As Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Florida greenlit new laws severely restricting or banning abortions, local media often gave a “both sides” treatment to the fight over abortion rights in their coverage of the news, portraying anti-abortion extremism and pro-choice advocacy as equally valid perspectives.
Last week, three states approved some of the strictest abortion restrictions since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling enshrined the constitutional right to abortion up to 24 weeks. On April 12, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a law making it a felony to perform a surgical abortion or prescribe abortion medication, with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. The next day, Kentucky’s GOP-led legislature overrode a veto by the governor to pass a law that bans abortion at 15 weeks, setting requirements so onerous that the only two remaining abortion clinics in the state had to suspend services. Then on April 14, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation stopping abortions after 15 weeks unless a pregnant person’s health is in danger or if there are fatal fetal abnormalities. None of these three laws contain exceptions for rape or incest. While Kentucky’s law immediately went into effect, restrictions signed in Oklahoma and Florida are slated to take effect this summer.
Local print coverage of these laws in between April 10 and April 15 largely framed the issue as a political controversy rather than a human rights issue for pregnant people, portraying anti-choice extremist viewpoints as legitimate alongside pro-choice perspectives. Many stories included quotes from anti-choice legislators and activists who denigrated people seeking abortions — for instance, referring to abortion as “murder” — or portrayed a fetus’ “right to life” as more important than the rights of pregnant people and abuse survivors.
- A story about abortion access in the Louisville Courier Journal quoted heavily from anti-choice protesters outside an abortion clinic in Kentucky, including one protester who called abortion “murder.” The story’s kicker quote was from a protester who said badgering patients into changing their minds “makes it all worthwhile.”
- The Lexington Herald-Leader published a story about the state’s anti-abortion law and other GOP-backed bills under the headline: “Conservatives cheered, liberals moaned as the KY legislature ticked off this checklist,” setting the issue up as a partisan conflict, rather than an issue of human rights.
- An Orlando Sun-Sentinel article on the Florida anti-abortion legislation framed the issue as a debate between two equally legitimate sides, with extensive quotes from religious anti-choice voices and a kicker quote from an anti-choice advocate.
- In a story on the Florida law, the Tallahassee Democrat quoted GOP state House Speaker Chris Sprowls referring to a fetus as a “child” that “has a right to life,” and claiming DeSantis is “the most pro-life governor in America.” The paper also quoted DeSantis saying the legislation provides “the most significant protections for life” in decades.
- The Oklahoman published a story about the state’s abortion ban that gave pro-choice and anti-choice voices very similar weight. The story took right-wing talking points about protecting “life” at face value, writing that “Stitt and others in attendance wore red roses as a symbol of the sanctity of human life.”
- A story from local news publisher CNHI that ran in at least half a dozen local newspapers, including the Tahlequah Daily Press, drew a false equivalency between pro-choice and anti-choice perspectives, quoting Stitt as saying that the most important thing to him and the majority of Oklahomans is to “take a stand and protect the unborn and protect life.”
- The Tulsa World published a story on the Oklahoma anti-abortion law titled: “Gov. Stitt signs near-total abortion ban: 'We want Oklahoma to be the most pro-life state.’” The article included Stitt asserting that Oklahomans “overwhelmingly support protecting life,” without offering data to support this claim.
- A Durant Daily Democrat article about a speech given by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) quoted verbatim from his anti-choice comments without any pushback or fact-checking. The story adopted Lankford’s paternalistic tone without critique, implying, for instance, that pregnant people cannot think for themselves: “Lankford said the other side of stopping abortion is having a compassionate side and being able to engage with women who are considering an abortion and emphasizing the value and importance of the child.”
- An article in The Oklahoman about faith leaders’ reactions to the Oklahoma abortion ban included several virulent anti-choice quotes from religious leaders, including extremists who want legislators to go even further and criminalize all abortions. The story also quotes a pastor calling people who get or perform abortions “murderers and conspirators.”
As conservative lawmakers continue to lay siege to abortion rights across the country, local news has the opportunity to provide abortion patients, clinics, and advocates a proper voice – undiluted by the uncritical incorporation of anti-choice extremists.
Some local news outlets emphasized the devastating impact of anti-abortion legislation on pregnant people and survivors of sexual abuse or assault, quoting abuse survivors and people who have had abortions, and highlighting the life-threatening consequences of anti-abortion legislation.
- In an early story on Kentucky’s anti-abortion law, The Lexington Herald-Leader gave more space to reproductive rights advocates than to anti-choice perspectives. The Herald-Leader also quoted several women legislators who shared their own experiences as survivors of child sexual abuse or sexual assault to highlight the legislation’s likely impact on other survivors.
- The Tampa Bay Times published a story that quotes several pro-choice advocates, including a woman whose 23-week abortion likely would not have been possible under Florida’s new law. The story also quotes lawyers who outline how Florida’s new legislation violates both federal and state constitutional rights.
- While some of Tulsa World’s coverage of Oklahoma’s attack on abortion access missed the mark, other stories it published emphasized the human impact of anti-abortion legislation. One story noted that clinic protesters were attempting to intimidate patients and quoted advocates who said they help patients navigate the fray with “as little trauma as possible.” Another story on maternal mortality among Black women warned that the abortion law “could result in women being unable to take action early in a pregnancy to prevent potential adverse effects, including maternal mortality.”