After Virginia Republicans introduced a 15-week abortion ban in the state legislature, some local coverage gave an uncritical platform to anti-abortion misinformation in an effort to offer readers both sides of the story.
On January 11, the first day of the 2023 Virginia legislative session, Republicans Del. Kathy Byron and Sen. Steve Newman introduced a 15-week abortion ban proposal in the Virginia House and Senate, respectively. Currently, state law allows for abortions in the first and second trimesters, with abortions in the third trimester allowed only in cases of severe physical or mental health risks. The proposed legislation aims to further limit abortion access and would make it a Class 4 felony (punishable up to 10 years in prison and a possible $100,000 fine) for doctors to perform an abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
In 2021, Virginia’s GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigned on supporting anti-abortion legislation while being vague on the specifics. But when Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, Youngkin stated his intention to back a 15-week ban in the state legislature. After a special election earlier this month expanded Democrats’ majority in the Virginia Senate, the bill is unlikely to pass; however, Youngkin said during his 2023 State of the Commonwealth address that he is committed to his anti-abortion cause.
While 15-week bans are often framed as “middle ground,” these restrictions inflict considerable harm. HuffPost points out that while most abortions in Virginia occur before 15 weeks, marginalized individuals —underage or low-income people or those living in rural areas without nearby clinics — are the most likely to seek out later abortions. Further, NPR highlighted that serious developmental anomalies in fetuses “cannot be confirmed until closer to 20 weeks.”
One piece of coverage of the proposed legislation in Virginia media did adequately frame the threat of the 15-week ban: A column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted that many people don’t realize they’re pregnant at 15 weeks of gestation and that abortion ranked as “the top issue for 27% of voters in 2022.”
While publications may view reporting a wide array of organizations focused on reproductive care as a way to cover all aspects of the policy issue, anti-abortion organizations often promote misinformation, making their inclusion problematic in all but the most thoroughly responsive of pieces. When media outlets continue to publish quotes from and host anti-abortion figures without including critical analysis of what is being said, their words are presented as fact, which harms pregnant people seeking factual medical information in a post-Roe world.
After the Virginia bill’s introduction, some local news outlets ultimately favored anti-abortion rhetoric because they failed to push back against or correct misinformation provided by anti-abortion figures:
- The Richmond Times-Dispatch covered the bills in a both sides manner, including statements from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia President Jamie Lockhart about the harm that the bills would cause; and a statement from Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which said it was “ready to fight to protect babies from the pain of abortion.” The paper failed to correct SBA Pro-Life America’s claim that abortions are painful for the fetus; in actuality, human fetuses do not have the capacity to feel pain until at least 24-25 weeks.
- Local radio station and news site WTOP’s coverage attempted to display the viewpoints of both supporters and opposition to the legislation, including quotes from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia and Newman, who introduced the bill in the Senate. WTOP also did not provide pushback against or add correcting clarifiers to Newman’s comments that “seventy-percent of Americans want some form of limitations on abortion,” or give proper context after the story quoted him calling abortion access “abortion on demand.” In reality, 62% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Further, the misleading term “abortion on demand” is often used by anti-abortion advocates to demean and stigmatize the procedure.
- An article from WVTF, a public radio affiliate in Virginia, recounted Youngkin’s full State of the Commonwealth speech with only a brief mention of the abortion ban backed by the governor. It included, without correction, a quote from Youngkin that “Virginians want fewer abortions, not more,” even though 53% of Virginians believe the procedure should be mostly legal.
- The Virginian-Pilot followed suit, offering a “both sides” approach to the bill by providing quotes from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, the president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, and Byron, who introduced the bill in the House. The Virginian-Pilot mentioned state Democrats’ opposition against the bill and reported that state Sen. Aaron Rouse’s recent election makes the bill’s passage an improbability. However, the outlet did not attempt to correct the claim made by SBA Pro-Life America that the enactment of the legislation would bring Virginia “in line with the overwhelming consensus of Americans,” when 57% of Americans who live in states with current or imminent abortion restrictions disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
- Virginia-area news station WSLS focused its coverage largely on the improbability of the 15-week bans passing through the state Senate, along with illustrating how some Republicans in the Virginia legislature are seeking even harsher abortion restrictions, while Democrats in the legislature believe that abortion is a nonissue for voters who want to talk about “kitchen table issues.” The piece made no effort to dispel a common misconception about abortions shared by Virginia Republican Sen. Mark Peake that abortion restrictions should limit access even earlier than 15 weeks due to the “pain threshold,” which is actually marked at at least 24-25 weeks of gestation.