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Black Maternal Health Week spotlights a dire health disparity in the United States
During the second annual Black Maternal Health Week, media outlets at the state and national level ought to take notice of the growing racial health disparity in the United States that has gone under-reported for far too long.
According to an investigation by USA Today, America is the “most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world.” Even worse, as an April 2018 fact sheet from National Partnership for Women & Families noted, “black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death” compared to their white counterparts, regardless of education or wealth. Although media have occasionally highlighted this issue in the context of celebrities’ birth experiences, Black maternal mortality is a serious issue deserving of broader coverage year-round.
Here's what media needs to know about Black Maternal Health Week and the Black maternal health crisis in the United States:
Black Maternal Health Week (April 11-17) was first launched in 2018 and is led by the Black Mamas Matters Alliance to raise awareness of the status of Black maternal health in the United States. The Black Mamas Matter Alliance was established in 2013 as part of “a partnership project between the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.”
These organizations produced and submitted a collaborative report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that focused primarily on Southern Black women’s experiences attempting to access quality maternal health care -- experiences which often resulted in poor maternal health outcomes and persistent racial health disparities. For example, the report noted that between 1990 and 2013, the rate of maternal mortality in the United States more than doubled, and it highlighted that in some parts of the country, “the rate of maternal death for women of color exceeds that of Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Approximately 4 million women in the U.S. give birth each year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2017 that the rate of "severe maternal morbidity ... has been steadily increasing in recent years and affected more than 50,000 women in the United States in 2014.” Severe maternal morbidity impacts include enduring dangerous, traumatic, life-threatening complications that can leave people wounded, financially devastated, and for some, without the ability to bear more children. The CDC has estimated that roughly 700 women die each year as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications, with Black women bearing the brunt of those maternal deaths. To illustrate the impact of this vast racial health disparity, a 2017 ProPublica investigation found that a Black woman “is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, ... but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.”
How do media typically cover Black maternal health?
Although the severity of America’s Black maternal health crisis is deserving of far broader coverage, the topic often only breaks through in the context of celebrity birth experiences. For example, in 2018 two high-profile stories involving Serena Williams and Beyoncé exemplified the dire circumstances of the Black maternal health crisis, underscoring that even prominent and traditionally successful Black women are not immune from its impacts.
Speaking to CNN, Williams brought attention to the racial health disparity by sharing her birth experience, stating that she nearly died in childbirth. Williams highlighted the disparities in access to care for Black women and stressed that, “every mother, everywhere, regardless of race or background deserves to have a healthy pregnancy and birth.” In Vogue's September 2018 issue Beyoncé candidly shared the story of her own dangerous birthing experience. As she explained, “I was 218 pounds the day I gave birth to Rumi and Sir. I was swollen from toxemia and had been on bed rest for over a month. My health and my babies’ health were in danger, so I had an emergency C-section.”
Williams’ and Beyoncé’s experiences further demonstrated that when it comes to America’s worsening Black maternal mortality crisis, no amount of wealth or status can protect a Black woman from experiencing dangerous and potentially fatal childbirth conditions.
Although celebrity experiences more consistently generate media coverage, there have been instances in which stories about Black women’s birthing experiences or stories surrounding the status of Black maternal health break through. In March 2019, USA Today published an investigation of maternal deaths at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans -- a facility which was branded as one of the most dangerous hospitals for Black women in the area to experience labor. According to USA Today, Touro Infirmary was one of 120 hospitals across the country where mothers suffered severe childbirth complications or death at far higher rates than other U.S. hospitals. In response to the piece, the hospital blamed its area’s “medically vulnerable” population, citing, “Lifestyle diseases, the high cost of healthcare, delaying or non-compliance with medical treatment, limited care coordination, poor health, high rates of poverty and high rates of morbidity are all realities of our State and community.” As USA Today noted, this was a particularly troubling response given that “a majority of women who deliver at Touro are black.” Beyond highlighting dire health conditions -- which are unfortunately representative of many Black women’s childbirth experiences -- USA Today’s report also exemplifies the importance of listening to Black women and allowing them the space to share their personal maternal health experiences.
In 2018, USA Today highlighted the experience of YoLanda Mention, who tragically died following childbirth as a result of hospital and emergency room staff ignoring numerous “warning signs." After giving birth, she was discharged despite having dangerously high blood pressure that only increased once she returned home. When a severe headache landed Mention in the emergency room 15 hours after she was initially discharged, she was forced to wait for hours and ultimately left unattended until suffering a stroke. As USA Today concluded, this negligence is all too common:
YoLanda didn’t die from some unforeseen childbirth complication. What killed her didn’t take any expensive, high-tech equipment to detect and treat. Just a blood pressure cuff, IV medication that costs less than $60 a dose and a hospital adhering to best safety practices.
In a 2018 congressional hearing on maternal mortality, Charles Johnson testified about his wife Kira -- who he said, “just wasn’t in good health, she was in exceptional health” -- and her death due to complications that were ignored after childbirth. Kira Johnson gave birth to their son Langston at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a hospital well-known for its superior medical care. But her reports of pain in her abdomen post-cesarean delivery were ignored, as were her husband’s repeated requests for a CT scan to assess the problem. Hospital staff reportedly told Johnson that his “wife just isn’t a priority right now” and instead waited “more than 10 hours” after delivery before they finally examined her and found “three and a half liters of blood in her abdomen.” She was ultimately unable to recover from so much internal bleeding. Although tragic, Kira Johnson’s story received local and national attention, highlighting the importance of giving narratives like Johnson’s a platform to bring visibility to those impacted by the Black maternal mortality crisis.
According to reporting from Austin, TX, television station KXAN, “Black women in Texas are at the greatest risk” of dying as a result of childbirth or related complications, “an alarming rate … on par with developing countries.” The station shared the experience of Cheryl Perkins, who watched as her daughter Cassaundra Perkins became progressively more sick after giving birth to twins via emergency caesarean. As KXAN explained, “An autopsy revealed that doctors left behind pieces of placenta after surgery, causing a deadly infection.” Both state and national news outlets covered Perkins’ case to demonstrate Texas’ Black maternal mortality crisis. After becoming aware of Perkins’ death, Democratic Texas state Rep. Shawn Thierry announced that she would introduce legislation to direct attention to the state’s disparate rates of Black maternal mortality.
Each of these examples from media outlets amplifies the experiences of Black women who suffer as a result of disparate maternal health care in the United States. Black maternal mortality should be a story year-round, but during Black Maternal Health Week, it is especially important for media to center and highlight the lived experiences of Black women when discussing maternal mortality. With the founding of a new Black Maternal Health Caucus in the House, media have yet another opportunity to cover this topic. Black women are at the forefront of this specific health crisis, and it would be a disservice for the media not to center their voices during Black Maternal Health Week.
Senate hearing about alleged censorship of anti-abortion movie Unplanned was another exercise in right-wing outrage-baiting
During an April 10 Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing about the so-called “censorship” of conservative content by social media platforms, senators continually (and inaccurately) claimed Twitter's temporary suspension of an account associated with the anti-abortion movie Unplanned was evidence of wider bias. Although allegations of widespread conservative censorship by social media companies are inaccurate, the accusation itself is familiar among anti-abortion extremists, who have long deployed it as a tactic to rally supporters and raise funds.
Soon after Unplanned’s release in March, a Twitter account associated with the movie was temporarily suspended and reactivated. The Hollywood Reporter explained that the movie’s account “was not suspended on purpose, but rather was linked to another account that had violated Twitter's rules.” Because of this, the Unplanned account was soon reactivated and its followers restored -- but not before right-wing media expressed outrage and alleged that the film had been “shadow banned” (a common and completely false conservative claim). Although Twitter’s FAQ clearly explains that follower and tweet counts “will be fully restored within 24 hours of reactivation,” right-wing and anti-abortion media continued to treat the incident as yet another example of censorship by tech companies.
This is far from the first time that anti-abortion groups or outlets have alleged censorship to rile up supporters or solicit funds. Lila Rose, founder of the anti-abortion group Live Action, told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in 2017 that Twitter was censoring her organization’s ads. In reality, the content remained on the platform -- Live Action simply wasn’t allowed to promote the ads as such because they violated several of Twitter’s content policies. In other instances, this tactic has been deployed by anti-abortion groups to lambast Google’s page rankings or allege widespread media bias against right-wing or anti-abortion views.
Beyond riling up their supporters, this tactic is often deployed by anti-abortion groups to fundraise in the name of fighting back against alleged social media censorship. The anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List has leveraged similar allegations to sway voters and raise funds for specific campaigns. During the 2018 midterm elections, SBA List accused Facebook of removing its ads urging people to “vote pro-life.” Although Facebook actually disallowed the ads because the platform doesn’t “allow ads that depict medical procedures or conditions,” SBA List framed the move as another example of censorship and urged supporters to “RUSH a contribution … to help us fight back and get this ad in front of voters in key swing-states DESPITE the ongoing censorship of pro-life voices by the abortion lobby.”
This Senate hearing is only the latest example of Republican lawmakers’ willingness to entertain inaccurate talking points claiming censorship of conservative views. In 2017, then-Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) deployed this tactic to generate attention and garner support after announcing her run for retiring Sen. Bob Corker's (R-TN) seat, which she ultimately won. Blackburn referred to this incident during the April 10 hearing as well -- even receiving an apology from Twitter’s representative.
Early in the hearing, while questioning witnesses from Facebook and Twitter, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) demanded to know why a 2017 tweet from SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser had allegedly been censored. Although the tweet was never actually removed from Twitter (and in fact remains up today), The Washington Post noted that the tweet had originally been rejected from paid promotion for violating that platform’s “health and pharmaceutical products and services policy.” During the hearing, Twitter’s witness affirmed that SBA List was generally “in good standing” for the purposes of advertising on the platform. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) also questioned why several of SBA List’s Facebook ads depicting premature babies in a medical setting were removed. Although the ads were ultimately allowed to run on the platform, Lee implied that they were initially flagged due to rampant liberal bias at Facebook -- an allegation the witness denied.
During the hearing’s second session, Unplanned and SBA List were both given a platform to repeat talking points about the alleged censorship of anti-abortion content online. In his opening testimony, Unplanned co-director Chuck Konzelman claimed that the temporary suspension of the film’s Twitter account was “suspect” and credited right-wing media personalities such as Fox News host Shannon Bream and National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch for raising awareness of the incident. SBA List’s Vice President of Government Affairs Marilyn Musgrave testified that her organization had “been fighting censorship of our content for more than two years” alongside other anti-abortion organizations that she claimed had experienced similar difficulties.
When conservatives have previously attempted to hold hearings investigating the so-called bias of tech platforms, the results have featured laughable conspiracy theories about liberals censoring conservative content. As this latest hearing demonstrated, anti-abortion and right-wing media will continue to falsely cry censorship to signal-boost their deceptive content, rile up supporters, and raise funds. Given this track record, perhaps the only thing more predictable than right-wing and anti-abortion media’s invocation of censorship to market Unplanned was Senate Republicans’ willingness to give a platform to such a transparent ploy in the first place.
As part of the escalating rhetoric surrounding abortions later in pregnancy, right-wing media and anti-abortion media have consistently -- and erroneously -- pointed to a 2013 study from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health as a piece of “gotcha” evidence allegedly disproving arguments about the dangers of restricting later abortion access. The study doesn't support the purported argument about the frequency of later abortions; that hasn't stopped anti-abortion groups (which repeatedly argue that being "pro-life is pro-science") from touting it -- nor has it stopped other outlets from uncritically allowing or repeating these assertions.
In 2013, Diana Greene Foster and Katrina Kimport authored a study published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (though it is sometimes inaccurately cited as a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a disclaimer at the bottom clarifies that “the views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Guttmacher Institute”). This study examined the potential impact of legislation banning abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy and attempted to assess the reasons why someone would choose to have an abortion around that time period.
This January, as state legislatures in New York and Virginia began considering measures to protect abortion access or to remove unnecessary anti-choice barriers, right-wing media continually cited this 2013 study out of context to allege that Democrats had an extreme position on later abortion access. In particular, anti-abortion and right-wing media have cherry-picked language from the introduction of the 2013 study as proof that third-trimester abortions are not performed due to fetal abnormalities or dangers to the life of the pregnant person. In reality, that is not the time period analyzed by the study and those reasons for seeking an abortion were explicitly excluded from its scope.
The crux of this disingenuous allegation relies on a misinterpretation of a sentence in the study’s introduction stating that “data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.” Right-wing and anti-abortion media have taken this sentence as evidence that few, if any, people seek abortion care in the third trimester due to fetal abnormalities or dangers to the life of the pregnant person. There are several issues with this interpretation.
First, as the study’s co-author Foster confirmed on Twitter, the study “was about abortions at 20 weeks up to the end of the second trimester [around 27 weeks]. It has no relevance to third trimester abortions.” She continued, “My article was intended to increase understanding of the circumstances of women who have abortions after 20 weeks and within the second trimester,” however, “that doesn’t mean that women seeking abortions in the third trimester are just like those in the second trimester.” In addition to focusing on abortions in the second trimester, the 2013 study also explicitly excluded people who had abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality or dangers to the pregnant person’s life from the analysis altogether. As the authors wrote: “Our study has several important limitations. Our data are limited by the exclusion of women who sought later abortions on grounds of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”
Despite this, abortion opponents have alleged the study’s findings about common reasons why people seek abortion care -- “they were raising children alone, were depressed or using illicit substances, were in conflict with a male partner or experiencing domestic violence, had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and nulliparous” -- were all evidence that pro-choice advocates’ claims about the medical necessity of access to third-trimester abortion care were inaccurate. In reality, there are many personal and medical reasons people choose to have abortions in the second and third trimester. As Foster further clarified to Rewire.News after a 2018 congressional report inaccurately referenced the study, “I wouldn’t state that fetal anomaly and life endangerment are a small minority of later abortions because nobody has statistics on this.”
While right-wing media and anti-choice advocates have erroneously cited this study before, faux outrage spun up in reaction to state abortion measures spurred an uptick in the mischaracterizations and misuse of this study -- mischaracterizations that are now spurring inaccurate coverage from other outlets.
So, why do these babies die? The Guttmacher Institute has looked at the reasons for late-term abortion, and the reasons are chilling. First, the top-line finding is clear: “[D]ata suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”
Interestingly, even in some of the anecdotes chosen by Guttmacher, the women describe their decision to have a late-term abortion as “easy” or “very easy.” They didn’t find out they were pregnant until later in the pregnancy, didn’t want the child, and aborted it. Their only challenge was raising the money or finding the clinic. The thought that they were killing a viable infant — a person who would could be raised in a loving home if the mother didn’t want her child — apparently doesn’t factor into their decision-making. It’s treated as casually as an early-term abortion.
This is the reality of late-term abortion in America.
Abortion supporters will claim, “No one’s going to abort so late in pregnancy unless there’s something wrong with her or the ‘fetus’!” They’re wrong about that. A Guttmacher study points out the reasons why women seek “later” abortions — to use their terminology — and it’s not for the reasons they publicly claim. Instead researchers found that most “were raising children alone, were depressed or using illicit substances, were in conflict with a male partner or experiencing domestic violence, had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and nulliparous.”
No mention of the mother’s life or health being at risk, or of a fetal anomaly.
The Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) is the research arm of the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List, and attempts to brand its members as impartial scientific experts, when in reality the organization has an explicit mission to oppose abortion access. Unfortunately, while right-wing media and anti-abortion groups often cite CLI to support inaccurate claims about abortion, other outlets sometimes rely on them without sufficient context or disclosure about the organization’s ideological purpose. CLI has adopted an inaccurate reading of the 2013 study to support anti-abortion positions, using it in both a “report” and “fact sheet” on their website. Although in each instance, CLI included a note that the 2013 study does have “significant” limitations, such as excluding those participants seeking an abortion for health risks or fetal abnormalities, both documents still inaccurately conclude that the study is an effective bludgeon for refuting arguments about the reasons people have abortions later in pregnancy.
As the hyperbolic “controversy” over the measures in New York and Virginia unfolded, The Atlantic and The Washington Post both gave right-wing misinformation about the 2013 study an uncritical platform in each outlet’s opinion section.
The Atlantic published a piece by National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis in which she wrote, “Research from the pro-abortion-rights Guttmacher Institute contradicts the claims that abortions after 20 weeks are most often necessary in heart-wrenching medical emergencies. One study summarized the available data as suggesting that ‘most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’” A note on the piece stated that it was “updated to clarify that the claim quoted from the Guttmacher Institute study came from its survey of existing research, and was not a finding made by the study itself,” but failed to address DeSanctis’ inaccurate primary claim that she had mockingly pushed on Twitter as well:
Similarly, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Bethany Mandel, where she said that “according to research from the Planned Parenthood-affiliated Guttmacher Institute, ‘data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.’” Mandel also continued promoting this claim on Twitter:
Right-wing and anti-abortion media will continue to erroneously cite this 2013 study, and it will likely be rehashed by anti-abortion lawmakers in any number of reports or hearings. Other outlets have a responsibility not to repeat this inaccurate characterization of the study -- or else they're helping abortion opponents spread further misinformation with potentially dire consequences.
Georgia isn’t the only state pushing dangerous anti-choice bans
During the April 3 edition of TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, host Samantha Bee highlighted the dangers of a recent so-called “heartbeat bill” passed by the Georgia legislature. The bill, which is expected to be signed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat has been detected, around six weeks into a pregnancy (often before a person knows they are pregnant). And Georgia isn’t alone, as a number of other states have introduced similarly extreme abortion bans. Here are four important details Bee highlighted about this extreme bill:
As Bee said, the bill would outlaw abortion before many people even know they are pregnant, since the six-week time frame is "only two weeks past a missed period." Bee explained that “this law will hurt women,” particularly in a state like Georgia, which “ranks as the worst state for maternal mortality” in the country (in addition, the “Georgia Department of Health found that 60 percent of those deaths were preventable”). Rather than address rates of maternal mortality, Bee argued, anti-choice lawmakers are instead focused on “making it harder for women to receive medical care.”
In addition to having high rates of maternal mortality Georgia also "suffers a massive shortage of OB-GYNs." In fact, 79 counties in Georgia (around half of the total counties) do not have an OB-GYN. As Bee said, “doctors are significantly less likely to want to practice there if reproductive health care is criminalized” through this bill.
Beyond the bill’s negative impact on both health outcomes and the availability of medical care in the state, Bee also highlighted the “bizarre tax implications” of Georgia's bill. Since it asserts that “unborn children shall be included in certain population-based determinations,” it could potentially be interpreted as giving “personhood” to a fertilized egg. Bee took this line of thought further, asking, "If a zygote is a dependent, then wouldn't miscarriage be both manslaughter and tax fraud? Could a fertility clinic get its own congressman?"
Georgia’s passage of a six-week abortion ban comes as other states have either signed or proposed similarly restrictive anti-choice legislation. As Bee explained, “A number of states are locked in a real race to overturn Roe v. Wade.” She explained that North Dakota and Iowa had signed six-week bans into law prior to this legislative session, and in 2019, Mississippi and Kentucky have each passed laws codifying the same extreme policy, with “Missouri, Tennessee, and Ohio all working on their own versions.” The Guttmacher Institute recently published a report examining the rise of six-week abortion bans, which noted that “six-week bans have been introduced but have not yet moved in Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina and West Virginia.”
All of the six-week abortions bans that state legislatures have passed have been legally challenged for violating protections codified in Roe v. Wade, just as Georgia’s bill likely will be after Kemp signs it into law. As Bee’s segment noted, these legal challenges are often the point of such measures: States are passing these laws because -- with Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court -- anti-choice lawmakers see an opportunity to bring a challenge to Roe v. Wade that would spur the court to either overturn or further weaken the decision. As Bee said, Kavanaugh has already disregarded abortion-related precedent in one decision on the court, suggesting he’s not as respectful of precedent as he claimed to be to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and other senators during his confirmation hearings.
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Conservatives are relying on anti-abortion fearmongering for the 2020 elections. Right-wing media aren’t being subtle about helping that effort.
Right-wing media haven’t been subtle about manufacturing controversy over inaccurate characterizations of abortions undertaken later in pregnancy. But the messaging strategy fueling this latest meltdown -- over comments Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke made about abortion -- is as opportunistic as it is obvious. President Donald Trump has centered anti-abortion fearmongering in his 2020 election messaging, and as this latest outrage demonstrates, right-wing media will continue to be in lockstep.
During a March 18 event, O’Rourke was asked by a staffer from the far-right conspiracy outlet Infowars (which is currently banned from YouTube and other platforms) whether he supports later abortion access. In particular, the staffer asked O’Rourke if he would “protect the lives of third-trimester babies because there’s really not a medical necessity for abortion,” echoing inaccurate right-wing talking points about the necessity of abortions later in pregnancy. O’Rourke responded that he supported abortion access broadly and that it “should be a decision that the woman makes,” adding that he trusted people to make their own decisions. Although innocuous, O’Rourke’s comments sparked an outcry from right-wing and anti-abortion media outlets, which pointed to the moment as the latest example of so-called Democratic extremism on abortion.
National Review accused O’Rourke of refusing to address “the morality of third-trimester abortion” and argued that his answer was “reflective of the Democratic presidential field, which comprises lawmakers who maintain a blanket opposition to abortion restrictions regardless of gestational age.” Townhall argued that O’Rourke’s support for abortion “past the point of fetal viability” is unpopular and that he was “not the only one in his party defending abortion up until birth.” On social media, right-wing and anti-abortion figures similarly attacked O’Rourke and other Democrats as “despicable,” “ghoulish,” and extreme. Although many criticisms focused on casting Democrats as “the party of late-term abortion in 2020,” some anti-abortion groups like the Susan B. Anthony List took this rhetoric further, alleging that O’Rourke and other Democrats support “abortion up until birth.”
Cries of Democratic “extremism” have been building in the right-wing echo chamber since earlier this year, when abortion rights measures in New York and Virginia sparked widespread conservative outrage. Fox News, and right-wing media more broadly, spent weeks whipping audiences into a frenzy over various inaccurate depictions of later abortion -- alleging that Democrats supporting these measures were endorsing “infanticide” or so-called abortions “up to birth.” In reality, neither of these characterizations accurately reflects abortion procedures or the specific circumstances faced by those patients needing an abortion later in pregnancy. Similarly, although right-wing media often claim that supporting abortion rights is harmful for Democrats electorally and that polling supports this allegation, clear and accurately phrased polling actually demonstrates the opposite. In particular, support for abortions later in pregnancy increases when people are given context about the medical or logistical circumstances necessitating later abortions.
Nevertheless, Trump and the Republican Party have already adopted right-wing media talking points about abortion as a core part of their 2020 messaging strategy. Anti-abortion misinformation and allegations of Democratic extremism have transitioned from Fox News fodder, to Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, to various speeches at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference, and statements from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Right-wing media and conservative politicians aren’t being subtle about using anti-abortion misinformation as a cudgel to stoke outrage -- because they don’t have to be. Especially when other media outlets have already demonstrated that they will uncritically parrot inaccurate framing and talking points borne of the right-wing outrage machine. Anti-abortion fearmongering isn’t going anywhere as coverage around the 2020 election ramps up. Already, conservative media are trying to spark a secondary round of coverage over O’Rourke’s comments. It’s only a matter of time before right-wing media gin up another candidate-based controversy to attack abortion access and those who support it, no matter what the consequences may be.
After numerous controversies and advertiser losses, Fox News has been scrambling to erect an imaginary firewall between the network's so-called "news" and "opinion" sides. But recent reporting from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow about a 2017 case involving the treatment of pregnant detained teenagers underscores the reality about the two sides: Fox's "news" hosts are in lockstep with their so-called “opinion” colleagues and seemingly have been for some time.
During the March 15 edition of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, Maddow reported on spreadsheets kept by President Donald Trump's administration containing details about unaccompanied immigrant girls’ pregnancies in an attempt to delay or prevent wanted abortions. In 2017, the Trump administration made a policy change that shelters could not facilitate abortion access for detained minors without “direction and approval” from Scott Lloyd, the then-director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. An undocumented teen (referred to as Jane Doe) who was being held in federal custody and was blocked from obtaining a wanted abortion brought suit, and a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to allow her to access abortion care.
Although it had been previously reported that Lloyd tracked pregnant teens in the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) custody using a spreadsheet, the March 15 edition of The Rachel Maddow Show showcased the exclusively obtained spreadsheet and shared previously unseen details. As Maddow said of the 28-page document:
This is the federal government, with your tax dollars, keeping an individualized record of pregnant teenage girls’ menstrual cycles, whether they've had a positive pregnancy test, what the government knows about how they believe the girls got pregnant, how they believe this individual girl got pregnant, and whether this girl has requested an abortion.
As Maddow explained, “This was essentially a spreadsheet designed to facilitate federal government action to block these girls from getting any abortion they might want.” In addition, Maddow noted, Lloyd kept tracking the girls’ pregnancies and cycles even after the court ordered ORR to stop blocking teens from obtaining abortions.
Back in 2017, The Rachel Maddow Show had reported that Lloyd, an anti-choice extremist, used his position to push an anti-abortion agenda on the undocumented minors in his care. He allegedly visited at least one of the pregnant teens to try to talk her out of an abortion and made others go to anti-abortion fake health clinics for the same purpose. He had also reportedly inquired about whether a teenager in ORR custody could have her abortion “reversed,” an anti-abortion scam that is not based in science. Lloyd left ORR to join the Health and Human Services Department (HHS)’s Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives in November 2018.
The updated story about Lloyd keeping tabs on teenage girl's menstrual cycles shines a light on the slanted lens through which both Fox's opinion and "news" sides present stories. Those who get their news from Fox are unlikely to hear about this invasive spreadsheet -- just as they were unlikely to hear about Lloyd’s actions in 2017. Instead, the network’s stories about the Jane Doe case that year focused on anti-abortion misinformation and fearmongering about immigrants.
For example, during a 2017 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson falsely claimed the Jane Doe case was about “liberals … arguing that U.S. taxpayers somehow have an obligation to fund abortions for illegal aliens,” though Jane Doe had obtained private funding for the abortion. On The Ingraham Angle, host Laura Ingraham claimed that, because of a related court decision to allow undocumented minors to access abortion, the United States would become “an abortion magnet.” Notably, Ingraham opened the segment by downplaying the experiences of the pregnant detained minors impacted by the decision, mockingly saying: “Underage and need an abortion? Well, just come to America. … No visa needed.”
Fox News’ so-called “straight news” hosts covered the 2017 case similarly. Bret Baier and Shannon Bream also pushed abortion misinformation about the Jane Doe case -- as they’ve frequently done for other abortion-related stories. During a 2017 edition of Special Report, host Baier opened a segment about Jane Doe’s case by posing the misleading question of whether viewers and their “fellow taxpayers [would] be required to pay for an abortion for an illegal immigrant.” In that same segment, Bream appeared as a correspondent and alleged that some people “think this could open the door to the U.S. providing abortions for minors who would seek to cross the border illegally solely for that purpose.” On her own program, Fox News @ Night, Bream continued promoting anti-choice groups’ talking points, pointing to comments from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, worrying that his state would become “a sanctuary state for abortions” due to the Jane Doe case.
MSNBC’s new reporting further highlights the failures of Fox News’ work on this story -- on both the “news” and “opinion” sides. Fox News has a vested interest in proving (no matter how inaccurate) that the network's news hosts are somehow different from the network's opinion hosts. But hosts on both sides of Fox's artificial divide have prioritized anti-abortion misinformation and xenophobia over accurate reporting on Scott Lloyd's tenure at HHS. Given the amount of energy the network has spent fearmongering about abortion this year, it seems unlikely that viewers will hear anything accurate about the spreadsheets -- or, perhaps, anything at all.
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Conservatives use misinformation and stigma to vilify people who have abortions later in pregnancy
Since the introduction of recent measures to protect abortion rights in several states, right-wing media have leveraged anti-choice misinformation to not only claim that abortions later in pregnancy are never necessary but to also vilify and shame people who have them. But reading the personal accounts from later abortion patients emphasizes the reality of their different experiences, debunking harmful conservative tropes depicting later abortions as shameful or medically unnecessary. Here are just a few examples of how right-wing media amplifies anti-choice talking points to stigmatize later abortions, and several must-read accounts from actual abortion patients to correct the record.
Fox’s “straight news” anchors repeat the same anti-choice talking points as the network's opinion hosts
There are many reasons that Fox News’ false dichotomy between the network’s so-called “news” and “opinion” divisions is laughable, but there is perhaps no clearer indication than the sheer amount of anti-abortion misinformation spread by both "opinion" and “straight news” personalities alike.
After the Democratic National Committee announced that Fox News would not be hosting any of this year’s Democratic presidential primary debates, backlash from Fox’s senior leadership was swift, with officials imploring the DNC to “reconsider its decision” on account of the “ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism” reportedly shown by some of the network’s hosts. As Variety previously reported, the network had already rolled out a messaging campaign to reassure wary advertisers about the outlet’s legitimacy, extolling the virtues of the network’s news hosts. This messaging campaign is merely a repackaging of the same inaccurate story Fox has been telling for years: Viewers and critics shouldn’t hold the blatant xenophobia, sexism, racism, and lies of the opinion side against the allegedly objective news team. But this recycled talking point further falls apart when it comes to anti-abortion misinformation spread by the network’s hosts.
In January, abortion rights measures in New York and Virginia sent Fox News and broader conservative media into a frenzy. Although both measures were attempts to protect abortion access should the Supreme Court overturn or weaken Roe v. Wade, Fox News hosts across the network’s news and opinion programs seized on the opportunity to spread sensationalized misinformation and attack Democrats for allegedly supporting “infanticide” or so-called abortions “up until birth.” Despite these inaccurate characterizations, Fox News devoted over six and half hours of coverage before the 2019 State of the Union address to falsely claiming that these state measures allowed “infanticide” -- a talking point that ultimately appeared in President Donald Trump’s remarks. In fact, Trump and Republican lawmakers are reportedly banking on using anti-abortion extremism to rally voters for the 2020 elections -- a strategy that was on full display during the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference.
It’s no secret that Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity -- each a part of Fox’s volatile and increasingly bad-for-business prime-time lineup -- are all frequent anti-abortion misinformers. Although Fox has attempted to distinguish the work of Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, Shannon Bream, and Chris Wallace from their colleagues, these "news"-side hosts have all pushed their share of lies, distortions, and misinformation about abortion and reproductive rights.
Although Fox clearly has a profit motive in portraying Baier as a straight news host, there is little to distinguish him from his colleagues on the opinion side when it comes to his abortion-related reporting. In Media Matters’ annual study of abortion-related coverage on evening prime-time cable news programs, Baier and his program Special Report have consistently been dominated by anti-choice talking points and inaccurate statements about abortion and reproductive rights.
Notably, Baier hosted a 2016 town hall with Democratic presidential candidates and used the platform to recycle misleading right-wing anti-abortion talking points. On his program, in the same year, Baier inaccurately described a common abortion procedure as “dismemberment abortion” and misled viewers that a Supreme Court case involving access to contraceptives was actually about abortion rights. Baier previously invoked a longstanding right-wing media talking point comparing legally operating abortion providers to convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell. In 2009, Baier even went so far as to falsely assert that the Obama administration would allow doctors to be jailed for refusing to perform abortions.
Beyond frequently hosting anti-choice guests such as Live Action founder Lila Rose and Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins, MacCallum seemingly makes little secret of her personal views on abortion and will often use sensationalized rhetoric when discussing the topic.
Even before MacCallum became a staple of Fox’s evening lineup, she was already a serial anti-abortion misinformer. In 2015, MacCallum attacked Planned Parenthood for allegedly using taxpayer money to support abortion care (the organization does not, as the Hyde Amendment bars the use of federal funds for abortion services). Like Baier, MacCallum also used a 2016 presidential primary forum as an opportunity to spread anti-abortion misinformation sourced from the anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress’ (CMP) deceptive videos attacking Planned Parenthood. Since MacCallum began hosting her own program, she has consistently promoted anti-abortion talking points about later abortion and Planned Parenthood. In 2017, MacCallum pushed several myths about the existence of so-called “sex-selective” abortion practices, even demanding a guest on her program explain whether it was acceptable “for someone to decide because they don’t like the sex of their baby to abort it at eight months.”
Whether appearing as a correspondent on Special Report or hosting her own program, Fox News @ Night, Bream has been a frequent source of anti-abortion misinformation on Fox. Despite representing the network’s so-called “straight news” contingent, Bream’s promotion to host her own program was celebrated by anti-abortion leaders.
Bream was a frequent promoter of CMP’s deceptive videos, even hosting the Fox News “special” promoting the group’s claims in 2015. In 2016, Bream touted “exclusively obtained” copies of letters from a House investigation based on CMP’s allegations -- letters received a full day before they were publicly released or shared with Democratic members of the investigative panel, in direct violation of congressional rules. Since then, Bream has repeatedly signal-boosted anti-abortion talking points and myths by spreading misinformation about abortion safety, letting guests make inaccurate allegations about Planned Parenthood without pushback, and citing polls commissioned by anti-abortion groups without necessary context to suggest a lack of public support for abortion. If there’s a talking point circulating around anti-abortion media and personalities online, it’s more likely than not that it will eventually surface on Bream’s program.
Although Chris Wallace does not discuss abortion as frequently as some of his Fox colleagues, his invocation of so-called “partial-birth” abortion during the final debate of the 2016 presidential election is more than enough to disqualify the anchor from consideration as a fair and balanced voice on abortion-related issues. Wallace’s inaccurate and sensationalized question was then picked up by other right-wing media outlets and has since re-emerged in Trump’s current talking points about abortion. Wallace has also shown a propensity for repeating right-wing smears against Planned Parenthood, citing anti-choice videos attacking the organization well before CMP’s campaign of deception began.
It doesn’t matter whether viewers watch so-called "news" or "opinion" programming: Both are likely to contain sensationalism, outright lies, and harmful characterizations about abortion patients, providers, and procedures -- seemingly no matter the potential consequences.
At the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Republicans and right-wing media figures abandoned any pretense of reality in their description of abortion procedures and instead fabricated increasingly unrealistic and sensationalized scenarios to fearmonger about so-called Democratic “murderers.”
Though inaccurate anti-choice rhetoric is a staple of conservative commentary, right-wing media have spent the last few weeks in a frenzy -- first claiming that Democrats allegedly want to legalize abortions “up to birth,” and then moving on to the even more sensational claim that Democrats support “murder” during and even after birth. When Republicans and right-wing media figures hit the CPAC stage last week, some on Twitter expressed disbelief that the speakers promoted such obviously inaccurate language. However, the rhetoric on display at CPAC was merely the latest example of conservative and right-wing media figures deploying sensationalized language to fearmonger about abortion.
Conservative outlets, and Fox News in particular, have been promoting inaccurate and extreme language about abortion for weeks, and President Donald Trump adopted those talking points in his 2019 State of the Union address. Trump and other Republicans are reportedly banking on using anti-abortion extremism to rally voters during the 2020 election -- a strategy that was seemingly tested on the CPAC stage.
Right-wing media’s recent outrage centers on efforts by Democratic lawmakers in several states to ensure access to abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned or to remove unnecessary restrictions on abortion. Republicans seized on these measures to promote myths about abortions that happen later in pregnancy and to advance the inaccurate talking point that there are excessive numbers of so-called “born alive” abortions.
In an attempt to address the nonexistent instances of abortions “after birth,” Republicans introduced and attempted to force a vote on the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act -- a bill anti-choice politicians touted as aiding so-called “abortion survivors” who are “born alive” following an attempted abortion procedure. The bill ultimately failed to advance in the Senate, but it is part of a Republican strategy of “bringing back the issue of very late abortions, perhaps in the hope of energizing their base in advance of 2020” with the goal of getting “Democrats on record opposing it.” By forcing a vote on the legislation, Republicans and right-wing media can then spin opposing votes as evidence of Democrats’ supposed “extremism” on abortion rights.
Similarly, right-wing media’s depictions of abortions happening up to the “moment of birth” do not conform to any medical procedure happening in the U.S. Abortions later in pregnancy are performed for complicated personal and medical reasons, and the people who anti-choice advocates compare to murderers often have to make the difficult decision to end a wanted pregnancy because of a nonviable fetus or due to their own great medical risk. In other instances, people need abortions later in pregnancy due to anti-choice restrictions on earlier access. In either case, if anti-abortion media really wanted to understand the people who have had abortions later in pregnancy, these outlets and commentators could read actual accounts rather than demonizing those individuals and feeding a manufactured right-wing media outrage cycle.
The idea of abortions after birth or “born alive” abortions is also not based in any medical standard of care or practice, as Rewire.News reported in 2013. As doctors Daniel Grossman and Jennifer Conti pointed out to The New York Times, it is more likely that the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act 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 be used opportunistically by anti-choice opponents to prosecute abortion providers.
Holy shit -- here's @ScottWalker suggesting some people "take the baby home and kill the baby at home."
"By the way, it's not live-birth abortion. It's not infanticide. It is murder if you take the baby home and kill the baby at home, it's murder."
Nobody disagrees with that! pic.twitter.com/w6Q8B6wDrA
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 28, 2019
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 -- a trend that has intensified in recent years. 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 additional incidents of violence or threats against clinics reported in New Jersey, Utah, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Washington, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.
This isn’t the first time that right-wing media outlets have helped fan the flames of resentment against abortion providers, patients, and clinics with extremist language. Before an anti-abortion extremist murdered abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in 2009, 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.”
In 2015, an anti-abortion extremist who killed three and injured nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, CO, 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 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.
In 2019, right-wing media’s extreme rhetoric on state measures protecting abortion rights has already sparked to harassment. After a video went viral of Del. Kathy Tran (D) speaking about an abortion measure she sponsored in Virginia, Tran told The Washington Post that “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.” Tran also had to postpone a town hall meeting on February 2 because of “security and safety concerns” in the wake of the outrage ginned up by misrepresentation of her bill. ThinkProgress posted audio of a threatening message about the bill sent to the Democratic Party of Virginia and another clip of a racist tirade against Tran, telling her to “go back to Vietnam.” The state party’s communications director told ThinkProgress that “the party has also had to take additional security precautions” as a result of receiving such threats to its members.
In February, The Virginian-Pilot reported that a man in Virginia was “charged with threatening to assault a U.S. official” because he allegedly threatened “to punch and shoot U.S. Sen. Mark Warner because of his stances on issues like abortion.” On March 4, another man was charged with arson for trying to burn down an empty Planned Parenthood clinic in Missouri in February. The FBI previously said it is investigating the latter incident as a possible hate crime, but it’s currently unclear whether these two events are linked to the recent extreme anti-abortion rhetoric from right-wing media figures.
Inaccurate rhetoric about abortion from Republicans and right-wing media is dangerous and could lead to additional harassment and violence. Unfortunately, CPAC shows us it’s not likely to end anytime soon.
Chenay Arberry contributed research to this article.
Fox News: Where a historical documentary can’t run an ad warning about the dangers of fascism because it contains “disgraceful Nazi imagery,” but host Laura Ingraham can show graphics comparing Planned Parenthood to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler with impunity.
During the February 26 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, Ingraham spent several segments delivering a sensationalized and inaccurate rant against abortion, particularly those performed later in pregnancy. In addition to alleging that Democrats support “the wanton extermination of children already born” -- a false talking point that has been circulating among right-wing media, anti-abortion groups, and other conservative figures -- Ingraham also compared Planned Parenthood to Nazi Germany, claiming that “Hitler, just like Planned Parenthood, practiced and defended mass extermination.” To drive her point home, Ingraham showed the following graphic on the screen:
Fox News viewers -- particularly those who watch the prime-time lineup of Tucker Carlson, Ingraham, and Sean Hannity -- are no strangers to xenophobic or sexist content, racist dog whistles, and even talking points borrowed from white nationalists. And this isn’t the first time that Ingraham or other Fox News figures have asserted inaccurate and harmful comparisons between Planned Parenthood and Nazis. However, Ingraham’s choice of talking points and on-screen imagery raises some questions in light of Fox News’ recent decision to reject an advertisement warning about the dangers of fascism and Nazi ideology.
On February 13, The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Fox News executives had “rejected a national advertising buy” promoting A Night at the Garden, an Oscar-nominated documentary short warning “viewers about the potential dangers of American fascism.” Although the ad was intended to warn “Sean Hannity's largely conservative viewers about the potential dangers of President Donald Trump's brand of populism,” ad sales representatives for the network rejected it, citing concerns from Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott who reportedly said that it was “not appropriate.” The network clarified the alleged “inappropriate” nature of the anti-facism ad in a subsequent comment to The Week, with Fox’s President of Ad Sales Marianne Gambelli stating that “regardless of the film’s message,” the ad was rejected for being “full of disgraceful Nazi imagery” which “did not meet our guidelines.”
Fox News has found itself under a great deal of pressure going into the upcoming advertising sales season -- thanks in large part to an increasing awareness by many companies that associating their products with Fox News is bad for business. Dozens of advertisers have abandoned Ingraham’s show alone in the past year. As Variety reported in January, the network is currently in the process of trying to rebrand itself to advertisers after “sponsors have pulled their advertising” from a number of prime-time shows. The report continued:
Keeping the ad dollars flowing at Fox News is critical – not only for the network, but for its parent company, 21st Century Fox. At some point in the next few months, Fox is slated to sell the bulk of its cable and studio assets to Walt Disney Co. The remaining company, known as Fox Corporation will rely on not only Fox News and Fox Business Network, but Fox Sports and Fox Broadcasting. The Fox News unit has contributed around 20% of the overall company’s operating profit. In a pared-down structure, it might be more. And while many analysts focus on the revenue Fox News derives from affiliates, its ad dollars will also be important after the sale.
There are consequences to allowing this kind of extreme rhetoric to continue unchecked that extend beyond the negative impact on advertisers for having their products associated with vitriol like Ingraham’s. Anti-abortion violence and harassment have been on the rise in recent years -- a trend fueled in part by the extreme rhetoric of right-wing media figures, whose anti-choice talkings points are echoed by the president.
When Fox News pitches upfronts this May, advertisers should remember: Fox News was unwilling to show an advertisement denouncing the dangers of Nazism, but the network seemingly has no problem invoking or showing Nazi imagery to attack abortion providers and patients.