Lessons to learn from Oklahoma media’s insufficient coverage of an abortion criminalization bill

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Since November, Oklahoma Republican state Sen. Joseph Silk has aggressively promoted a now-tabled bill that would criminalize all abortions without exception. Silk is deeply tied to an extreme anti-abortion community that supports the “abolition” of abortion rights, but Oklahoma media's reporting on his abortion criminalization bill failed to identify or explain these extreme affiliations -- to the detriment of pregnant people in the state.

Silk introduced SB 13 to reclassify abortion as homicide, making felons of both the doctors who perform them and the patients who receive them. The bill makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, and it carries harsh punishments for patients who use many forms of contraception and even some forms of fertility treatment. Though the Oklahoma bill is likely unconstitutional, it has already inspired similar legislation in other states, including Texas, Colorado, and Indiana.

Oklahoma media repeatedly stumbled when reporting on this extreme bill -- failing to adequately contextualize Silk’s extreme anti-abortion position and its consequences, downplaying his supporters’ history of harassment, and repeating anti-choice talking points without pushback. Although the bill did not make it out of committee, news outlets covering similar extreme anti-abortion bills in other states should learn from these mistakes.

Media should contextualize connections between abortion criminalization bills and the extreme          anti-abortion communities supporting them

Silk’s anti-abortion advocacy and support for so-called abortion “abolition” is not a recent development. He has a history of introducing anti-abortion legislation in the Oklahoma Senate, and he spoke at a March 2018 campaign rally for then-gubernatorial candidate Dan Fisher that was hosted by Operation Save America, an extreme anti-abortion group with a history of making threats and perpetuating harassment. Fisher’s campaign platform stated that he is “an abolitionist,” and it included a commitment to “defy the federal government” and “make Oklahoma the first abortion-free state.” After his campaign failed, Fisher’s staff founded the abortion abolition organization Free the States, which frequently hosts events supporting Silk and his bill.

Abortion abolition groups differ from other anti-abortion groups by advocating for the immediate criminalization of abortion without any exceptions for cases of rape or incest. In addition to this extreme view, these so-called abolitionist groups also oppose most forms of birth control or reproductive intervention, including Plan B and in vitro fertilization. Silk is not an unwitting participant in the activities of this extremist community. In the past year alone, he has given multiple exclusive interviews to Free the States and endorsed the group’s extremist ideology. In return, the group announced that it will “gather our resources and put all hands on deck to demand that [Silk’s] bill is passed.”

Almost no reporting on Silk's efforts to promote SB 13 included information about his ties to the abortion abolition community, despite the fact that he titled the bill the “Abolition of Abortion in Oklahoma Act.” Media’s failure to note both the extremism of Silk’s supporters and his individual endorsement of their ideology obscures the threat that bills like this present. 

Outlets should avoid promoting or uncritically repeating anti-choice euphemisms and talking points

Beyond the failure to note Silk’s involvement with the abortion abolition community, Oklahoma media also allowed Silk and his supporters to use these platforms to repeat anti-choice talking points. After Silk held a rally to promote his bill at the state Capitol, multiple Oklahoma outlets allowed Silk and his supporters to compare abortion to slavery and the holocaust with no pushback or context about why these statements are problematic.

One segment featured a member of Free the States saying, “We have five free-standing child sacrifice centers. A lot of people call them abortion clinics.” Although this quote was irrelevant to the substance of the bill, its inclusion without pushback actively editorializes and fearmongers about abortion. Free the States later posted this clip to the group’s Facebook page, writing, “We can’t afford to run TV ads supporting #SB13 and our campaign to Free the States from their participation in the American Abortion Holocaust. But if we could, we would run them during the nightly news. Good thing they are running brief ads for us.”

Outlets should be cautious about including quotes that do not provide information about the substance of criminalization bills. Quotes that reiterate anti-choice talking points -- scattered throughout articles with no counterpoint or pushback -- legitimize these extreme viewpoints and misrepresent the material harm these bills would have.

Media should describe what these bill would actually mean for pregnant people’s ability to access desired health care options, including abortion

Outlets reporting on abortion criminalization bills need to describe the realities of these policies, including the repercussions such extreme measures would have for pregnant people and abortion providers. For example, Oklahoma media published a series of articles covering Silk’s rally at the state Capitol, but the only pro-choice perspective included in many of these pieces was a brief quote from a Democratic lawmaker stating that the bill is unlikely to go anywhere. Some stories did not include any pro-choice perspectives at all. One exception to this trend was a February 13 article from The Oklahoman, which included a quote from the board president for Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice highlighting the dangers of the bill. Most news coverage of Silk’s event did not include the voices of people who provide or receive abortions, and many stories had no explanation of the consequences should the bill go into effect in Oklahoma. In covering Silk’s bill, some Oklahoma media outlets simply said that it would take “past efforts against abortion a step further.” While true, this characterization omits critical information and downplays the harmful impact such bills have.

Already, patients across the country are being prosecuted for either miscarrying or self-managing abortions. In Indiana, a woman who attempted suicide when she was eight months pregnant was charged with murder. In Iowa, a pregnant woman was charged with feticide after she accidentally fell down the stairs. And bills such as Silk’s which further codify the criminalization of abortion care are guaranteed to exacerbate this problem. Under the Oklahoma bill, doctors who provide abortions could be charged with homicide. Silk’s bill would also criminalize selective embryo reduction, a common practice among patients who have received in vitro fertilization, making it more difficult for patients with fertility difficulties to receive treatment in Oklahoma.

Reporting on abortion criminalization bills should center these kinds of consequences -- focusing on what happens if these harmful bills take effect, and specifically what they would mean for pregnant patients and their doctors. As more states introduce abortion criminalization bills, outlets can learn lessons from where Oklahoma media fell short. By providing context about the extreme background of the groups promoting these bills and ensuring that readers have access to information about their harmful impacts, outlets can avoid advertising for anti-abortion extremists.

Correction (2/20/19): In the original version of this post, Media Matters incorrectly linked to a story from The Oklahoman when describing outlets that had failed to quote any pro-choice voices in coverage of SB 13. The link should have directed readers to a story from the Tulsa World.