The Media Today

Q&A: Renee Bracey Sherman on the history of abortion coverage

October 11, 2023
An illustration of Renee Bracey Sherman that appeared in CJR's recent Abortion Issue. Artist: Agata Nowicka.

In 2016, Renee Bracey Sherman founded We Testify, an organization that centers the stories of people who have abortions—particularly those from communities of color and those who face significant barriers to reproductive health resources—in the hopes of transforming the public discussion around the procedure. “Abortion is probably one of the most lied-about, misunderstood, misrepresented medical, political, personal, familial issues there is,” she told me recently. Since she founded We Testify, Bracey Sherman has produced a documentary with Planned Parenthood and is now working on a book, Countering Abortionsplaining, with Regina Mahone, an editor at The Nation

The book will examine the intersections between abortion and race, while also charting ancient abortion methods, the criminalization of the procedure, and what is being done in the present to ensure access to abortion. During her research, Bracey Sherman has spent a considerable amount of time searching for abortion histories from Black and brown people in media archives—and begun to amass her own archive of news coverage from the past century. “I think that all this archival stuff is so critical, because some of the old efforts and language and messaging has never left,” she said. “Some of what’s old is new again.” 

By dispelling myths that have long surrounded abortion, Bracey Sherman is hoping that her book, alongside the work of We Testify, will offer a more thoughtful understanding of it. Recently, I spoke with Bracey Sherman about her budding archive of abortion stories and how she sees abortion coverage as having evolved over time. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: When did you start collecting old abortion articles? 

RBS: I’ve had my own copies of stories that I’ve had a hand in, pieces including or working with We Testify [since] 2013 to 2014, when we were finally getting some of the big women’s magazines to cover abortion thoughtfully. But it really picked up when I read this article about Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a civil rights leader who was on the cover of Jet magazine in March 1973. I had looked up that cover because I thought it was really fascinating that he was a civil rights leader and an abortion provider, because people posit that Martin Luther King and all these other Black civil rights leaders didn’t support abortion when they absolutely did. There’s writing and evidence of that. I read a lot more about [Howard]. He was arrested a couple times. He was the first provider that the Janes worked with in Chicago. He provided a lot of healthcare overall, but abortion was his main focus. 

I also went to a panel event called the “Age of Roe” at Harvard University, which tried to bring people who are anti-abortion and pro-abortion together.

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What year was this? 

Earlier this year. They did an exhibit called the “Age of Roe” and they brought artifacts on abortion from as early as they had, through to Roe. What was really frustrating to me was that race was such a little piece of it; it made it seem like Black people are divided on abortion, which they’re not. Black and brown people overwhelmingly support abortion; they don’t want to see it criminalized. The reproductive justice movement wasn’t there either. It was this aha moment to me, where I internally panicked. I thought, History is written by the people who save random documents; if we don’t save our shit, we might not be remembered. I always knew why writing our book was important, but then it added extra pressure, because things need to be preserved.

What other coverage did you find to be eye-opening, in addition to the Jet magazine story?

There was this magazine called Bronze Thrills. It’s the weirdest; it’s basically like this Black community magazine of seedy things. [There’s an issue from around] February 1971—the cover has this woman smiling, and under her it says, like, I performed my sister’s abortion, and it’s this entire story. It’s so long, and it needed an editor so bad. But it’s this woman telling the story of how her sister got pregnant and needed an abortion but doctors wouldn’t do it, so she did it, and then her sister died. They did these staged photos of a clinic and they have a guy smoking a cigarette. It’s really interesting, because it’s a capsule of how people were talking about abortion at that time, and this narrative that they show in magazines of images of dirty abortion providers, where everything is unclean. It’s the same thing for many of the articles I’ve collected, which portray abortion as really dangerous. But the woman in the piece, if you actually read it, she’s like, This is why I think that we actually need to make it legal, because I shouldn’t have had to try to do this on my sister. And I just wanted to collect all these things because, like… have you ever heard of Bronze Thrills magazine? It just felt really important to preserve that aspect of Black history. I feel like I’m trying to save them from the random dumpster bin on eBay.

Your collection has contributed to your research for your book, which will look at the history of abortion through the experiences of people of color. What has been the process of trying to find archival abortion coverage around Black people and people of color? 

I was writing this chapter on the history of criminalization, and I was getting really disheartened and frustrated because my searches through newspaper archives were not showing Black and brown people providing abortions. So I talked to a researcher, Alicia Gutierrez-Romine, who wrote the book From Back Alley to the Border, in which she talks about the history and legalization of abortion in California. She was able to talk about news coverage in her book because all of the newspapers historically in California are digitized, so she was able to search them and put together stories through all these articles. She said that you have to start looking up phrases like “botched abortion,” “illegal operation,” and old slurs. So I went to, which is run by Ancestry, and searched for terms like “botched operation by ‘negress,’” because that’s what they called a Black midwife. I ended up finding stories of Black providers and midwives, but they’re only covered when they’re being arrested, because people weren’t going to write a profile on them. So they operated under the radar. I found, like, twenty-five different folks from the earliest of the newspapers, from around the 1820s. That’s when some of the first laws on abortion took effect.

How did the tone of abortion coverage change throughout the nineteenth century into the twentieth century?  

In the 1800s, you see coverage of people being prosecuted in the event that someone died of an abortion. It’s interesting, because 1800s newspapers actually have multiple column inches on it. In the 1850s and ’60s, you start to see ads for tansy pills and pennyroyal [abortifacient] pills just showing up in newspapers. But as we get into, like, the mid-1900s, you can see newspapers really turn on abortion providers—they talk about whether they have money or not, they highlight their race even more. You also see more Black male abortion providers versus Black women. It is really interesting to watch that shift happen.

How abortion is covered on television and film has driven a lot of the stigma around it, of course, but so has how it’s covered in the news. It is only covered in the most deserving of situations, like a white married woman who is facing health risks; that’s going to drum up a lot of sympathy. Those people, of course, deserve access to an abortion. But what that ends up doing is saying there are these other people who don’t really deserve abortions, and they should not have sex. It’s part of what happens when you only talk about restrictions in the context of danger and people dying. 

Other notable stories:

  • In yesterday’s newsletter, we noted reports that three Palestinian journalists had been killed since Hamas attacked Israel and Israel responded by laying siege to Gaza over the weekend. Now, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the confirmed death toll among media workers has risen to at least seven, after Saeed Al-Taweel, Mohammed Sobih, Hisham Alnwajha, and Salam Mema were killed in Israeli air strikes. In other news about the conflict, the Israel Defense Forces took foreign reporters to tour a kibbutz that Hamas attacked, so that they might see the devastation there firsthand. Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier argued that the unfolding story has shown how both X (formerly Twitter) and Meta (the parent company of Facebook) have abandoned their prior aspirations to serve as hubs for reliable real-time information about breaking-news events—though Casey Newton argued that Threads, Meta’s recently launched Twitter competitor, proved a “serviceable place” to follow the biggest story lines of the weekend. And PhillyVoice fired Jackson Frank, a writer who covered the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, after he responded to a 76ers post expressing solidarity with Israel with the message: “This post sucks! Solidarity with Palestine always.”
  • Earlier this year, the Washington Post laid off around twenty staffers, further fueling industry murmurings about the paper’s financial health. Yesterday, Patty Stonesifer, the interim CEO, told employees that the Post is now looking to eliminate nearly two hundred fifty more jobs, the equivalent of 10 percent of its workforce, via voluntary buyouts. Stonesifer said that the plan was devised in the hope of avoiding further layoffs.
  • A coalition of news organizations coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and including The Guardian and NBC News published a series of stories alleging repressive labor practices within the Persian Gulf outposts of four major brands: Amazon, McDonald’s, Chuck E. Cheese, and InterContinental Hotels Group. The stories form part of the coalition’s broader investigation, “Trafficking Inc.
  • Mark Landler, of the New York Times, previewed a coming legal fight in London, where Donald Trump is suing Christopher Steele—the former British intelligence agent whose eponymous “dossier” of unsubstantiated claims about Trump and Russia circulated in the US press in 2017—under Britain’s data-protection laws. Trump previously tried and failed to sue Steele in the US, but could have a better case in the UK, Landler writes.
  • And earlier today, the government of Australia confirmed that Cheng Lei—an Australian journalist who worked for a Chinese state broadcaster in Beijing, then spent more than three years in jail on murky national security charges—has been released and reunited with her family in Melbourne. China said that Cheng had served her sentence, but analysts saw her release as a sign of warming ties between that country and Australia.

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.