The media’s blatant failure in warning about the threat to Roe v. Wade

Political pundits everywhere claimed legal abortion access wasn’t in danger. The Supreme Court just allowed Texas to ban abortion at six weeks.

Image of the Supreme Court with a "Keep Abortion Legal Sign" next to it

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

As then-President Donald Trump nominated conservative judges to the Supreme Court one after the other, some in media gaslighted their audience about the impending end of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that protects a person’s right to access abortion without excessive government restrictions. Now, as the court’s inaction has allowed a Texas law to come in effect that essentially bans abortion at six weeks and empowers abortion opponents to be “vigilantes,” the media’s actions will stand in history as a flagrant collapse of competent reporting.

On September 1, the Supreme Court failed to act on an emergency request for injunction from abortion providers in Texas suing over the implementation of a state law that bans abortions after cardiac activity is detected in the embryo, which is roughly at six weeks and before many people even know they are pregnant. (The law provides no exception in cases of rape or incest.) Though the Supreme Court could still act on the injunction, right now people in Texas are unable to legally get an abortion. As CNN’s Ariane de Vogue wrote, “No other six-week ban has been allowed to go into effect -- even briefly.”

In addition, the law “will be enforced through private citizens' lawsuits, rather than through state government,” allowing people even outside Texas to sue those they believe provided an abortion after six weeks or aided someone to have one. Those suing will be able to collect a minimum $10,000 bounty per defendant and the defendants will have to pay for their attorney’s fees if the lawsuits are successful. (Even if the defendants win, their attorney fees are not reimbursed.)

In Texas, vulnerable communities will feel the impact of this law the most. As Houston Chronicle’s Jeremy Blackman wrote, “Groups that study and support abortion access say the ban will most directly affect low-income women and women of color, many of whom lack private insurance or the money or time to travel to a state where the procedure is still legal.” A 2021 study found that an abortion restriction at 22 weeks enacted in Texas in 2013 resulted in “increases in border-state abortions for Texas residents,” as “Texas-resident abortions in all border states nearly doubled following” the law’s enactment.

Media utterly failed in covering the law during the run-up to its enactment. But, more than that, they’ve failed for years in covering the threat to Roe and are culpable in downplaying the threat of an increasingly conservative Supreme Court under Trump.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump went on CBS’ 60 Minutes and promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe, allowing states to enact bans and earlier restrictions on abortion. Some mainstream media outlets abandoned journalistic integrity in the immediate aftermath of this interview, such as demurely calling it “a pledge to tighten abortion restrictions,” as Time did. Many also simply summarized Trump’s comments, providing no context about the significance of his extreme commitment to invalidating Roe and devoting no space to informing their audiences of the vast economic and logistical barriers that people would face if the Supreme Court overturned Roe.

As president, Trump nominated three anti-choice Supreme Court justices resulting in a solid conservative majority on the court: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Instead of being honest about the threat to Roe and the reality of the new justices’ ideology and past rulings, many in the media shrugged their shoulders, attempted a “both sides” framing, or dismissed warnings from abortion advocates.

Texas has just effectively banned abortion at six weeks because the Supreme Court failed to act in time. Perhaps now the media will cover the threat to Roe, but it’s too little too late.