It’s Time Reporters Re-Examine How They Cover Abortion

Abortion clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico
A doctor discusses a medication abortion with a patient in a clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

On a Sunday in mid-March, I observed an abortion conducted via telemedicine from the living room of Dr. David Burkons, one of Ohio’s most prolific abortion providers. On the other side of the screen was Rachel, a 36-year-old married mother of one who was terminating her pregnancy because she and her husband were financially unable to support another child. 

Rachel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was one of more than a dozen abortion patients I had interviewed for a four-part series on abortion as a Report for America corps member at the Akron Beacon Journal. A devout Christian who once judged others for getting the procedure, Rachel was now an outspoken proponent of abortion rights and horrified at the prospect of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. 

Much of mainstream media’s framing of abortion often only empathizes with, and gives a “pass” to, those seeking abortions in the aftermath of a rape, abuse or other forms of trauma.

And yet despite her public support of others who get abortions, Rachel explained that she didn’t want the public to know that she had just received one herself. 

Now, three weeks into post-Roe America, I keep returning to our exchange and others like it. They echo a concern that Burkons had shared with me, namely that much of mainstream media’s framing and coverage of abortion often only empathizes with, and gives a “pass” to, those seeking abortions in the aftermath of a rape, abuse or other forms of trauma. As a result, people like Rachel — who, like most Americans seeking and receiving abortions, is already a parent and not a trauma victim — continue to feel stigma around their abortions. It made me reflect on how journalists frame abortion stories and the significant impact such a focus has on the kinds of stories people are willing to tell us.

In the coming months and years, there will be no shortage of abortion news. But as journalists, we can be more thoughtful about how we cover the impact of Roe’s dismantling. Here are a few things to consider.

Include sources that aren’t just victims of trauma

The notion that one must experience trauma as a precondition for deserving a judgment-free abortion was not only apparent in my interactions with Rachel. When I began to look for it, I noticed it everywhere, like in the recent headlines of a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim who had to travel to Indiana for her abortion, and in the selective outrage over abortion bans that do not offer exemptions for rape, incest or threats to a mother’s health

That is not to undermine or discredit any victim’s situation or suggest that such stories should not be covered — they should — but rather to point out that reporting on abortion that focuses on traumatic cases reinforces the dichotomy of “good” and “bad” abortions. It fails to reflect the more complicated reality of who seeks or gets abortions in this country — 1 in 4 women — and why. 

Reporting that reinforces the dichotomy of “good” and “bad” abortions fails to reflect the more complicated reality of who seeks or gets abortions in this country — 1 in 4 women — and why. 

Such frameworks are often rooted in attempts by the journalist to construct empathy between sources and audiences. But they are inadequate in capturing the stakes of abortion bans, as Anita Varma, a journalism ethicist and professor at the University of Texas Austin School of Journalism and Media, points out.

“We know in more expansive media venues and grassroots-focused media, that many women do not view their abortion as traumatic. They view their abortion as a form of exercising bodily autonomy based on their own needs,” she said.

Varma, whose research explores the consequences of how news organizations seek to evoke empathy, understands the impulse to make circumstances relatable through journalism — particularly when the person being covered is assumed to not be part of the “in-group” and the aim is to get them (in this case, people who are against abortion) on their side. However, she raised questions about “who is trying to make who relatable and why.”

“If we imagine an audience of people who are deeply and intensely against any form of abortion, by justifying it on the terms of ‘well, this person is just like you,’ we’ve pretty much lost the plot around the bigger picture,” Varma said.

Instead of persuading readers to side with a particular person, a reporter’s work should illuminate the lived realities of our country’s policies and broaden the public’s understanding of an issue. This includes acknowledging the numerous reasons people have an abortion, such as not being able to afford to raise a child, having health concerns, wanting to delay parenthood to pursue education or career goals, or simply not wanting to be a parent or have more children. 

“[Reporters] get all of these people crying, and it makes abortion look traumatic — because [they] very rarely talk to people two weeks after their abortion, a month after their abortion, two years after their abortion.”

Laurie Bertram Roberts, co-founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund

Laurie Bertram Roberts, co-founder and executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, urged reporters to stop doing “casting calls,” referring to the tendency to have a preconceived “character,” and to curb the impulse to parachute into abortion clinics only after pivotal moments, like last month’s Supreme Court ruling. 

She said talking to people in the middle of the procedure “is one of the reasons why we get all of these people crying, and it makes abortion look traumatic — because we very rarely talk to people two weeks after their abortion, a month after their abortion, two years after their abortion,” Roberts said.

In her more than a decade as an abortion doula, she noted that “most people aren’t sad” when they get abortions, but talking to reporters “makes people feel like they have to be sad.” From patients, she said, “a lot of times the things that I hear are either mixed feelings or ‘I feel bad because I don’t feel bad’ or ‘I feel bad because I wish I had different circumstances.’ That’s the most common thing I hear.”

That’s about “feeling powerless,” she said. “Crying about feeling powerless is not the same as crying because you feel abortion is bad.” 

Contextualize abortion beyond being a political issue

If you were unfamiliar with how Americans viewed abortion and you glanced at our national headlines, it would seem that the country is deeply divided on the issue. But since the 1970s, at least three-quarters of Americans have supported abortion being legal under some circumstances, according to Gallup polls. Like most polls, though, even those numbers might be an undersampling and “overlook the variation and the struggles that can come from that variation,” UT’s Varma said. 

Crucial context like this — as well as that most abortion seekers are poor and are already parents — is often missing from abortion coverage, which news organizations have largely siloed to a women’s issue or political issue at the expense of contextualizing it within the larger issues of class, health care, inequality and race. 

“When we talk about abortion, we should talk about access to health care… We should talk about poverty, we should talk about structural racism and inequality.”

Eyal Press, author of “Absolute Convictions”

What, then, could more equitable, ethical and contextual reporting and writing on abortion look like?

“When we talk about abortion, we should talk about access to health care, we should talk about access to child care, we should talk about access to prenatal care, we should talk about poverty, we should talk about structural racism and inequality, because all of those things are connected to this issue,” said journalist Eyal Press, whose book “Absolute Convictions” is about the impact of America’s divide on abortion.

“If you isolate abortion and just write about it as this single, as a medical procedure stripped of the broader social context, then you miss everything. You miss what is it that leads women to decide to terminate a pregnancy? What is it that has made abortion uniquely vilified and abortion providers vilified in such a way? Why is the demand for abortion and the rate of abortion higher among Black women and among low-income women in this country than wealthy, white middle-class women?” Press said. 

Press urged reporters to not just write about what happens when people enter the doors of an abortion clinic for a day, but to write about what happens when those people go home, what their neighborhoods and the communities they live in are like, what kinds of jobs and schools they have or don’t have access to in their communities. Becca Andrews’ 2019 Mother Jones story, which follows a woman’s 221-mile journey from Mississippi to Arkansas for an abortion, is one example of how to effectively report on the socioeconomic disparities intimately tied to abortion access and the grassroots support networks that have emerged to aid in this access. 

“Do the work of situating that clinic and the communities it’s serving and the women it’s serving. Do the work expanding that and helping readers understand why someone ends up making an appointment at that clinic, why one woman might be more likely to than another based on her class or her race, or her life circumstances,” Press said. “That’s the kind of reporting that too infrequently happens.” 

Do more than insert a quote from both sides for ‘balance’

Often, when abortion legislation is introduced or passed, reporters reach out to advocates on both sides, or lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle, for “balance” in their stories, plugging in quotes without asking these sources to elaborate on their promises or ideas.

For example, a recent CNN story about an anti-abortion convention celebrating the fall of Roe included two anti-abortion advocates being paraphrased as saying, “the movement should focus on providing support to women,” without any further explanation on how the movement could do that, especially after childbirth. 

“This is a moment of opportunity for the media to look very closely at that claim that opponents of abortion have made to being ‘pro-life,’ and if they’re ‘pro life,’ are they ‘pro the living,’ the born, as well as the unborn,” Press said. This would mean asking the questions that those affected by anti-abortion laws and decisions need to know — if politicians and advocates on both sides care about women and children, will access to child care and health care be expanded? Will maternal mortality rates be addressed?

In a recent interview with Mississippi state Rep. Becky Currie, author of the 15-week abortion ban that paved the way for the fall of Roe, Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe repeatedly questioned the lawmaker on her pledge to support pregnant people and their families, given the state’s abysmal record in expanding health care access and bolstering the social safety net. Such direct, insistent questioning is an example of how journalists can hold advocates and politicians accountable for their claims.

Report on what these bans look like in practice

Regardless of where one stands on abortion, the Supreme Court ruling will continue to have a sweeping impact on a large part of the population. Bans are already effect in at least 10 states, and lawmakers are aiming to prosecute people who cross state lines to access abortions. Many state trigger laws will also impact access to miscarriage management and care for people experiencing ectopic pregnancies. Researchers are predicting a 33% increase in Black maternal mortality rates due to abortion bans, among other health risks. 

Press said journalists should understand that these policies will not impact people equally. We are likely headed toward a new phase of mass incarceration, he said, where Black, Indigenous and poor women would be greatly overrepresented in the criminal justice system — because these are the people more likely to seek and have abortions and have their pregnancies subjected to surveillance. 

As journalists, we owe it to the millions of Americans whose lives are already irrevocably changed by the ruling to situate abortion coverage within a wider set of frameworks that show what is at stake, and for whom. 

Another coverage area to follow is how hospitals plan to respond to abortion bans. As Kellie Copeland, executive director of Pro-Choice Ohio, pointed out, even before Roe fell, many Catholic-affiliated hospitals did not provide abortion services, even though abortion was legal in the states in which they operated.

Varma encouraged reporters to speak with as many people as possible directly impacted by abortion policies, not just lawmakers and advocates. She also cautioned reporters to push against the “elitist assumption that if you are not an official with a title or a person with a Ph.D., you can’t possibly have thoughts about what you’re going through.”

As journalists, we owe it to the millions of Americans whose lives are already irrevocably changed by the ruling to situate abortion coverage within a wider set of frameworks that show what is at stake, and for whom. 

As Varma put it: “The best journalism, the journalism we remember and celebrate and that endures in history books and our cultural consciousness is always journalism that stands for people’s basic dignity, whether that’s dignity of workers, that’s dignity of children, dignity of people affected by lack of bodily autonomy.”


Author

is the incoming Reflect America Fellow at NPR. Previously, she covered marginalized communities as a Report for America corps member at the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio. She began her journalism career as a staff reporter on the local government and criminal justice beats for the Jackson Free Press in Mississippi.