In the wake of the near-total ban on abortion that passed last month in Alabama, and “heartbeat” bills recently passed in Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Georgia, I have seen a flurry of panicked abortion coverage. The Supreme Court and federal courts have been remade for a generation, and conservative judges will almost certainly incrementally whittle away at abortion rights for the foreseeable future. Missouri may soon become the first state in the nation since 1974 to be without a single abortion provider. The coverage has taken a frenzied tone—but it’s too late. The time has passed for news stories to make a practical difference for the women affected by these laws. Outlets should have been increasing coverage after the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans swept state legislatures and many states dramatically accelerated their attempts to restrict abortion. At least 338 new abortion restrictions were passed between 2010 and 2017.
In 2016 I traveled to Jefferson City, Missouri’s state capitol. As a freelance magazine writer, I had by then been reporting across multiple states on the anti-abortion movement, and I planned to use Missouri as a case study to show how reproductive rights advocates were outmatched in statehouses across the country. The conversation on the ground was more extreme than I could have imagined. The scenes I witnessed in Jefferson City told me that as a pro-choice female candidate for president, Hillary Clinton was not the inevitable victor; that Roe v. Wade’s longterm future was precarious; and that gerrymandering had empowered fringe coalitions. (These realities would, of course, eventually become clear after November 8.)
What was happening in Missouri would have lasting national ramifications, and the story seemed to me to be urgent, and saleable. But it was a struggle to find an outlet willing to run my reporting on abortion. Over the course of months, editors for Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed, The New Republic, Harper’s, Huffington Post Highline, and The Atlantic either declined or failed to respond to me after initial replies. Some of those editors were women and some were men, and all of them except the HuffPost editor worked under male editors in chief. Over the course of those months spent rewriting that pitch, trying to explain the stakes of what was happening, I realized something: in more than five years of my reporting on reproductive health, no male editor has ever accepted a pitch of mine about abortion.
In a field where rejection is routine, it is impossible to say whether any single decision not to accept the Missouri pitch—and many others—was motivated by anything other than a mismatch in style or an overloaded docket. But the pattern was stark. To me, it clearly reflected how so-called “women’s issues” are often siloed or sidelined to publications for women readers—as if these issues are separate from the entirety of our politics, economy, and culture. That false division between a “women’s issue” and all other issues means that it is difficult for any of us to have a complete picture of our national landscape.
I can see how the news coming out of Jefferson City seemed marginal to the editors of national magazines. Trump’s campaign was providing non-stop spectacle. Even more than that, anti-abortion attorneys had designed the news to be overlooked. Their strategy has been to push through incremental changes in small places like Jefferson City so as not to attract the attention of the mainstream public and risk a national backlash. And state governments are difficult for national outlets to cover. But at the same time, there was a direct correlation—multiple correlations—between the hundreds of anti-abortion bills rolling through state committees across the country and the outcome of the 2016 election.
That false division between a “women’s issue” and all other issues means that it is difficult for any of us to have a complete picture of our national landscape.
While female editors have sometimes declined my pitches about abortion, they have also accepted them—and awarded me grant money, offered me mentorship, passed my name on to colleagues, advocated for higher rates for my stories, and invited me to send them ideas about abortion, contraception, and maternal health. The only time I have ever written about women’s healthcare for a male editor was when his wife, an editor I’d already worked with, gave him my name.
Men’s names populate the mastheads of magazines that publish “serious” longform political stories. Their disinterest in abortion, considered to be a “women’s issue,” means that those stories get left to women’s outlets. There, abortion has always been vigorously covered. (Ms. Magazine ran its “I had an abortion” petition back in 1972.) In 2012, an editor at The Cut assigned me to interview women anonymously about their abortions, which led to a cover story for New York magazine. A feature story on the anti-abortion movement that I wrote for Cosmopolitan was nominated for a 2016 National Magazine Award. Even before Teen Vogue made its name for fierce political coverage, The Cut, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, ELLE, ESSENCE, Bustle, and other women’s outlets were regularly running web stories about the politics of reproductive healthcare, including updates on the state-based restrictions that picked up after 2010. Slate’s DoubleX ran almost breathless coverage of abortion laws. These women’s outlets were not only publishing a greater quantity of abortion-related coverage, but a diversity in the kinds of stories.
Women’s publications put abortion in context as a personal, political, and public health concern. They present readers with a wide range of stories, from first-person essays to political analysis. In 2014, for instance, Laurie Abraham, a senior editor at ELLE, wrote a first-person essay about getting two abortions, one as a college student and one as a married mother. The abortions were not especially dramatic experiences, she emphasizes in the piece. It’s easy to imagine a writer upping the drama, underscoring heartbreak or poverty, under pressure from an editor who is skeptical or hesitant about the newsworthiness of such a personal confession. But Abraham’s stature at the publication meant that she was free to tell a story that was authentic to her experience. Likewise, for writers placing stories at an outlet like Slate’s DoubleX, it didn’t matter that the culture wars were forty years old or taking place on the unglamorous floor of the Missouri assembly, because the assigning editor understood that these seemingly low-drama events were of enormous consequence.
Pitching my Missouri article was not such a smooth experience. As a legal and electoral story, it belonged in an outlet that primarily covers politics and culture. I pitched The New Republic, for example, and waited roughly a month for an initial response. Then I was told by an apologetic male editor that they could only offer a short news dispatch, not the feature I had proposed, which was based on multiple trips to Missouri that were funded by an investigative reporting grant. He implied that he had run the story by another male editor, who was not persuaded. I rewrote the pitch, adding new details about the 22 pieces of anti-abortion legislation moving through the state legislature and the radical tenor of the conversation in the capitol, and after another month they said again that they were only interested in the short news dispatch (which wouldn’t have provided space for months-worth of original reporting). I then pitched the story elsewhere a few more times with no success, until a female editor at Fusion (now Splinter) accepted. She responded within 36 hours of receiving my email, made prescient edits, and ran the story a couple weeks before the election.
If I could go back in time, I would rewrite that pitch yet again. I would spell out in direct statements what we all should have already known: that the radicalization of state lawmakers on abortion was (and is) a potential death knell for a range of existing laws and policies, from labor protections to carbon emission standards. (“Pro-life” voting blocs tend to support lawmakers allied with coal, oil, and gas industries.) Reproductive healthcare should not be covered as a “women’s issue”—not only because men also create pregnancies and parent children and live in a society where women’s participation is in large part determined by their ability to control their fertility, but also because rhetoric about contraception and abortion is a primary lever both major political parties pull to rally their bases. We cannot disentangle abortion from other political questions, and coverage on abortion should reflect that. During the Obama administration, the hundreds of state laws restricting abortion were canaries that told us the direction our national politics was headed. Ahead of another presidential election whose coverage is already crowding out other stories, editors will have to decide whether this recent burst of attention to the state governments in places like Georgia and Missouri will last.