Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and you're listening to The Takeaway. This summer the Supreme Court will decide the fate of a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Most court observers expect the Supreme Court's decision to undermine or even overturn Roe v. Wade. As the country awaits the court's decision, the fight over abortion is heating up in the States. Nebraska and Florida are preparing bills further restricting access to abortion. In Florida, representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando spoke out against its proposed 15-week ban last month.
Anna Eskamani: Let us be clear. This is not a moderate bill. There is no such thing as a reasonable abortion ban.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Some of the proposed bills are modeled after Texas's controversial anti-abortion law SB-8, which bans abortion after six weeks and allows people to sue doctors who provide them. For more on this, I spoke with Elizabeth Nash, Principal Policy Associate for State Issues at the Guttmacher Institute. Elizabeth told me that the fight against abortion at the statewide level isn't new, it's been going on for decades.
Elizabeth Nash: This started at the state level in 1973. That is where there's been this big focus of abortion opponents for decades, but it intensified after the 2010 elections. You may remember those elections that were called the Tea Party elections that shifted these state legislatures so much further to the right, and really these legislatures haven't recovered. As a result of putting in more conservative legislators, we started to see abortion restrictions move through incredibly quickly, so much so that in the past decade, 44% of the 1300 abortion restrictions enacted since Roe have been passed just in this one decade alone.
Now we're looking ahead to this June Supreme Court decision, and what are States doing right now as they are looking ahead to it. What we have seen in the courts, of course, is that they've become much more conservative under the Trump presidency. He appointed three new judges. The Supreme Court is now 6 to 3, an anti-abortion majority, and they took this Mississippi 15-week abortion ban case. The question before the court right now, is whether or not abortion rights will stand. We are waiting to hear what will happen in the court, but all indications are that abortion rights will be severely undermined or overturned. The State legislatures are watching this.
As they have been adopting restriction after restriction over the decade, they've now turned to abortion bans. We are continuing from 2021 where we saw so many bans enacted. We're continuing to see those being introduced in 2022. Last year, Texas adopted a six-week abortion ban with a unique enforcement mechanism that essentially allows private citizens to be the enforcement for the ban versus the government. In doing so, they've tied the courts in knots and this very conservative Supreme Court has allowed this ban to go into effect.
Because of that, we are seeing states introduce copycat bills. States in places like Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio, Arizona, and Florida all have these measures pending right now, and states across the country are thinking about total abortion bans and other kinds of bans.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I live in a state with a trigger bill. Can you explain a little bit about that? What may happen in those states as soon as we get the decision out of the Mississippi case?
Elizabeth Nash: Yes. We have 12 states that have these trigger bans. What they are, are abortion bans in waiting. They are, they would ban abortion once the Supreme Court overturns abortion rights. The trigger, in this case, is the overturning of abortion rights. Now some of these are set up so that they go into effect 30 days after the decision is issued by this Supreme Court, some require the attorney general to issue a statement. These can happen very, very quickly.
On top of that, some other states have other bans, like a total ban or a six-week ban that's pending in the courts. The judges in those cases will have to consider what the Supreme Court says about Roe and if they overturn Roe for those cases. Meaning that yes, states with trigger bans could be going into effect very quickly if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, but so could abortion bans in these states that have them in the midst of the courts right now. The judges would have to follow what the Supreme court says.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there any good news at this moment on the horizon?
Elizabeth Nash: Yes. There is some effort being made and very considerate effort being made in states that are more progressive. If we think about the states that are more progressive, they're generally along the West Coast, the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic, you have Illinois and Colorado, New Mexico in the middle. These are the states that are looking to protect abortion rights and many of them. Right now we have 15 states, including the newest New Jersey that have protected abortion rights in statute and DC, which is very important.
You have this foundation and then some of these states have gone further. They have made sure that abortion is covered in health plans. They've made sure Medicaid covers abortion. They are expanding who can provide abortion care such as physician assistants or advanced practice nurses. They're beginning to shore up what access looks like. It's just that there's more to do because people need to be able to access care and it's very, very expensive.
States need to be thinking about how can they help fund care, especially if we are in a situation where we might be where states are banning abortion and they would be attempting, patients would be attempting to go to these states that have access. What are these states doing to help out-of-state patients?
Melissa Harris-Perry: What are some of the resources for our listeners to find out what kinds of laws are going to affect them?
Elizabeth Nash: I would look to their state organization, their state Planned Parenthood, their local NARAL Affiliate, or the local group that has been organizing for years. I would look for abortion funds. The National Network of Abortion Funds has a whole network of funds across the country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Elizabeth Nash is Principal Policy Associate for State Issues at the Guttmacher Institute. Elizabeth, great to have had you here.
Elizabeth Nash: Thank you so much.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're continuing our discussion of abortion by asking, how do we in media discuss abortion?
Reporter 1: After passing the judiciary committee last week, Florida's abortion Bill is moving to its next stage.
Reporter 2: It's called the Arizona Heartbeat Act. It's similar to a law in Texas concerning abortion that passed last year in that state.
Reporter 3: Unprecedented time, the right moment. These are some of the phrases coming from anti-abortion lawmakers and policymakers in Nebraska.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's just a little taste of it, but how do the frames we employ and the words we use affect how all of us understand this important issue. For more, we're joined now by Katie Woodruff, a public health social scientist at the University of California, San Francisco. Katie, it's great to have you here.
Katie Woodruff: Good to be with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. In general, when you look at how particularly mainstream media cover abortion, what are some of the big frameworks that we tend to use?
Katie Woodruff: I have studied how US news covers abortion along with my colleagues at the Berkeley Media Studies Group. We've found really most of the time when abortion is in the news, it's covered in a very political context, not as a health issue or even a "women's issue". It is covered as a partisan horse race. That typical political coverage that we see about who's up, who's down, what's at stake for the two major parties. This really reinforces, I think, a public perception of abortion as a subject with two sides with deep partisan divides. That actually is not accurate when we look at what public opinion is on abortion. It's very misleading.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes. I would say, I think most folks probably do imagine that it is that way. That it's about evenly divided in the same way that the political parties are about evenly divided, for example, you know, 50-50 in the US Senate. I get your point that we cover it as though who's going to win here. The win is somehow going to go to a party or to a candidate, not to people who are seeking abortion services. What is the reality that we're misrepresenting with that horse race coverage?
Katie Woodruff: I think that news coverage leaves the impression that Americans are a lot more divided on this issue than they really are. The reality in all of the polling that I've seen is that about three out of four Americans, think the decision over whether to have an abortion should be left to the pregnant person in consultation with her doctor, and consistently across the years, majorities of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances.
Even right now, 70% to 80% of Americans support Roe v. Wade. That's even among Republicans, by the way, it's more evenly split. There's broad public support for abortion rights and abortion access in this country, and yet, only about 10% or less of news coverage that we see, actually includes any mention of the realities of public support. This just perpetuates that misperception that this is a highly polarized issue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Still even to discuss it as having a great deal of agreement, and to bring to light those truths that Republicans in the general public are quite supportive of Roe v. Wade, even that still frames us in a political way. I'm, in part wondering if even half of Americans didn't support a kidney transplant, is that how we would discuss that health procedure?
Katie Woodruff: Excellent question. This is a fundamentally personal decision that a pregnant person makes to the best of her ability in her own unique circumstances. Everything about the way we cover this as a political issue just obscures that reality. In fact, we don't even see actual stories of pregnant people in news coverage. Very rarely do we hear about someone who's grappling with a pregnancy and trying to decide what to do, or about someone who's had an abortion and how that went for them and what it meant for their life to be able to do that.
When we study news coverage, less than 5% of the sample actually is including a personal abortion story. Women and other pregnant people just continue to be almost an abstraction in our news coverage, instead of what we really need is coverage that makes it clear what's at stake for people who are grappling with this issue.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Katie, let's dig in a little bit on this. Language is part of this as well. There's the big framing questions, but also words and phrases, things like heartbeat bills. Talk to me about what that kind of language does and how it influences our understanding of abortion.
Katie Woodruff: I think without even realizing it, journalists may be reinforcing an anti-abortion perspective. That's because so much of this language has seeped into just our regular conversation. We still are finding terms like unborn child, or referring to the pregnant person as the mother in mainstream news coverage. This framing reinforces that the fetus has personhood and has rights equal to that of the pregnant person, if not more, and that the pregnant person's most important job is to deliver another generation of children.
Pro-life and pro-choice are inaccurate terms and inflammatory and again, suggests that the public is evenly split into these two camps when that is not at all the case. Things like heartbeat ban are not even medically accurate. We can try to convince journalists of that but in 2022, no mainstream news outlet should be using that term uncritically, because it's just not even accurate.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's no heart to be beating.
Katie Woodruff: That's right. There is a embryonic cardiac activity at the level that, for instance, Texas's ban takes place at six weeks of pregnancy. There is no heartbeat at that point.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to go back to your point around who is the guest, who do we talk to in this moment? Do we talk to a pollster, an insider who's giving us that horse race, or do we potentially talk to a pregnant person or someone who was pregnant who had struggled with or didn't struggle with but made a set of choices around abortion? Part of what I wonder is if by not talking to people who have chosen abortion, we reinforce the notion that it is a stigma.
Again, I would talk to someone who had chemotherapy. I would talk to someone who got a tattoo, who did all kinds of things with their body, and I'd ask them about it. I will say that it doesn't surprise me that we pull back a little bit from asking people to talk about their abortion experiences in part because there's a fear or a stigma and anxiety that you will create vulnerability for that guest.
Katie Woodruff: It is true that people who choose to share their abortion stories publicly are subjected to enormous amounts of harassment, as a consequence. We did a study recently assessing how storytellers who share their abortion story get responded to in the public. It takes your breath away the amount of vitriol and death threats even that they would receive.
It is important to be accessing those stories. If not, there are many people who are willing to share their story. Abortion providers are very caring and compassionate people who can also convey some of what they're seeing among their patients. People who have had abortions are almost completely missing from our news coverage. When those voices and stories are not included, we lose an opportunity to understand this issue as one that has real impact on real people's lives.
Since Texas's SB-8 went into effect, I've seen more news profiles of anti-abortion activists and lawyers, than I have of people who have had abortions. It reinforces the perception that this is legitimately a political issue when we're more likely to hear from politicians than from patients, or providers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In recent weeks, we've had the challenge of needing repeatedly to cover a high profile on death by suicide. One useful resource for us as journalists has been being able to go to a set of best practices about how to report, how to discuss, and with a clear understanding about what the consequences are when we do so poorly. Are there similar best practices, for media, for journalists for thinking about how to cover abortion with a clear awareness of the consequences when we don't follow those best practices?
Katie Woodruff: My colleagues at Berkeley Media Studies Group have great recommendations for how to talk about controversial issues and what the implications are for framing them inappropriately or inaccurately. It's really quite simple for reporters on a few points, basic facts about abortion are rarely included.
We know that abortion is common, one in four women in the US will have one. We know that abortion is incredibly safe. You're much more likely to go to a hospital with a complication after having your wisdom teeth out than after having an abortion, and you're 14 times more likely to die after childbirth than after having an abortion, yet, those facts about abortion safety are rarely included in this coverage. This perpetuates this understanding or fear that abortion is some kind of dangerous activity when in fact, it's a very safe routine health care service. That's one important thing that journalists need to consider.
Most importantly, I think journalists need to be careful not to fall into the "both sides" trap because there is such a perception of abortion is controversial. I think even well-intentioned reporters really want to approach this with a scrupulous desire to give both sides equal time and equal weight in the coverage. The reality is that we have years of gold standard research showing that abortion is safe and has no negative impact on physical or emotional or mental health. In fact, it's when people can't get an abortion that it affects them and their families negatively for years.
There's a very real consequence to the policies that are limiting people's access. This important work about the consequences of having or being denied an abortion is very strong scientifically. It's about as close to unequivocal as we can get in social science. It's like climate change. No serious news outlet should be debating the facts on this at this point.
Reporters really need to be clear that the evidence is in, and that evidence does not support any medical or public health reason to restrict access to abortion. Claims about abortions are may be moral claims, they are certainly politically motivated claims, but they are definitely not based in evidence and reporters should cover this issue accordingly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Katie Woodruff is a public health social scientist at the University of California, San Francisco. Katie, thanks for joining us.
Katie: Thank you.
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