Right-wing media's anti-abortion misinformation playbook for 2020

Right-wing media's anti-abortion misinformation playbook for 2020

Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

President Donald Trump and other conservative candidates have already signaled that anti-abortion lies will be a core part of their 2020 playbook -- tactics that right-wing media are certain to amplify in order to fearmonger and rally support ahead of the election. In line with this, right-wing outlets have already been badgering Democratic candidates about their stances on abortion access, in some cases smearing them with sensationalized and inaccurate tropes about later abortions.

Following the introduction of measures in New York, Virginia, and other states to ensure abortion access if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, right-wing media generated a firestorm of coverage that mischaracterized Democrats’ efforts to protect abortion rights as promoting “infanticide” or so-called abortion “up to birth.” In reality, the idea that abortions happen up to the “moment of birth” is a fiction fueled by right-wing media and does not reflect any actual medical procedures performed in the U.S. Rather, abortions that happen later in pregnancy are performed for complicated personal and medical reasons, with the people anti-choice advocates compare to murderers often having to make the difficult decision to end a wanted pregnancy. In other instances, people need abortions later in pregnancy due to anti-choice restrictions prohibiting or greatly delaying earlier access.

Beyond broadly alleging that Democrats support abortion “up to birth,” right-wing media have also promoted the false claim that pro-choice candidates are in favor of denying care to babies “born alive” after so-called “failed abortions.” These alleged “born alive” abortions that right-wing media protest are not based in any medical practice or standard of care, as Rewire.News reported in 2013. Nevertheless, Republicans in Congress recently introduced the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to aid so-called “abortion survivors” who are “born alive” following an attempted abortion procedure. As doctors Daniel Grossman and Jennifer Conti pointed out to The New York Times, it is more likely that the bill would force doctors to pursue treatment options that run counter to patients’ wishes -- such as ensuring that a fetus delivered “at the edge of viability” but unlikely to survive could not receive “comfort care” which would “allow the child to die naturally without extreme attempts at resuscitation.” In addition, as writer Robin Marty explained, the bill could also be used opportunistically by anti-choice opponents to prosecute abortion providers.

Right-wing media and anti-abortion groups have used these manufactured controversies as part of a playbook for attacking abortion rights supporters and have already proven they'll deploy the same strategy against candidates. The playbook involves:

1) Hounding candidates with anti-choice questions -- and spinning any abortion-related answers -- to generate an outrage-based news cycle

2) Manufacturing fake “grassroots” support for anti-choice misinformation

3) Using candidate comments about unrelated topics as a jumping-off point to criticize them about abortion

1. Hounding candidates with anti-choice questions -- and spinning any abortion-related answers -- to generate an outrage-based news cycle

The tactic

Although right-wing media have long represented Democratic positions on abortion in bad faith, the campaign trail has given these outlets more opportunities to hound candidates with inaccurate and sensationalized questions about abortion to intentionally generate outrage. In addition, others in the right-wing and anti-abortion media echo chamber are then able to pick up these comments -- or really any comment from candidates on abortion -- and spin them to fit predetermined anti-choice narratives. Thus far, those anti-choice narratives have been focused on Democrats’ alleged support for abortion “up to birth” or even after.

Unfortunately, this has permeated beyond right-wing media and several outlets outside of this ecosystem have adopted this inaccurate framing. Already in 2019, non-right-wing outlets have uncritically repeated dangerous lies about abortion from Trump’s State of the Union address and echoed the language used by right-wing media and Republicans about efforts to secure a vote for the so-called Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.

Examples

Beto O’Rourke

Presidential candidate and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) received a flurry of inaccurately framed questions about his stance on abortion in March. On March 18, at a campaign event in Ohio, Millie Weaver (also known as “Millennial Millie”), a staffer from the far-right conspiracy outlet Infowars, questioned O’Rourke about his support for abortion access later in pregnancy. Relying on an inaccurate right-wing framing of the topic, Weaver asked:

Are you for third-trimester abortion or are you going to protect the lives of third-trimester babies? Because there is really not a medical necessity for abortion. It’s not a medical emergency procedure because typically third-trimester abortions take up to three days to have. So, you would -- in that sense, if there was an emergency, the doctors would just do a C-section, and you don’t have to kill the baby in that essence. So, are you for or against third-trimester abortions?

In her subsequent article about the event, Weaver continued to distort the premise of the question, as well as misrepresenting O’Rourke’s answer. Weaver claimed that she asked “if he supports up-to-birth abortions” and that his answer that abortion should be “a decision that the woman makes” showed he “endorses third-trimester abortions.”

After that, O’Rourke was peppered with similar questions about abortion from other right-wing outlets and reporters. For example, after Weaver's question, The Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito -- known for producing “revealing dispatches from Trump country” that have drawn claims of fabrication and plagiarism -- asked O’Rourke whether he supported access to third-trimester abortions “to make sure” there was “clarity” about his previous answer. Zito ultimately wrote that “O’Rourke has refused to rule out abortions more than six months into a pregnancy,” but she noted on Twitter that supporters’ “cheers” in reaction to his answer “told me so much about the state of what Democrats want from their eventual nominee.” Apparently dissatisfied that his answer didn’t garner broader coverage, Zito followed up with another piece about O’Rourke’s “extreme abortion stance” days later, complaining:

It is hard to find any D.C. reporters in a mainstream news organization writing about a viewpoint professed by a Democratic presidential candidate as being “extreme” or “radical.” Yet had this been a Republican candidate coming out in support of something the majority of Americans find impossible to support, it would be a headline for days, followed by asking every Republican running or holding office if they support that radical position as well.

Right-wing media used O’Rourke's answers to these bad faith questions to claim that he supports abortion “up to birth” or beyond and to say that this view represents the Democratic “party line” on abortion. Fox News, Townhall, and The Daily Wire published articles condemning the alleged position of O’Rourke and the Democratic Party on abortion access. Right-wing media figures echoed this approach, with the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro saying on Fox & Friends that “Beto O'Rourke and every other major Democrat feel forced to embrace this position, that you have to be for abortion up to and sometimes beyond the point of birth. It just demonstrates the radicalism of the Democratic Party.”

Fox News host Sean Hannity dedicated an entire opening monologue on March 19 to this claim. Hannity claimed that O’Rourke’s comments were further evidence of the Democratic Party’s “barbaric abortion agenda” and said, “If Democrats get their way, well, third-trimester abortion, including infanticide during and after birth -- well, that would be perfectly legal and readily available. Sadly, they’re fighting for that. They would protect infanticide seemingly above all else.” To further his point, he also displayed this on-screen graphic:

Anti-abortion groups and other conservative figures signal-boosted right-wing media’s claims about the alleged “extremism” of O’Rourke’s position (and by extension, the Democratic Party’s). For example, American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp presented the comments as part of Democrats’ efforts to allow so-called “post-birth abortion.” Anti-abortion group Live Action claimed O’Rourke “barbarically defends abortion until birth." Kristan Hawkins, president of anti-abortion group Students for Life of America, tweeted:

Anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List even sent supporters a fundraising appeal citing O’Rourke’s comment, saying the organization needed followers to make “a pro-life contribution” to help the group “fight back in the name of saving ALL babies and to STOP Beto O’Rourke’s extreme pro-abortion and pro-infanticide agenda.”

Outlets outside of the right-wing media ecosystem have also adopted this framing at times without offering pushback. Newsweek published Weaver’s question to O’Rourke (but identified her as “a crowd member”) and O’Rourke’s response, but did not provide adequate context about what support for abortions later in pregnancy means or dispute the flawed premise of Weaver’s question. The Hill also reported on O’Rourke’s responses to Weaver and to the Washington Examiner, but focused on his “fundraising status” and "national prominence” without noting the flawed basis of the questioning itself.

Bernie Sanders

During a Fox News town hall event, candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was also asked an inaccurate question based on anti-abortion misinformation. Notably, Fox News is attempting to leverage Democratic candidate town halls to sanitize the network’s image, which is currently suffering as companies become less willing to associate with its toxic commentary. During Sanders’ town hall, anchor Martha MacCallum -- who works on Fox’s “news” side but has a history of pushing anti-abortion lies -- asked Sanders, “With regard to abortion, do you believe that a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth?”

Sanders’ answer that abortion in the third-trimester "happens very rarely” and “the decision over abortion belongs to a woman and her physician” predictably evoked the ire of right-wing and anti-abortion media, with one headline proclaiming “Bernie Sanders Supports Abortions Up to Birth, Okay to Kill Babies Up to Birth Because ‘It’s Rare.’” During the April 16 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson said of Sanders’ comments, “Like 10 years ago, that would be considered like an extreme position. Today, it's the moderate position in the Democratic Party. Some are defending ‘infanticide’ just flat-out. Safe, legal, and rare. No. That's not at all the position today. It should be free, frequent, and horrifying.” Anti-abortion advocate Lila Rose similarly (and inaccurately) summarized Sanders’ response:

Elizabeth Warren

In March, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) received a question about the so-called “Born Alive” bill when someone in a crowd shouted at her, “What about the babies that survive abortion? How come they can’t have health care?” Warren replied that “infanticide is illegal everywhere in America” and moved on. Despite Warren’s accurate characterization of the bill, right-wing outlets spun the answer as Warren defending her “abortion extremism” or intentionally avoiding answering the question.

Cory Booker

In April, candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said people have started to ask him if he voted for a bill that allows “us to kill babies when they’re born.” Booker responded by saying, “That is a felony” and explaining that the bill (meaning the “Born Alive” bill) was “put forth to try to create schisms and differences between us.” Predictably, anti-abortion and right-wing media claimed Booker was “defending voting for infanticide.”

Pete Buttigieg

Right-wing and anti-abortion media utilized comments from South Bend, IN, Mayor and candidate Pete Buttigieg about abortion and reproductive rights to push misinformation -- with at least one outlet outside of right-wing media circles falling for this false premise in subsequent coverage.

Following comments from Buttigieg in March that he supported measures introduced to protect abortion access in Virginia and New York, National Review’s David French argued that Buttigieg “has zero appeal to religious conservatives so long as he holds to the Democratic party line on the right of a woman to hire a doctor to kill a viable, living unborn baby.” During Buttigieg’s candidacy announcement speech, he said that “women’s equality is freedom, because you’re not free if your reproductive health choices are dictated by male politicians or bosses.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham argued during the April 15 edition of her show that Buttigieg’s vision of “reproductive freedom” apparently does not include “the unborn child in the womb or, for that matter, the child born ... after a botched abortion in this new Democrat Party. I don't see the freedom there.”

This framing spread beyond the right-wing media echo chamber on the April 18 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. During the segment, co-host Willie Geist asked Buttigieg about third-trimester abortions, and, after Buttigieg noted that it can be an “incredibly painful set of decisions in these horrifying medical cases,” Geist said, “But to people who would criticize that, they’d say, ‘Actually there is a pretty easy answer -- that’s a fundamental child in the third term … of pregnancy, that is a human being who could be born alive and have a great and full life,’ and so it is a pretty easy question to people who would criticize your answer.” Geist’s question relied on right-wing framing and anti-abortion misinformation that he and the other hosts did not refute. The back-and-forth was picked up by right-wing and anti-abortion outlets, which spread further misinformation about Buttigieg’s answer, with LifeNews.com tweeting that Buttigieg “is perfectly fine with killing defenseless unborn babies in abortions right up to birth.” 

In each instance, right-wing media relied on either inaccurately framed questions or dishonest spin to generate outrage and drive additional news cycles about alleged Democratic extremism on abortion.

2. Manufacturing fake “grassroots” support for anti-choice misinformation

The tactic

Beyond peppering Democratic candidates with incendiary and inaccurately framed questions about abortion, right-wing media have also attempted to propagate the idea that there is “grassroots” opposition to supporting abortion access. Following the introduction of Virginia and New York’s recent measures, right-wing media heavily promoted the narrative that Democrats are pushing an “extreme” position on abortion that is not supported by their base. This is an approach that the Republican Party -- including Trump himself -- has adopted as part of a 2020 election strategy at both the federal and the state level. Right-wing media and Republicans previously deployed this strategy during the ultimately failed 2017 special election for U.S. Senate in Alabama.

Right-wing media have also attempted to extrapolate about voters’ probable opposition to a candidate’s position on abortion based on polling about specific abortion policies or viewpoints. Most frequently, right-wing media have touted polls claiming to represent likely voters’ support for bans on abortion after 20 weeks -- which would include procedures performed in both the second and the third trimester. While some polls have suggested that support for abortion access decreases as a pregnancy advances, polls that provide adequate context about the specific circumstances surrounding why a person would choose to have an abortion after 20 weeks don’t show the same results. In fact, as experts have explained, these polls better reflect the reality of abortion later in pregnancy and thus show that people support maintaining this health care option.

Examples

To prove allegations of so-called Democratic extremism, right-wing media have cherry-picked examples of people opposing abortion and presented these views as being widely held. For example, after O’Rourke responded to Infowars' question, Fox & Friends First aired two segments that shared the thoughts of random Twitter users who disliked his answer:

On Fox News’ Hannity, Fox News contributor Lawrence Jones was sent to Texas to ask voters about O’Rourke’s alleged position on abortion, with many in the resulting segment claiming he was problematically extreme.

Some right-wing media also specifically noted when questions came from non-media participants in an effort to imply that those questioners represented the views of many voters. For example, on One America News’ The Tipping Point, host Liz Wheeler applauded a “student who asked a question” about abortion, saying “professional reporters” wouldn’t do it “because Beto’s a Democrat, and the mainstream media wants to protect the left.” Conversely, many right-wing media outlets failed to note that Weaver, who asked O’Rourke if he would “protect the lives of third-trimester babies,” works for Infowars. The Daily Caller, Fox News, TheBlaze, Washington Free Beacon, and National Review credited either an “attendee” or “a woman” at the event for the question.

Right-wing media have also pointed to imprecise polling on abortion and a supposed lack of public support for the health care staple in discussions of candidates' answers. Townhall’s Lauretta Brown wrote that O’Rourke’s answer about abortion to Infowars “marks a significant departure from public opinion and state laws.” CBN News said the Democratic presidential candidates “are out of step with the public.” After candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) answered a question on abortion during MSNBC’s Morning Joe by saying “the reality of it is that you got to protect the woman’s right to choose,” Townhall’s Guy Benson tweeted that Ryan was “pandering to” a supposedly extreme position that he claimed was only “shared by roughly one-fifth of the electorate.” The Washington Free Beacon also wrote that Booker had cast votes against anti-abortion legislation “despite popular public opinion” supporting them.

These assertions are largely based on polling that asks generic questions about abortion. However, polling that puts into context why someone would have an abortion after 20 weeks shows a different result. There’s a drastic drop in support for 20-week bans when people realize that abortions in later stages of pregnancy are often undertaken out of medical necessity or for particular personal circumstances. For example, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study found that when asked in the abstract about later abortion, “less than a quarter of people (23%) believe women should have access to a legal abortion after 24 weeks.” However, that flipped when people were asked about access to a later abortion when a pregnant person had been infected with the Zika virus -- with results showing “a majority of Americans (59%) believe a woman should have access to a legal abortion after 24 weeks” in that situation. In other words, as Hart Research Associates found, “once voters consider the range of circumstances in which abortions would be made illegal under most 20-week abortion ban proposals, a majority of Americans oppose them.”

In each instance, right-wing media have relied on selective samples of public opinion and opinion polling to give the appearance of widespread opposition to Democratic support for abortion access. In reality, right-wing media have been intentionally fearmongering about so-called Democratic extremism on abortion as part of a 2020 strategy being pushed by Trump and other members of his administration.

3. Using candidate comments about unrelated topics as a jumping-off point to criticize them about abortion

The tactic

Anti-abortion groups and right-wing media have also tried spinning non-abortion comments from candidates to fit anti-abortion groups' stereotypes about Democrats. Right-wing media relied on this approach to spread misinformation and stigma before, employing similar spin to try to connect abortion to the Parkland school shooting, the Trump administration’s family separation policy, and Christine Blasey Ford’s report that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.

Examples

At a CNN town hall, when Warren said her “favorite Bible verse” includes the lesson that “there is value in every single human being,” the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America asked, “But only the ones that are wanted? What about the ones who survive an abortion?” Warren repeated this comment on her Twitter account, prompting The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh to claim that her comment proved Democrats “will actually jump on any opportunity to extol the virtue of human life and the value of human life,” but “you would think they would avoid talking about that because they know 60 million babies have been slaughtered in the womb and they are perfectly OK with that.” He also asserted:

Even though the Democratic Party is the party of Satan, and even though it has embraced satanism and it has embraced infanticide and all of these forms of just the most -- the darkest, most debauched, evil you can imagine, even in spite of all that, still most Democrats feel the need to pretend to be Christian.

In response to a tweet from candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) explaining her belief that “housing is a basic human right,” anti-abortion activist Lila Rose replied, “If housing is a basic human right, then I imagine you’re even more passionate about the right for a child to be born?” Following comments from Buttigieg about Trump’s religion, Fox News contributor Rachel Campos-Duffy dismissed his criticism because Buttigieg “is a guy who is on the record as a supporter of late-term abortion.” Tucker Carlson said on his show of Buttigieg, “This is a guy telling us what a great Christian he is, who’s for abortion up until birth and for sex-selection. Spare me your Christian talk, please. It's absurd.”

Similarly, when candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) called Trump “a coward,” right-wing radio host Stacy Washington replied, “You believe in abortion up to birth, gun confiscation, open borders and limp-wristed governance. You have no room to call anyone a coward.” When Gillibrand later tweeted about legislation she introduced that would “limit opioid prescriptions for acute pain to 7 days,” Fox News’ Brit Hume replied with an inaccurate comparison between her comments and the idea that abortion should be between a patient and a doctor. He wasn’t the only one to make this inaccurate “joke.”

Anti-abortion activist Alveda King wrote a piece for Newsmax claiming that “Booker is touting a new reparations bill for African Americans while secretly supporting an agenda of genocide and infanticide by abortion of millions of black babies.” After comments from candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) that the “number one cause of death for a black child in America today is gun violence,” LifeNews.com tweeted, “Actually @ericswalwell the #1 killer of black children is abortion.”

Right-wing media regularly dominate the conversation about abortion -- so it is unsurprising that these outlets are working overtime to drive an inaccurate narrative in advance of the 2020 election. Trump and the GOP have emphasized anti-abortion misinformation as a core part of their electoral strategies, and right-wing media have already shown their willingness to manufacture or signal boost these attacks. It is crucial for other media outlets to recognize these tactics and provide important context, rather than repeating lies and misinformation from these sources.

Graphics by Melissa Joskow

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