New year, same old Tucker Carlson. During the January 23 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson attempted to attack a recently launched campaign that aims to debunk abortion stigma -- only to demonstrate why such campaigns are actually necessary in the first place.
The term abortion stigma refers to an idea that abortion is inherently wrong or socially unacceptable. It’s a belief that is culturally ingrained and reinforced in both implicit and explicit ways through media coverage, popular culture, and a lack of accurate information about the procedure itself. In particular, right-wing media and anti-choice groups have worked relentlessly to capitalize on this lack of public knowledge and awareness by demonizing abortion providers and patients and by fearmongering about the safety of abortion procedures. Because abortion stigma pervades when there is a lack of information or factual discussions about abortion, some advocates promote the idea of highlighting individual experiences and personal narratives as a strategy to encourage more public dialogue about abortion being a normal part of health care.
Accordingly, in early January 2018, Ohio abortion provider Preterm launched a new campaign called “My Abortion, My Life,” consisting of 16 billboards put up around the city of Cleveland, Ohio. According to Preterm, all the billboards feature “a fill-in-the-blank sentence: ‘Abortion is ______’” and are filled in with “a different word or phrase, highlighting the variety of ways abortion is important to our lives.” According to Cleveland.com, Preterm’s director of development and communications issued a news release saying that the organization wanted “to push people to think about abortion in new, diverse ways with these billboards" and wanted “people in our community who have had abortions to know that they're not alone."
During the January 23 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson hosted psychologist Dr. Robin Bryman to discuss the Preterm campaign and abortion stigma. The segment, in which Bryman (seemingly) supported abortion access, demonstrated how easy it is to rely on talking points rife with abortion stigma.
Carlson began the segment by asking Bryman about a recent paper by Dr. Gretchen Sisson (of University of California, San Francisco and Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health) in which she argued for better depictions of abortion plotlines in television. Although Bryman initially appeared to be in support of abortion access, commenting that the study was “trying to destigmatize [abortion] with women,” her statements quickly veered into essentializing tropes.
Although Bryman advocated for people to have the option to seek an abortion throughout the segment, she continuously reiterated stigmatizing characterizations of the medical practice describing it as “a very hard decision to make,” “a no-win situation,” and as “traumatic.” Carlson capitalized on Bryman's depictions and kept promoting the idea of abortion as inherently wrong. At one point, when Carlson asked her if there was anything that made her “personally uncomfortable” about abortion, Bryman responded: “Absolutely.” In another instance, Carlson asked Bryman directly about the Preterm campaign, and other efforts like it to encourage public dialogue -- both parties couched their comments in stigmatizing rhetoric:
TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): What does that mean, “no-win situation?”
DR. ROBIN BRYMAN: In other words, it means that a woman that has an unwanted pregnancy has to make a decision. And the decision is a no-win situation. She has to end the life of an unborn baby.
CARLSON: I mean, I think you’re right. So, why do you hear people say, we should celebrate it, we should convince others there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s not a big deal, it’s a positive thing --
BRYMAN: Oh, it’s not -- it’s a huge deal. And it’s not a positive thing. And I don’t agree with that. I think it’s a traumatic thing that sometimes there’s no other option. And that’s why I do keep saying that it’s a no-win situation, because it really is.
Carlson was not alone in his attack on the Preterm campaign. As with other attempts to combat abortion stigma, almost immediately after the campaign launched, it ignited right-wing backlash and became the target of articles from a variety of conservative and anti-abortion sites. Townhall described the campaign as “rather disturbing” and argued that “there’s no way to spin away that abortion is the termination of a baby.” Conservative Review claimed that the campaign “relies on deception and flagrant contradictions” before going through each of the 16 billboard designs with comments, calling some “a malicious lie,” “inherently selfish,” and “depraved.” The article also concluded that “abortion is a ‘sacred’ rite in the culture of death.” Meanwhile, outlets like The Daily Wire and Life News both used the campaign to promote the myth that abortion providers target black communities.
Although Bryman claimed that individuals should have the option to have an abortion several times during the segment, her answers underscore the importance of having conversations even among pro-choice communities about why abortion isn’t inherently “a hard choice” or “a big deal.” As Preterm explained, “Abortion can be simple or complex. Easy or hard. A blessing or a struggle. It can be all of the above—and more.” And having conversations about those experiences is essential.
Carlson’s reaction to this campaign and others is largely unremarkable, like much of his commentary that isn’t blatant pandering to white nationalists. What is remarkable, however, is that his attempt to attack Preterm’s campaign actually underscores the necessity of such approaches by advocates to combat abortion stigma.