In late August I was talking to a smart liberal lawyer friend on the phone and I said, “I’m really worried about this Texas bill S.B. 8.”
“No way they’ll let it go into effect,” she replied. I was heartened by her words.
The next day the law went into effect, and 50 years of progress was washed away by Governor Abbott overnight. Some people say Abbott was tacking far right because he was worried about a Trumpy primary challenger, but whatever the reason, on September 1, 2021, Texas effectively outlawed abortion. In the month that followed, the number of abortions in the state of Texas fell by half. It was the kind of law that, when it was announced on March 11 2021, many of us didn’t take seriously, because it seemed so improbable. It included bounties, meaning your Uber driver could be sued if he drove you to get an abortion! Surely the Supreme Court would tell the Texas legislature that it could not take away a right that women had for 50 years.
But the Supreme Court remained silent until the day the law took effect, at which point it declined to block it. The New York Times noted, “The majority opinion was unsigned and consisted of a single long paragraph. It said the abortion providers who had challenged the law in an emergency application to the court had not made their case in the face of ‘complex and novel’ procedural questions.”
I understand that reporting isn’t opinion writing, but something like this Texas law—this paradigm shift—is so profound, with such serious implications for so many women, that it seems like it should merit more explosive language. But that is the problem with straight news. In theory, at least, it’s supposed to be neutral and impartial, reporting without fear or favor.
But abortion is never just about abortion. It’s about power and freedom. Outlawing abortion won’t stop it. If you wanted to do that, you could make birth control free and focus on sex education, like in Colorado, where women are allowed to get oral contraceptives from a pharmacist, and not a doctor. The state also funds “free and low-cost IUDs—intrauterine devices that prevent pregnancy for five years or more—for low-income women and teens who visit community health clinics across the state.” Free birth control and more sex education can make abortion rare, but laws like S.B. 8 aren’t about ending abortion. They just end safe, legal abortions.
“Straight news” has a bias, and it’s in favor of conflict and against the appearance of advocacy or activism. It’s a false neutrality, and it is, at best, unhelpful in understanding what’s actually happening in the world.
The media have often folded Roe into their horse-race politics coverage. Politico, for example, recently ran the following headline: “Why the Threat to Roe May Not Save Democrats in 2022,” and in the dek, quoted one “party strategist” as saying, “I wish we lived in a world where outrage mattered. But I think we live in a post-outrage world.” But here’s the thing: The media have the power to make people care, to highlight injustices, to shine a spotlight on malfeasance.
Much of the coverage that’s not outright cynical is also failing to meet the moment. In May, The New York Times published a map that resurfaced last week, during the oral arguments in Dobbs vs. Jackson. It shows a “predicted decline in legal abortions.” Antiseptic language like that does not serve the reader. What the map actually shows are abortion deserts, populated by poor women in red states who will need to drive miles and miles for a procedure that they’ve been entitled to for 50 years. That Times section, The Upshot, also recently ran the breezy, widely mocked headline “Mississippi Asks: If Women Can Have It All, Is Roe Necessary?” I have a cellphone. Why should I have control over my own body, too?
(The Times has also done great reporting on abortion. In a recent episode, The Daily traveled to an abortion clinic in Oklahoma called Trust Women, and reporters spoke to both clinicians and patients. But this kind of reporting has been in short supply.)
How do you, as a journalist, cover lying when you are practically allergic to using the word? We know that some of the Supreme Court justices have lied about Roe. Before he was installed, Kavanaugh told the audience at his Senate confirmation that Roe was “settled as precedent.” Last week, he mused during oral arguments, “As I understand it, you’re arguing that … the Constitution is neither pro-life nor pro-choice on the question of abortion, but leaves the issue for the people of the states or perhaps Congress to resolve in the democratic process. Is that accurate?” So, either Kavanaugh changed his mind real fast, or he was lying this whole time
American women have had the right to end a pregnancy since 1973. We don’t know what this country will look like without Roe. There are statistics from the decades before the ’70s that show women dying of infections or hemorrhages related to failed abortions, but we don’t know what will happen in 2021 and beyond. Perhaps that’s the scariest thing: We journalists are in uncharted territory, covering apparent inevitabilities that I, at least, had never fully contemplated.