Abortion ban coverage sows confusion

May 22, 2019

On May 15, Kay Ivey, the governor of Alabama, signed a bill banning abortion nearly completely, with no exceptions for cases of rape or incest. The news sent a jolt through the country, which had just watched similar, but less extreme, bills pass in Kentucky, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, and Georgia, where Clarissa Brooks, an Atlanta-based writer and organizer, had been fighting the legislature for months. Reading the reactions to the Alabama bill online, she was frustrated.

“News publications can make it seem like a doomsday,” Brooks, who has covered and organized around sexual violence, police brutality, and other problems, says. “Folks have known about these bills up to six months [before they passed] and organizations have been working around it for some time. When did the media pick it up? Most likely when all the final votes were in. That was my frustration.”

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National news coverage caused confusion about what was and was not legal. The bills are not yet in effect, and abortion remains legal in every state. So far, Brooks says the panicked coverage has implied that there was little to be done to stop it, and that nobody local had bothered to take up the cause.

This is especially true of headlines to stories about abortion bans. In The New York Times, the headline of a story published on May 15 read “Near Total Abortion Ban Signed Into Law in Alabama.” The story included a timestamped account of the bill’s movement, but never made clear that it wouldn’t take effect until next year. Neither did a story published the same day, by CNN, which ran with the headline: “Alabama governor signs most restrictive anti-abortion bill into law.”

Missing this detail, Brooks says, means that people living in the affected states who need care now may not know they can still get it; the southeast bureau of Planned Parenthood, which covers Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, was so inundated with calls from people unsure whether the procedure was legal that they had to open an automated hotline to field calls.

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Other journalists working on the motherhood beat say that abortion gets outsized attention, sometimes at the expense of other, related concerns of women’s and reproductive health, including reporting on trans and non-binary people who can become pregnant. In the past several years, a wave of major reporting projects has highlighted the damning maternal and infant mortality records of the same states that have been pushing abortion bans—but the attention these issues have received from the national media is miniscule compared to abortion.


Abortion is too hot, it’s too—I hate to say it—poisonous


“Abortion is important and foundational but it has absorbed all the attention around reproductive rights and reproductive health,” ProPublica’s Nina Martin, who worked on an award-winning series about maternal mortality in 2017, says. “It was sort of shocking, frankly, to me, that at exactly the same time as the Supreme Court was deciding the Texas abortion case, back in 2016, there was a lot of data being gathered showing that there had been this surge in maternal deaths in Texas and around the country. I was always struck that people writing about the topic were not writing about those two things as if they were related and didn’t bear on each other.”

Martin says that national media could also make more of an effort to follow local advocacy organizations—the names of several, such as the National Network of Abortion Funds (an umbrella group for numerous local funds), and the Yellowhammer Fund, circulated online last week. The tendency of reporters to look only at the most prominent organizations exacerbates the problem of failing to see what advocacy is taking place in local communities before bills are on the table.

On social media, after Alabama’s bill passed, readers shared statistics about the state’s poor maternal health ratings: in 2018, the mortality rate for mothers was 11.9 per 100,000 people—5.6 for white women and, even more disturbing, 27.6 for black women—higher than the national average. Alabama hosts the highest infant mortality rate in the country. Pregnant people living in rural areas lack access to obstetric care; just 29 of Alabama’s 67 counties have delivery rooms. There is obviously an appetite for reporting about these problems.

At the local level, there’s another reason why ongoing coverage of women’s health is often disconnected from stories about abortion. “Our attitude toward women’s reproductive health and rights is that it absolutely goes hand in hand with our treatment of women’s health and maternal health,” Anna Claire Vollers, who covers maternal health for Alabama Media Group, says. “When you lump abortion in with literally anything else, you’re automatically closing the ears of a large chunk of our population,” Vollers, who has lived in Alabama her entire life, says. Many of her readers share concerns about the grievous state of maternal health in the state, but won’t engage with stories that seek to improve it if abortion is mentioned.

Vollers will dedicate the next year to reporting on weak workplace protections post-pregnancy, the consequences of Alabama’s failure to expand Medicaid for maternal health, and rural hospital deserts. While she won’t avoid abortion outright, her stories about related healthcare issues will not necessarily be connected to the ban.

“You kind of have to wall it off. Abortion is too hot, it’s too—I hate to say it—poisonous,” Vollers says. “You have automatically shot yourself in the foot if you are looking for change in any of these other areas, despite them being related.”

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Alexandria Neason was CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Recently, she became an editor and producer at WNYC’s Radiolab.