This Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing on the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization marked yet another direct challenge to the future of abortion rights in the United States, with the state of Mississippi explicitly asking the court to overrule Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision on reproductive rights. But despite the stakes involved for those seeking essential health care, some coverage from major news outlets failed to grasp the full weight of the case. Instead, many mainstream media outlets downplayed the risk of the court overturning Roe, while right-wing media used the moment to attack abortion advocates.
At the center of Dobbs v. Jackson is a Mississippi law banning abortions at the 15-week mark, much earlier than the 24-week point of fetal viability established in Roe. As the Rewire News Group explained, under the joint precedent set by Roe and the 1992 Supreme Court case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “states cannot ban pre-viability abortions and they cannot enact any abortion restrictions that present an undue burden on access.” By reducing the range of pre-viability abortion access by nine weeks, Dobbs undercuts the right to abortion services as already guaranteed by the nation’s highest court.
In addition to undoing decades of abortion precedent, overturning Roe would immediately revoke abortion rights in at least 21 states, affecting more than 100 million Americans, and the average pregnant person “could have to travel around 125 miles to reach the nearest abortion provider, compared to the current average of 25 miles." Additionally, abortions rights for millions of Americans would be at the mercy of state legislatures, which have already enacted a record 106 abortion restrictions in 2021 alone.
In the past, both mainstream and right-wing media have failed to convey the impact on millions of people if the Supreme Court overturns Roe. Even now, news outlets and media pundits are not addressing the very real possibility of Roe being overturned, or at a minimum gutted, with the gravity it deserves.
Mainstream media downplayed the risk of overturning Roe
Following Wednesday’s hearing, mainstream media have understated the stakes involved in the Dobbs case by framing the possible 15-week viability standard as a “middle ground,” discussing reproductive health care in the context of political theater, and platforming anti-abortion rhetoric from notorious anti-abortion actors.
Framing the possibility that the Supreme Court may move the viability standard from 24 weeks to 15 weeks as “middle ground”:
- A Politico piece reported on the potential outcomes of Wednesday’s oral arguments and framed Chief Justice John Roberts’ line of questioning as him being “interested in an outcome that doesn’t completely overturn Roe” and “his pitch for a middle ground.”
- In a December 2 headline, CNN questioned whether a plan by Roberts to “gut -- yet save -- Roe v. Wade” would work. The supposed plan, which the outlet called “the chief’s gambit,” would uphold bans at 15 weeks of pregnancy but not outlaw abortion entirely, still marking a significant reduction of the rights enshrined in Roe.
- The New York Times suggested Roberts was supposedly “search[ing] for middle ground” and quoted the chief justice's claim that it was “not a dramatic departure from viability” to move the cutoff line from 24 to 15 weeks.
Giving a platform to anti-abortion figures and egregious anti-abortion takes:
- An article from The Wall Street Journal editorial board advocated the Supreme Court overturn Roe, which it called “one of the worst decisions in the Court’s history, on par with Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal” on race) and Korematsu (internment camps for Japanese-Americans).”
- In an article titled “Conservatives eagerly await Supreme Court abortion argument,” The Associated Press highlighted notorious anti-abortion figures, including the president of the Susan B. Anthony List and Heather Weininger, the executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, a group that advocates for localized abortion restrictions. Weininger was quoted expressing her optimism about Dobbs, stating the case is the “pinnacle moment where we can go back to those days where we protect life at the moment of conception.”
- The Wall Street Journal published an interview with Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, one of the major figures behind the state’s abortion law at the center of Dobbs, and The Washington Post's The Lily also profiled Fitch in a piece titled “The woman who could bring down Roe v. Wade.”
Framing abortion rights within the context of a political horse race:
- Axios published a piece titled “Some Republicans fear Roe win could backfire” that framed the case in the context of a political game rather than how it would impact pregnant people around the country. The piece noted that “some strategists worry that the party isn’t ready for the political dangers of this monumental victory” and that “the last thing top party operatives want is for the Democratic base to become energized if the Supreme Court narrows or overturns Roe v. Wade."
- The New York Times also covered the story with a political horse race framing in a piece that characterized the potential paring down of abortion rights by the Supreme Court as “an advantage” for Democrats and Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections.
- Bloomberg analyzed the potential overturning of Roe as a “powerful campaign tool” for Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. The article also mentioned that the Supreme Court ruling could give “Democrats a powerful pitch to raise money and recruit campaign volunteers as they head into the final stretch before the November elections” next year.
Right-wing media prematurely celebrated the demise of Roe
Conservative media reacted to the Dobbs hearing by showing their optimism that Roe could be overturned and using the moment as another excuse to attack abortion rights.
Expressing relief over Wednesday’s oral arguments:
- Live Action founder Lila Rose tweeted that she felt “hopeful after today’s oral arguments” and lauded conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Amy Coney Barrett for their “excellent questions.” Rose also called the precedent set by Roe “a contradictory, unjust mess.”
- Roger Severino, senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center think tank, wrote that “the pro-life movement should rejoice with how the SCOTUS oral argument went” and criticized Justice Sonia Sotomayor for defending the “more extreme arguments of pro-abortion side.”
- The prominent anti-abortion website LifeNews described Kavanaugh’s and Barrett’s questions and statements during the oral arguments as “very encouraging,” saying both justices “seem ready to either reverse Roe or uphold more pro-life limits.”
Vilifying abortions and pro-choice advocates:
- Daily Wire podcast host Matt Walsh responded to the Supreme Court hearing on Twitter, denouncing abortion as “always wrong” and saying it should “always be illegal.”
- Lila Rose tweeted that “only abortionists, and the politicians they fund” benefit from a society with readily available abortions.
- Logan Hall of the Daily Caller called pro-choice activists “literal demons,” writing, “This is a spiritual war above all else.”