A thoughtful journalist’s guide to covering abortion

Cross-posted from the Abortion Gang

How do you write about a topic that is both the third rail of US politics and also one of the most common medical procedures in America? There are many things to be mindful of when writing about abortion. This is the first installment of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation about writing about abortion with integrity. Let’s dive right in.

Language matters.
Are you using the words “pro-choice” and “pro-life”? Typically, the pro-choice movement prefers “anti-choice” to “pro-life,” since the latter implies that the pro-choice movement is “anti-life,” which is preposterous (not to mention false).  Another alternative to “pro-life” is “anti-abortion rights.” And what about using terms like reproductive justice and pro-voice? If you’re writing about women’s personal abortion stories, you may want to investigate exactly what pro-voicemeans, and if you’re looking at abortion from an intersectional lens, reproductive justice is your best bet.

Science matters.
Who can you trust to tell you if a certain piece of legislation is based in medical evidence or ideological bullshit? Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, for one (full disclosure: I used to work there and can say with confidence that the doctors affiliated with PRCH are fantastic). Other potential sources of medical information include the clinician/s or medical director at your local clinic and theNational Abortion Federation. The best reason to ask clinicians if a piece of legislation is medically necessary or makes scientific sense? Most legislators aren’t doctors.

Planned Parenthood is not the only abortion provider in the United States.
While they’re certainly the most high profile abortion provider, they are far from the only ones. In fact, there are entire organizations composed of independent abortion providers, such as the Abortion Care Network and the Feminist Abortion Network. In covering only Planned Parenthood, you’re getting a small piece of America’s abortion story. Most abortions are done at free-standing (non-Planned Parenthood) clinics. Independent providers have a long and proud history of providing women with compassionate care–why not call them in addition to your local Planned Parenthood?

Be wary of abortion stigma
No one could argue that there isn’t a stigma associated with abortion, whether it’s with the women who have them, the clinicians who perform them, or anyone remotely associated with the topic. The last thing you want to do is perpetuate the notion that abortion is a gruesome procedure performed by badly trained doctors that only sluttly, selfish women have (see what I mean by stigma?). Many people perpetuate stigma without even realizing it. How?

  • “Only 3% of our services are abortion!” Planned Parenthood pulls out this statistic every time they get attacked by a politician. They do so to try and emphasize the fact that they are primarily family planning providers, not abortion providers. By doing this, however, they distance themselves from abortion, as if abortion is shameful, as if abortion is something that should only be 3% of their services. Are they proud to provide abortion services? Of course. But you wouldn’t know it with this talking point.
  • Talking about rape, incest, and life threat situations as acceptable instances of when a woman can have an abortion. What woman deserves to have access to abortion care? A woman who was raped? A woman with a fetal anomaly? A woman who can’t afford to have another child? A woman who didn’t use birth control? A woman who’s had an abortion already? Every woman, no matter her circumstance, deserves to have access to abortion care. We stigmatize abortion when deem certain abortions as moral or some women as deserving to have abortions, while others are “bad” or unworthy of legal medical care.
  • Later abortions: Define your terms. When you say “later abortion,” what do you mean? In research land, it usually means abortion after 24 weeks. Some people use the medically innocuous “late term abortion” to signify anything from an abortion in the second trimester to an abortion into the third trimester. Make sure you know which one you’re talking about. Read the literature on second trimester and later abortions. Accept the fact that there is nothing inherently, morally wrong with later abortions. Learn about whywomen need them, that there’s no medical consensus on viability, and no agreement on “fetal pain.” Check your language–are you somehow implying that later abortions are morally wrong, or that a woman should’ve just hurried up and made a decision earlier? That’s stigma in action.
  • For more on abortion stigma, see ANSIRH’s research.

One woman’s abortion story isn’t every woman’s abortion story.
One in three US women will have an abortion by the age of 45. It follows, then, that one in three US women will not have the the same reasons for having an abortion, or the same reaction afterwards. Who has an abortion? Every type of woman, it turns out: women of every class, race, ethnicity, and education level.  We also know that women seek abortion care for every possible reason: they can’t afford another child, a birth control mess up, a health condition, or simply not wanting to be a mother (whether for the first or sixth time) at that point in her life. Whatever the woman’s reason for an abortion, it’s a valid one, and not your job to make a judgement call on it. Similarly, many women feel relieved after their abortions, some women feel regret or sadness, others feel a mix or something completely different. If you’re writing about women’s reactions to having abortions, make sure you talk to a variety of people who can give you multiple perspective on the experience. If you need to talk about abortion stories in broader strokes, talk to organizations like Exhale and Backline that support women before and after their abortions.

There’s a lot to think about when covering abortion. As much as we want it to be, abortion isn’t just a medical procedure; it’s tied up in political and cultural battlegrounds that demand thorough exploration. You need to make deliberate decisions to seek out medically and scientifically accurate information if you want your article to reflect the reality of abortion in the US.

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