The 5 worst takes from coverage of the 2018 March for Life

How media outlets promoted problematic narratives and anti-abortion misinformation

On January 19, the annual March for Life was held in Washington D.C. In covering both the anti-abortion protest and the lead-up to it, some media outlets promoted problematic narratives and anti-abortion misinformation.

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

The annual anti-abortion March for Life took place on January 19

The 2018 March for Life took place on January 19 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The march occurs every year on or around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and serves as a visible protest to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion access in the United States. This year, President Donald Trump addressed the March for Life crowd via satellite from the White House Rose Garden. [Vox, 1/18/18; Rewire, 1/19/18]

Here are the 5 worst takes from the media's coverage of the march -- and where it went wrong

#1: Claimed the anti-abortion movement has “liberal values,” such as respect for free speech

The New York Times published an op-ed claiming that the anti-abortion movement has adopted “liberal values,” such as respect for free speech. Author Andrew R. Lewis wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that “one of the surprising effects of the pro-life movement over the past half-century has been greater support for civil liberties like free speech” arguing that “the politics of abortion have helped teach conservatives Christians to value these rights.” Lewis did acknowledge that support for free speech rights among “conservative Christians” has been “episodic,” but said that “right-to-life advocacy helped advance the values of liberalism.” In making this claim, Lewis pointed to “pro-life groups [that] fought legal and legislative battles to defend their right to protest at abortion clinics and health care facilities many times between the late 1980s and 2000s.” [The New York Times, 1/19/18]

The anti-abortion movement cries censorship when challenged and promotes harassment and violence against abortion providers. Rather than promote free speech protections, the groups in the anti-abortion movement have largely exploited claims of censorship to defend themselves whenever they are challenged. For example, Lila Rose, the founder of the anti-abortion group Live Action, alleged that Twitter was censoring Live Action’s ads and used that claim to beg for donations. The discredited anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) also claimed it was being censored after websites took down videos the group published in May 2017; those videos were legally barred from being released by a court order due to heightened concern over the safety of the abortion providers in the videos. In addition, Lewis failed to mention the flip side of anti-abortion protests at abortion clinics: the constant harassment and threats of physical violence that providers, clients, and clinic escorts face from anti-abortion protesters. For example, the anti-abortion group Operation Save America often protests in the neighborhoods of abortion providers and distributes flyers with identifying information -- including the provider’s photo and home address. [Media Matters, 7/6/17, 9/20/17, 8/1/17]

#2: Whitewashed anti-abortion advocates’ histories of extremism

NPR profiled two anti-abortion advocates around the March for Life but did not acknowledge their more extreme tactics. Leading up to the March for Life, NPR highlighted two leaders in the anti-abortion movement, Kristan Hawkins -- president of Students for Life of America (SFLA) -- and Abby Johnson, founder of And Then There Were None (ATTWN). In an one-on-one interview, NPR asked Hawkins about the status of anti-abortion policy promises Trump made on the campaign trail and what anti-abortion groups wanted to hear from Trump during his March for Life speech, but did not mention Hawkin's extreme stance on abortion. Similarly, in a January 11 segment, NPR spotlighted Johnson and ATTWN’s positioning of itself as “a retreat for women who used to work in health centers that perform abortions and now feel conflicted about that work.” NPR categorized ATTWN as an organization whose members, including Johnson, “visit clinics where abortions are performed. They hold up signs, pass out pamphlets and urge the [abortion clinic] workers to quit their jobs.” Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) promoted the piece during his speech at the March for Life a week later. [NPR, 1/19/18, 1/11/18; YouTube, 1/19/18]

Media should acknowledge these abortion opponents’ history of dangerous rhetoric and promotion of anti-abortion misinformation. NPR ignored the anti-abortion groups’ history of harassment and extremism in both reports on the movement. In a January 2018 report, NARAL Pro-Choice America detailed the history of misinformation that anti-abortion leaders like Hawkins, Johnson, and more have spread. For example, Hawkins has compared her work to that of “slavery abolitionists,” claiming that “there is no difference between fighting against ... chattel slavery and fighting ‘to save the pre-born.’” Hawkins also has extremist views on contraception; she believes that the birth control pill and IUD should be illegal and that some contraceptive methods are “carcinogenic.” Johnson is a former Planned Parenthood worker turned anti-abortion leader who promotes claims that paint the abortion industry, particularly Planned Parenthood, in a bad light. NPR did acknowledge that Planned Parenthood disputes “some of the details of Johnson’s story,” but did not substantively explain the exact details. For example, Johnson frequently promotes the talking point that Planned Parenthood performs abortion on people who aren’t pregnant, something medical professionals refute would ever occur. Many of the events and claims around Johnson’s “conversion” story have been refuted by the media, but Johnson still pretends to be a whistleblower thereby continuing to play a central role in the anti-abortion movement. [NARAL Pro-Choice America, accessed January 2018Media Matters, 5/2/17; The Washington Post, 1/21/14; Raw Story, 1/28/17; TheBlaze, 2/11/15; Rewire, 10/19/12; Slate, 1/7/10]

#3: Allowed a known hate group to lie about a law protecting patients from fake health clinics

The Hill ran an op-ed from a known hate group to make an absurd comparison between the March for Life and a challenge to a law meant to protect patients. On January 18, The Hill ran an op-ed seemingly about the March for Life by James Gottry, legal counsel for the hate group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). While the op-ed’s headline referenced the March for Life, Gottry’s argument centered on the upcoming Supreme Court case National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, in which ADF is representing NIFLA , a network overseeing several fake health clinics (also known as crisis pregnancy centers). The case involves a challenge to a California law which Gottry characterized as “a law which actually requires pro-life pregnancy centers to advertise for the abortion industry” and forces the centers “to become mouthpieces for the abortion lobby.” According to Gottry, “pro-life pregnancy centers exist to offer practical medical and non-medical care that will support a woman’s choice to give birth.” Gottry tangentially connected his argument about the case to the March for Life, arguing that the California law is like “forcing” people who show up for the March for Life “to carry signs in support of Planned Parenthood.” [The Hill, 1/18/18; Southern Poverty Law Center, accessed January 2018; Media Matters, 11/29/17]

ADF is a known hate group, and fake health clinics harm access to abortion care. The Hill promoted an op-ed from Gottry despite ADF’s status as a known hate group with far-reaching and damaging influence in the legal and policy world. In doing so, The Hill gave Gottry a platform to propagandize about ADF’s own case before the Supreme Court and painted a highly inaccurate picture of fake health clinics as a result. The California law in question -- the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency (FACT) Act -- actually only requires (1) that licensed medical clinics in California alert patients that California provides low-cost or free reproductive services, including abortion or, (2) that unlicensed clinics tell patients they are not licensed clinics. Beyond the mischaracterization of the law, Gottry also ignored the harmful nature of fake health clinics which often use deceptive advertising suggesting that they provide abortion or contraceptive services to lure people seeking abortions into their clinics, when they do not provide or make referrals for either. Fake health clinics have also promoted anti-abortion talking points and medical misinformation, such as the false claim that abortion affects fertility or causes cancer in order to dissuade people from obtaining it. [Media Matters, 12/28/17]

#4: Promoted the anti-abortion viewpoint that the movement has science on its side

Outlets promoted abortion opponents’ talking point that the anti-abortion movement has science on its side. On January 19, Fox News’ opinion page published an article by Lauren DeBellis Appell about the March for Life that praised the anti-abortion movement and said it was “winning” in the United States because of technological advancements, including ultrasounds. This message similarly echoed during the March for Life speeches, including by U.S. House of Representative Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) who stated that the anti-abortion movement has “truth” on its side. Christianity Today similarly quoted Denise Harle, legal counsel for ADF, as saying “science and technology are on our side” specifically in the context of the myth that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks. Although right-wing outlets promoted this narrative in relation to the March for Life, there has been a larger trend among anti-abortion advocates attempting to adopt scientific justifications for anti-choice policies. As The Atlantic noted in a January 18 piece, the anti-abortion movement’s embrace of science could be seen as a “dramatic reversal” as “pro-choice activists have long claimed science for their own side.” Demonstrating support for this view among anti-abortion groups, the January 18 article was picked up by organizations such as the March for Life, Democrats for Life, and Lozier Institute. [Fox News, 1/19/18; Twitter, 1/23/18; Christianity Today, 1/19/18; The Atlantic, 1/18/18; Twitter, 1/19/18, 1/19/18, 1/22/18]

The anti-abortion movement pushes pseudo-science policies, like 20-week abortion bans and inaccurate concept of so-called “late-term” or “partial-birth” abortions. Some outlets failed to acknowledge that the movement frequently pushes pseudo-science talking points and legislation. In October 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on a 20-week abortion ban that is based on a myth, overwhelmingly unsupported by science, that fetuses can feel pain by 20 weeks in a pregnancy. Legislatures and right-wing media have also picked up the anti-abortion framing of so-called “partial-birth” abortion, which is not a medical term and was invented by anti-abortion groups to “foster a growing opposition to abortion.” In August 2017, for example, The New York Times reported on claims by some anti-abortion groups that abortions can be reversed without delving fully into how such claims are scientifically-based. The anti-abortion movement has also promoted assertions that abortion can lead to depression, suicide, cancer, and infertility -- none of which has scientific-backing. [Media Matters, 10/2/17, 10/12/16, 8/29/17; The New England Journal of Medicine, 9/1/16; Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist, March 2010; American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, October 2014; NPR, 2/21/06; The New York Times Magazine, 7/18/17; The New York Times, 8/10/17The Guardian, 8/12/15]

#5: Promoted a poll showing support for abortion restrictions from an organization with anti-abortion beliefs

Politico promoted a poll from the Knights of Columbus that claimed most Americans have anti-abortion viewpoints. As a preview to Trump’s March for Life speech, Politico reported on the administration’s anti-abortion policies one year into Trump’s presidency. In the January 17 article, Politico pointed to a poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus (described as “a Catholic fraternal organization” in the piece) and compiled by The Marist Poll which showed that “41 percent of abortion-rights respondents favored limiting abortion to the first three months of a pregnancy.” Politico used the data to argue there was more support for restricting abortion access than conventionally thought -- a favorite anti-choice talking point. [Politico, 1/17/18]

Reporting on abortion polling should not only fully reveal anti-abortion affiliation with polls, it should note that polling on later abortion is complicated. The annual Knights of Columbus poll is a frequent right-wing media talking point on Fox News -- often invoked by Shannon Bream, who has promoted polls from both 2016 and 2018. In all those instances, as in Politico’s January 17 article, the Knights of Columbus is not recognized as a self-identified group “committed to defending the right to life” and one that has waged “a decades-long battle against abortion legislation.” Politico also failed to delve into the complications of abortion polling beyond repeating comments from a Knights of Columbus representative that Trump’s anti-choice policies “track very, very well with where the American people are.” As Vox’s Sarah Kliff explained, “the public has diverse views on abortion” that cannot neatly be split into polarized answers to questions. Regarding abortions in later pregnancy, polling firm PerryUndem described how “61% of adults say they oppose allowing a woman to obtain a legal abortion after 24 weeks,” but “when given an example of why a woman may try to access abortion after 24 weeks, the findings nearly reverse: 59% support a woman obtaining a legal abortion.” [Fox News, Fox News @ Night, 1/18/18; Media Matters, 1/22/16, 7/29/16; Knights of Columbus, accessed January 2018; Catholics for Choice, accessed January 2018; Vox, 4/8/15; PerryUndem, accessed January 2018]