hours in a day—but the problem suddenly seemed more acute. Until recently, abortion was a federally protected right; now news was breaking in fifty states at once. State legislatures had just been handed unprecedented power over abortion, yet legislatures have fewer people covering them than ever before; according to the Pew Research Center, since 2014, the number of statehouse reporters has declined by 34 percent. The handful of national journalists dedicated to covering abortion rights carry a much greater burden to place attention where it’s needed. But we can’t be everywhere. 

What attracts the press often depends on the particular interests of individual journalists. Tina Vasquez, an editor at large at Prism, prioritizes the intersection of reproductive justice and immigration. Regina Mahone, who edits the Nation newsletter Repro Nation, told me that she looks for hopeful stories and practical information that will help people access abortion services. Susan Rinkunas, at Jezebel, said she decides what to cover based on what enrages her most that day. “The problem,” she said, “is that there’s going to be other enraging things that don’t get covered because they’re not the most horrific.”

For all of these reporters—and me, too—story selection has become an increasingly uneasy task; we inevitably leave worthy subjects out. On the morning of the Kansas vote, I sent the professor from Indiana a note saying that he was right: it’s important to cover state legislatures. I understood his frustration. But I knew there was no chance I would make it to Indiana. If I couldn’t be everywhere, I figured, I’d do my best where I was.  

In 1991, the city of Wichita had three abortion clinics and a bustling newspaper, the Wichita Eagle. That summer, Judy Thomas, who had recently become an Eagle reporter after a stint as a long-haul trucker, was on the story of a lifetime. Operation Rescue, a militant antiabortion group, had descended on the city to target an abortion provider named George Tiller; organizers called it the Summer of Mercy. The campaign lasted forty-six days. Starting at 6am, buses pulled up to clinics and unloaded protesters by the thousands. Demonstrators lay on the ground in front of the buildings’ gates; some wedged themselves under cars until they were arrested. As Thomas covered the protests, antiabortion activists sent her hate mail, calling her Satan’s mistress. But she cultivated sources among them. “I really did immerse myself in the issue, and just gained people’s trust on both sides,” she told me. “That’s why I’m a big fan of local journalism.” Thomas went on to write a book with James Risen, a New York Times reporter, called Wrath of Angels (1998), hailed as the definitive history of the antiabortion movement.

Thirty-one years later, the Wichita Eagle is owned by Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund. There are fewer reporters covering the state legislature. Abortion access has shriveled. In 2009, Tiller was murdered by an antiabortion extremist. But Thomas, now sixty-three, is still in local journalism, working for the investigative team of the Kansas City Star, where she cowrote an article over the summer—she shared a byline with a government and politics reporter named Katie Bernard—that shaped my understanding of the state ahead of my trip. It centered on a pivotal strategy that Thomas had observed in the background during the Summer of Mercy, when demonstrators signed up supporters to run for Republican precinct committee positions, the basic units of party politics. The protests “pushed abortion opponents out of the pews, into the streets then into the political arena,” Thomas and Bernard wrote. That organizing ultimately brought ultraconservative Republicans to power and transformed the state. Across the country, the Republican Party was being pulled to the right. Journalists like Thomas were among the first to notice. 

Thomas’s reporting inspired the driving question of the piece I wound up writing, about whether the campaign to defeat the antiabortion amendment would prove to be a turning point for Kansas politics, akin to the Summer of Mercy. I saw evidence that it was. Thomas—with her combination of local sources, historical knowledge, and expertise on abortion—deepened my thinking and fueled my curiosity; naturally, I cited her coverage in mine. There aren’t a lot of reporters left like her, though. I wonder how many stories the national press misses as a result, what questions we don’t think to ask.

As I was parachuting in, and relying on Thomas, I also observed how a strong sense of place, for a reporter covering her own community, comes with challenges. Pressure to withhold your feelings about abortion can come up at any level, to be sure, but for Thomas it can involve a run-in with sources at the grocery store. It’s personal. She described hearing from irate readers who would count the number of column lines she allotted to each side in the abortion wars and let her know if there was a mismatch. Her article on the Summer of Mercy felt almost like a call-and-response between power brokers on the antiabortion and abortion-rights sides, with a near-exact balance. In her private life, Thomas has exercised a degree of caution that I find difficult to fathom; for years, she didn’t even talk to her husband about her views on abortion. When I asked how she voted in the referendum, she wouldn’t say. 

At this historic moment, some local journalists are willing to take risks, bluntly stating the life-or-death impact of abortion policies to their audience. Others, many of whom came of age surrounded by antiabortion terrorism, have found that, in order to maintain access and credibility, they’ve got to hold back. As the abortion story unfolds state by state, so much depends on framing. Coming from elsewhere, to help a national readership appreciate the significance of what was happening on the ground in Kansas, I sensed that my role was to provide candor. 

There were other reporters in Kansas I relied on for context. During my flight, I binged podcasts from the Kansas Reflector, an outlet launched in 2020 by States Newsroom, a national network that employs journalists to cover state politics and policy. The editor in chief of the Reflector, Sherman Smith, is a lifelong Kansan and sixteen-year veteran of the Topeka Capital-Journal, which was bought by GateHouse (now Gannett) and faced staff cuts and furloughs. A couple of weeks before the vote on abortion, Smith had scored a major scoop: Proponents of the antiabortion amendment had claimed publicly that the measure represented a narrowly focused quibble over regulations. But at a Republican gathering, an official with the antiabortion campaign admitted that, in fact, a total ban was the goal. Smith heard a rumor about the remarks, then called dozens of people until he found someone with a recording. 

Ahead of Election Day, the Reflector saw an unprecedented level of audience engagement. Smith’s report about the campaign official’s comments was among the most-read stories. It would be topped by the article covering the final result of the vote: a landslide victory for supporters of safe and legal abortion. That morning, I talked to voters buzzing with energy, realizing their capacity to protect their rights. Thanks in part to the Reflector’s reporting, voters understood the true stakes of the referendum. “Laws don’t stop abortion,” a sign read. As I would later write for The Nation, it seemed like “the pro-choice majority was finding its voice.” 

The antiabortion campaign banned press outlets from its watch party. By the evening, organizers put out a statement blaming the media for their loss. I flew home. But Smith and his team got to work on their next story. “The reporting and the significance of these issues doesn’t just go away just with a high-water mark in public interest,” he told me. A local journalist is perhaps better positioned than anyone to keep watch. Next on the Reflector’s agenda was a right-wing effort to oust the state supreme court justices who determined that Kansans had a constitutional right to abortion in the first place. 

Reporting like that may be the best hope for voters to understand what’s at stake in their own states, where abortion access is being decided. That was the case back in Indiana, where journalists such as Brandon Smith, the statehouse bureau chief for Indiana Public Broadcasting, covered the impact of the abortion ban—which ultimately passed, three days after the vote in Kansas. “Indiana Republican lawmakers voted Friday to force thousands more people to give birth every year in a state with some of the worst maternal and infant mortality rates in the country,” he wrote. His community needed to hear the news put that way. I can’t be in multiple places at once, but I’ll keep following those local stories and local reporters.

Amy Littlefield is the abortion access correspondent for The Nation and a freelance journalist who focuses on reproductive healthcare.