Vector drawing of a uterus layered on top of torn pieces of newspaper

Access Denied

The Media Doesn’t Care About Abortion Rights

And now, with the Supreme Court hearing Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, that could mean the end of abortion access for most of the country.

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After months of deliberation, the Supreme Court announced bright and early on Monday that it would consider a case that could decide the fate of abortion rights and access. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health revolves around a Mississippi law that bans abortion at 15 weeks—before some people know they’re pregnant, and before many people are able to detect severe fetal diagnoses. Additionally, many people may not even be able to get an abortion by 15 weeks into their pregnancy due to the vast array of restrictions and barriers that could significantly delay their abortion. The validity of this law, and consequently all abortion bans, will now be decided in the coming months by a 6-3, anti-abortion majority Supreme Court.

Across the country, women and pregnant people, reproductive rights and justice advocates, and health experts alike dread days like we had on Monday—because the legal right to abortion, and with it, privacy, autonomy, and dignity for pregnant people, is at stake. We dread it because we’re tired of explaining basic facts about abortion rights and access, and dispelling the expansive and dangerous misinformation campaigns for a public and media that are just now starting to tune in. We’ve grown accustomed to said public and media promptly tuning out until the next “big” thing—the next big abortion-related Supreme Court case, or total abortion ban, or violent attack on a clinic, each of which was a long time in the making. Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban law may be widely understood as extreme, but any law that would force someone to be pregnant for even a minute longer than they want to be is extreme and should be treated accordingly.

On top of being the ones most affected by dehumanizing policy decisions on abortion, it’s exhausting for women, pregnant people, and our allies to repeatedly endure the cycle of selective media and public attention on this issue, exclusively when significant high-profile Supreme Court cases or events like this emerge. Clarifying misinformation on abortion rights, especially from media and even well-meaning folks, is especially exhausting labor. It requires us to walk the tricky line of shutting down erasure and dismissal of the crises we face, while also being clear that abortion remains legal—a person trying to get an abortion today still can—and we need resilience, resistance, persistence, and hope to fight for our rights. The anti-abortion movement thrives off misinformation—from its supporters, and even from those who purport to be neutral, or those who support abortion rights, but aren’t versed in the nuances of the movement landscape.

While only cases involving overt abortion bans, like Dobbs, seem to attract coverage, outrage, and panic, it’s most often left to people of color and trans people—i.e., those most negatively affected by anti-abortion policy—to explain that abortion access, while legal, has already been decimated in many regions. Unlike any other legal health service, people seeking abortion care have long had to rely on expansive networks of mutual aid like abortion funds and other supports just to get the kind of care that is their basic human right. In addition to direct financial support, local abortion funds also help cover the costs of travel, support with lodging arrangements, child care, and other burdensome logistical needs that emerge when abortion is pushed so far out of reach.

During one week in April, 28 state abortion restrictions and bans passed—the most for any week in recent history—which put 2021 on track to rank among the most lethal years for abortion rights and access. In the last decade alone, states have enacted more than a third of all roughly 1,300 restrictions and bans on abortion. Currently, 90 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider, requiring extensive travel and other associated costs and logistical nightmares to get the procedure. Federal and most states’ laws prohibit coverage of abortion care with public funds—an economic barrier that falls hardest on people of color.

As years of research have demonstrated, being unable to afford and have a wanted abortion often has steep health, economic, and safety consequences, making someone more likely to be pushed into poverty or remain in an abusive relationship. Barriers to abortion and reproductive health care have also been connected with higher pregnancy and maternal death and complication rates, especially for people of color. And yet, despite the steep economic and frankly life-or-death impacts of being unable to get abortion care, until a highly visible abortion-related Supreme Court case or other national spectacle, reproductive rights are left on the backburner by political leaders and media. Abortion remains written off as a low-stakes matter of “identity politics,” or a “women’s issue” that the non-directly impacted need not concern themselves with.

The labor of drawing attention to the vast and worsening crisis of abortion access in the U.S. is rendered even more difficult by erasure and gaslighting from highly visible—and often male—pundits and commentators, who condescendingly claim there’s no actual threat to Roe or abortion. The plight and conditions of pregnant people of color, who face the most barriers to get abortion care, are the most marginalized in society—it’s easy for pundits to pretend barriers don’t exist when it’s women and non-white people shouldering the brunt of them.

Throughout 2018, following the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and nomination and confirmation of alleged sexual predator Justice Brett Kavanaugh, pundits frequently dismissed the notion Roe was in existential danger, painting the predominantly women and non-cis male reproductive-rights advocates who sounded the alarm on the future of abortion access as hysterical. Media outlets published Republican politicians’ claims that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would not lead to the end of Roe, void of the context that Republicans had been pledging to end Roe for decades.

And this practice of publishing anti-abortion politicians and activists’ claims void of crucial context wasn’t new to coverage of Kavanaugh — it’s a frequent feature of the toxic and inaccurate both-side-isms that plague media coverage of abortion. A 2017 report by Media Matters for America found 60 percent of people commenting on reproductive-rights issues on cable news were male, and 64 percent of statements regarding reproductive rights on cable news were inaccurate. Years of misinformation and gaslighting on the state of abortion access have culminated in vast cultural apathy, and the unsustainable cycle of selective outrage that advocates and pregnant folks are all too familiar with. A 2018 survey from a few weeks after Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement found 62 percent of voters believe that “it is not likely that the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision will be overturned within the next few years.”

The tall order of challenging these narratives, that the right to abortion alone is enough, that the right to abortion itself isn’t in jeopardy, is made even more difficult when we’re also required to calm down panicked voices and explain abortion is still currently legal, but still under severe threat. It is gendered, emotional and deeply tiring work to convince most of the public they should continuously care whether pregnant people have human rights, and convince another portion of the public that we will be OK, that we must have hope, that we must keep fighting.

Ultimately, if the everyday barriers, restrictions, and stigma that have long pushed abortion care out of reach drew sustained media coverage and public attention, we wouldn’t have to weather these selective, draining cycles. And those of us who are most impacted by abortion policy wouldn’t have to take on the mental labor of sifting through massive misinformation and panic—all while trying to survive this political war on our autonomy.

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