Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT
Following an avalanche of right-wing media coverage attacking Democratic efforts to protect abortion access at the state level, more mainstream outlets have begun to pick up and promote this anti-choice misinformation. A recent notable example comes from The Washington Post’s health care newsletter, The Health 202, which pushed right-wing misinformation about state abortion measures, medical procedures for abortions later in pregnancy, and Democrats' support for abortion rights.
On January 22, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the Reproductive Health Act, changing a pre-Roe v. Wade state law that criminalized abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy to allow abortions “when the fetus is not viable” or when there is a risk to the health of the pregnant person. Legislators in Virginia also introduced (and have since tabled) a bill in January that would eliminate some restrictions on abortion care, including reducing the number of doctors required to consent for a patient’s third-trimester abortion from three to one -- removing a medically unnecessary barrier to access.
Right-wing media responded to these measures with a deluge of inaccurate coverage and extreme rhetoric, including claims that Democrats were endorsing “infanticide.” Right-wing media fearmongering has no basis in reality, but that didn’t stop President Donald Trump from repeating this fictitious talking point in his 2019 State of the Union address and at a recent rally in Texas, where he inaccurately characterized the Virginia measure as allowing providers to “execute the baby” after birth.
Given the dangers of such extreme rhetoric for abortion providers and clinics, it’s important that media outlets not repeat these lies as if they were facts. But some outlets outside of the right-wing echo chamber did just that, repeating anti-abortion talking points and right-wing misinformation from the president’s State of the Union speech or promoting Trump’s lies in headlines and on social media without providing necessary context or refutation. Here’s how The Health 202 once again served as a conduit for right-wing and anti-abortion media's misinformation:
The Health 202 newsletter did not push back on the right-wing lie that the New York and Virginia measures allow “infanticide”
The Health 202 also inaccurately claimed that there is a lack of support for allowing access to later abortions
The Health 202 also framed the manufactured right-wing controversy around state abortion measures as a “tricky” issue for Democrats ahead of the 2020 election because “Republicans see a political opening as, they argue, some states have passed laws out of sync with most Americans.” The newsletter also characterized third-trimester abortion as “a procedure that, while exceedingly rare, is nonetheless opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans,” and further alleged that Democrats’ support for abortion is in opposition to “views held by the public, which generally supports abortion rights in the early but not late part of a woman's pregnancy.”
In reality, accurate polling on abortion has always been notoriously difficult, and support for both abortion rights and anti-choice restrictions is heavily dependent on how certain questions are asked. As Tresa Undem, founder and partner at the public opinion research firm PerryUndem, wrote for Vox, most “standard measures used to report the public’s views on abortion ... don’t capture how people really think” about the issue, but getting reliable polling on abortion requires asking questions “in a more real and accurate way” that takes into account “how people actually experience abortion.”
In other words, audiences report greater support for abortion access when polls use real-life examples. Specifically, polls show a drastic drop in support for later abortion bans when people realize that abortions in later stages of pregnancy are often undertaken out of medical necessity or for particular personal circumstances. For example, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study on the Zika virus found that when asked in the abstract about later abortion, “less than a quarter of people (23%) believe women should have access to a legal abortion after 24 weeks.” However, when people were asked about access to a later abortion when a pregnant person had been infected with the Zika virus, “a majority of Americans (59%) believe a woman should have access to a legal abortion after 24 weeks.” As Hart Research Associates found, “Once voters consider the range of circumstances in which abortions would be made illegal under most 20-week abortion ban proposals, a majority of Americans oppose them."
The newsletter repeated right-wing media’s characterization of Democrats as extreme for supporting access to abortions later in pregnancy
The February 12 edition of The Health 202 is framed around the right-wing media narrative that Democrats are “out of step with voters on [abortion] ahead of the 2020 elections.” To support this claim, The Health 202 relied on anti-choice misinformation and generalized polling on abortion detailed above.
Right-wing media and even mainstream outlets continue to push the narrative that Democrats’ “extreme” views on abortions will cause them to lose voters. However, these claims not only mischaracterize those pushing for state abortion measures, but they also misrepresent broader public opinion. Suggestions that Democratic leaders should compromise or tone down their support for abortion rights are also unsupported by data. As PerryUndem found, “Just 8 percent of Democrats would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes abortion,” but “31 percent of Republicans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights.” Undem told Vox, “By going after the 8 percent of Democrats who want a candidate who opposes abortion, the party risks losing the 71 percent of Democratic voters who want their candidates to support abortion rights.”
The Health 202 failed to provide the full context on a story related to the New York law that right-wing media have been circulating to inaccurately fearmonger about state abortion measures
In addition to repeating right-wing talking points, the February 12 edition of The Health 202 also fearmongered about a New York murder case being used to attack the state’s new abortion law. The newsletter mentioned that “an abortion charge was dropped in Queens against a man accused of fatally stabbing his 14-weeks-pregnant girlfriend,” which “reignited criticism by abortion foes who said the measure would eliminate criminal penalties for pregnancies lost due to violence.” The newsletter linked to a tweet from Dennis Poust, the director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, who said, “Thanks to the” new abortion law, “it’s open season on pregnant women in New York,” echoing comments about the case from national anti-abortion groups.
This story has received plentiful coverage from right-wing media, but The Health 202 repeated it without providing the full context required to understand the specifics of the case or how it is being weaponized to spread misinformation about abortion. For example, The New York Times’ coverage of the case clarified that “physical attacks that end pregnancies can be prosecuted as first-degree assault,” which carries a longer prison sentence than the charge of “unlawful abortion” under the old law. In addition, the Times reported that “Daniel R. Alonso, the former chief assistant prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, said in an interview on Sunday that charging” the suspect with committing an unlawful abortion “would not have affected [a] potential sentence for murder, which supersedes an assault charge.” The Times also wrote that “Prosecutors rarely used the charge” before the enactment of the New York law “because it did not add anything to the prosecution of a case,” discrediting right-wing media’s weaponization of the case against New York’s new abortion protections.
Once again, The Health 202 allowed right-wing media to frame the story through selective inclusion of quotes
The Health 202 quoted at length from right-wing figures, all of whom perpetuated the right-wing narrative that Democrats are “extreme” on abortion. While the newsletter did feature quotes from three Democratic 2020 presidential candidates, it did not include any from the doctors, medical experts, or pro-choice advocates mentioned in the original reporting the newsletter linked to, who could have provided better context and more accurate framing of this important issue.
This isn’t the first time The Health 202 has relied on selective quotes to carry water for anti-abortion and right-wing media talking points. The Health 202 has previously featured imbalanced coverage of abortion-related issues, giving anti-abortion groups an uncritical platform to spread misinformation outside of the right-wing media bubble. In some cases, anti-abortion groups have even touted their inclusion and prominent placement in The Health 202 as evidence that anti-abortion viewpoints are garnering wider mainstream media credibility and attention -- using the publication to give otherwise inaccurate commentary about abortion a veneer of credibility.
As anti-abortion groups and right-wing media ramp up their efforts ahead of the 2020 elections, media outlets should not be serving as conduits for faulty rhetoric and inaccurate right-wing talking points.