Right-wing media’s self-created scandal around recent efforts by state Democratic lawmakers to protect abortion access is already producing anti-abortion threats. Given past incidents in which inaccurate and extremist rhetoric about abortion inspired anti-abortion violence and harassment, these right-wing outlets and figures are creating a dangerous environment for pro-choice advocates and fueling further discontent -- with potentially deadly consequences.
On January 22, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the Reproductive Health Act, changing a pre-Roe v. Wade state law that criminalized abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy to now allow abortions “when the fetus is not viable” or when there is a risk to the health of the pregnant person. Legislators in Virginia also introduced (and have since tabled) a bill in January that would eliminate some restrictions on abortion care, including reducing the number of doctors required to consent for a patient’s third-trimester abortion from three to one -- removing a medically unnecessary barrier to access.
Right-wing media responded to the measures with an avalanche of inaccurate coverage and extreme rhetoric, including saying that abortions later in pregnancy are “murders” and that Democrats were endorsing “infanticide.” According to a Media Matters analysis, Fox News alone used the word “infanticide” at least 35 times during discussion of these state measures between January 24 and noon on January 31. To be clear, the claim that these measures promote “infanticide” has no basis in reality. Abortions that take place later in pregnancy are extremely rare and often performed for medical necessity or due to access barriers created by anti-choice politicians. Right-wing media’s characterization of these abortion procedures as happening “at birth” -- or in some cases, allegedly after -- is simply wrong; according to medical professionals, such a scenario “does not occur.”
Right-wing media’s continued use of aggressive and false language to describe these measures has already provoked harassment from abortion opponents. The sponsor of the Virginia bill, Del. Kathy Tran (D), told The Washington Post about threats she has already received for supporting the removal of abortion restrictions:
Tran said she and her family have received death threats through telephone messages, email and social media, leading to extra police protection for her and her family, and difficult discussions with her elementary-school-aged children.
“It’s a very tough conversation to have with your little ones about how they need to be safe and watch out for themselves, and that it’s okay to ask for help,” said Tran, who lives in West Springfield. “I love my kids dearly. They are my world, and their safety is my number-one priority.”
Tran also had to postpone a town hall meeting on February 2 because of “security and safety concerns,” including those posed by a protest organized by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List. In addition, ThinkProgress posted audio of a threat the Democratic Party of Virginia had received because of the bill, as well as audio of a racist tirade against Tran, telling her to “go back to Vietnam.” The party’s communications director told ThinkProgress that “the party has also had to take additional security precautions” as a result of these threats and attacks on its members. From ThinkProgress:
On Friday, the Democratic Party of Virginia shared with ThinkProgress audio of a death threat it had received.
In the recording, an unidentified caller incorrectly claims the party is proposing to legalize murder and then quotes a Stephen King novel to threaten the lives of the Virginia Democrats. “Redrum, redrum, soon we will come,” the caller says, a reference to The Shining and the word “murder” spelled backwards.
Anti-abortion violence and harassment are real and ongoing threats in the United States. Eleven people have died as a result of anti-abortion violence since 1993. Numerous others have been injured, and still more have found themselves and even their families targeted with personalized harassment from abortion opponents. And the trend has intensified in recent years, showing little sign of abating. According to a report by the National Abortion Federation, rates of anti-abortion clinic protests in 2017 were already at the highest levels seen since the organization began tracking such incidents in 1977, and 2017 included “the first attempted bombing in many years.” In 2018, there were numerous incidents of violence or threats against clinics reported in New Jersey, Utah, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.
Beyond right-wing media’s fixation on spreading inaccurate information about abortion, some outlets have also helped fan the flames of resentment against abortion providers, patients, and clinics. In 2009, an anti-abortion extremist murdered abortion provider Dr. George Tiller while he was attending church with his family. Before Tiller's assassination, former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly had openly bullied Tiller on his program numerous times. According to Rolling Stone, “O’Reilly had waged an unflagging war against Tiller that did just about everything short of urging his followers to murder him.” O’Reilly repeatedly called the doctor “Tiller the baby killer” and said there was a “special place in hell for this guy.” At one point, O’Reilly said, “And if I could get my hands on Tiller – well, you know. Can't be vigilantes. Can't do that. It's just a figure of speech. But despicable? Oh, my God. Oh, it doesn't get worse. Does it get worse? No." After Tiller’s assassination, O’Reilly claimed he only “reported accurately” on Tiller and wasn’t responsible for the provider’s murder.
In 2015, an anti-abortion extremist who killed three and injured nine at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood reportedly offered the phrase “no more baby parts” as an explanation for his actions. His comment seemingly referred to an oft-repeated right-wing media talking point based on deceptive undercover videos from the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress. The New Republic reported on the admitted shooter’s penchant for right-wing media such as Fox News and Infowars, saying it shaped his paranoid and conspiratorial views about abortion and Planned Parenthood and may have influenced his actions.
Right-wing media have also frequently used extreme language about abortion, attacking pro-choice advocates as “ghoulish, “sick,” and “aspiring baby killer[s]” and calling for violence by abortion opponents if “you believe [abortion] is murder.”
During President Donald Trump’s administration, right-wing media rhetoric rarely remains in its echo chamber. In fact, Trump recently seized on the deluge of manufactured right-wing outrage around these state measures to bolster his inaccurate claim that Democrats want to “rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month" of pregnancy. This sort of inaccurate and extreme rhetoric will reportedly feature in the State of the Union address as well. Anti-abortion extremists have already found ample support and employment in the Trump administration -- a trend that is sure to continue as these groups inexplicably line up to support the administration’s policies. Whether spread on Fox News or in the president’s State of the Union address, inaccurate and sensationalized rhetoric will continue to dominate the conversation about abortion. And abortion providers, patients, clinics, and advocates could continue to suffer the consequences.