A recent series of local TV news stories demonstrate how abortion stigma can be interwoven into news narratives through the use of misleading images and words to link the medical procedure to shame and regret.
Abortion stigma is broadly defined as “a shared understanding that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable.” It is a process by which a cultural condemnation for abortion is displayed and communicated, be it through state laws with an expressed purpose of deterring women from obtaining abortions or misleading media stories about abortion laden with emotionally-manipulative language and images.
A Charlotte, NC-based Fox affiliate recently pushed this stigma by devoting a segment to promoting the work of an anti-choice group pushing an unproven and potentially dangerous method for so-called “abortion reversals” in situations where women were attempting to abort a pregnancy via medical abortion.
A San Diego-based anti-choice nonprofit, Culture of Family Life Services, has been promoting the unproven method of “reversing” a medical abortion by publicizing a hotline which would connect women with providers who would give them a series of progesterone shots - which the organization claims would stop a medical abortion from progressing. This course of treatment is not approved by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) who have said that for women who have taken the first course of drugs and don't wish to terminate, they should simply not take the second course and do not need large doses of progesterone to prevent the abortion.
It was within this backdrop that a North Carolina Fox station, WJZY, broadcast a misleading segment on a local general practitioner promoting this so-called abortion reversal treatment. The North Carolina news segment, along with the five additional local TV news affiliates that repackaged the report and aired similar segments, all used misleading images of seemingly very pregnant women to illustrate a story about first trimester abortion. In fact, medical abortion is only available to women within the first nine weeks of pregnancy, at which stage the fetus is less than an inch long. Yet the North Carolina station used several images of visibly pregnant women who appeared to be much further along in a pregnancy to illustrate the story of “babies... given a second chance” :
When the original story promoting abortion reversals was repackaged on other local TV news stations, even more images of visibly pregnant women appeared in those broadcasts such as images shown during Fox 8's segment in Cleveland, Ohio.
The WJZY story in North Carolina also used an image of an ultrasound of a fetus that is much further along in development than 9 weeks, according to an OB-GYN who has published a review of “abortion reversal” and told Yahoo Parenting the image used in the segment appeared to be a fetus at “about 26 weeks”:
In addition to the misleading pregnancy images the WJZY reporter used, the rhetoric also referred to a first-term fetus as a baby throughout, such as when he described medical abortion as a procedure that “starves the baby of nutrients.” Reporter Bill Melugin intoned in his segment, “A Charlotte-area doctor has found a way to save lives before they ever come into this world.” And that “as a result” of this doctor's work, “babies...have been given a second chance along with their moms who once felt like they made a mistake.”
The imagery of many women coming to regret their abortions is rhetoric that is promoted by anti-choice organizations but is not supported by existing evidence on women who have had abortions. In fact a study from the University of California, San Diego found that 90 percent of women who had an abortion expressed relief, not regret, after the medical procedure.
Two OB-GYN's reinforced this to Yahoo Parenting, saying that the WJZY story, “could make it seem that there are lots of women who regret the choice to have an abortion halfway through the process -- when, in reality, that situation is 'exceedingly rare.'”
When local news promotes anti-abortion messages and untested medical practices as a "major medical breakthrough" the public is misled and those who have had or have considered an abortion are vilified. Pushing a message that abortion is something that is bad for women is not just bad science, it's the type of abortion stigma that should have no place in unbiased journalism.