Members of the organization Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising recently held a press conference spreading graphic imagery and extremist language, using shock value to gain supporters and attract media attention. Both local and national outlets fell for the group’s outrage bait, extending PAAU’s typically limited reach to include their audiences of millions.
PAAU has spent the last few weeks in the headlines for multiple controversies. On March 30, PAAU’s director of activism Lauren Handy was one of nine people arrested on federal charges for forcefully blocking access to a D.C.-area abortion clinic and intimidating patients and staff in October 2020. That same day, D.C. police found five fetuses at Handy’s Capitol Hill home. PAAU later addressed the fetal remains at a press conference, where the group’s leaders attempted to explain an elaborate plot to provide a funeral for and bury 110 aborted fetuses. The group claims that a delivery driver from Curtis Bay, a medical waste company, handed off the remains to PAAU, which the company denied, saying it does not transport fetal remains.
The so-called Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising launched in October 2021, shortly before the Women’s March in D.C. that year. The organization claims that abortion is a form of “oppression” against fetuses on par with racism, misogyny, or homophobia. PAAU is a very small organization, which gained about 800 followers in the last month following extensive media coverage — a 70% increase. Pro-choice advocates, according to The Washington Post, have characterized PAAU’s claims as a “distortion of fact aimed at generating social media fodder at a key time.” In an April 11 email newsletter, PAAU founder and director Terrisa Bukovinac celebrated the media coverage given to the press conference, stating that their claims have reached “millions across America.” Bukovinac highlighted coverage from The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Prior to her most recent arrest, Handy, who describes herself as a “Catholic anarchist,” was arrested in Virginia in 2017 for trespassing on an Alexandria clinic and trying to intimidate patients into carrying their pregnancies to term. In 2019, she again faced charges of trespass, disturbing the peace, and resisting arrest after attempting to intimidate patients at a clinic in Flint, Michigan.
The recent emboldening of anti-abortion activists comes amid a national trend of states fast-tracking legislation that restricts abortion access. 2021 was considered to be the “worst year for abortion rights in almost half a century” by the Guttmacher Institute, and so far in 2022, Guttmacher has found that 529 restrictions were introduced in 41 states. Anti-abortion activists and political strategists are increasingly organizing under the assumption that the Supreme Court’s conservative majority will overturn or significantly diminish the abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade as the country awaits a decision on Dobbs v. Jackson this summer. Nonsurgical abortions — the most common method of ending a pregnancy — are also under attack by right-wing activists and politicians as access to abortion medications is becoming more onerous and more expensive.
Media coverage of recent attacks on abortion access has often failed to alert audiences to threats to reproductive rights, while gifting anti-choice activists a platform to spread misinformation and push right-wing agendas. Coverage of Dobbs v. Jackson often downplayed the risk of the majority-conservative Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Throughout late 2021 and early 2022, The Washington Post published at least half a dozen stories glamorizing anti-choice advocates. In summer 2021, cable news largely ignored the Texas legislature’s efforts to craft the most restrictive abortion bill in the country — until it was too late and the bill had already become law.
Despite the substantial harm caused by anti-abortion organizers, coverage from mainstream and local media outlets largely failed to use care in reporting on PAAU’s most recent publicity stunt. Coverage that uncritically repeats PAAU’s claims and further spreads dangerous rhetoric only serves to strengthen the anti-choice movement in its tirade against bodily autonomy.
In their coverage of PAAU’s press conference, mainstream media largely just repackaged PAAU claims, spreading them to national audiences without pushback and without providing a significant voice to pro-choice advocates:
- The Washington Post’s piece on the group’s claims included a sit-down interview with Handy and Bukovinac. Additionally, the Post described PAAU at face value as an organization that also advocates for “progressive positions on race, LGBTQ rights and poverty” despite the group’s near-exclusive focus on anti-choice rhetoric and action. The Post’s coverage diverged from other mainstream outlets when it gave credence to a faulty investigation by PAAU trying to expose the University of Washington for possessing “specimens of fetuses with birth defects and other anomalies,” something only anti-abortion outlets have covered up until now. Only at the end of the article did the Post attempt to shine light on how abortion advocates and patients are affected by PAAU, in a quote from a local health care provider who said Handy has “no remorse for the countless number of people whose abortions were made much more traumatic because of her presence.”
- An article by The New York Times heavily quoted from PAUU’s press conference and even included quotes from Handy claiming, “I don’t believe I did anything wrong,” and characterizing the possession of fetuses as trying to “to rescue a baby.”
- Coverage from The Hill also extensively quoted from the press conference, repeating claims from Handy and Bukovinac in nearly every paragraph. The piece provided little pushback to claims by PAAU, failing to mention Curtis Bay's dissenting claims and providing no voice to pro-choice advocates.
- A Rolling Stone article published exclusive quotes from Bukovinac to the outlet and linked to a decades-old profile on the anti-abortion advocate Randall Terry, parroting claims from Terry that he found it “hard to believe that the company that takes medical waste from abortion clinics would never put two and two together, that there are aborted human remains.” The article also heavily relied on quotes from the press conference and included a line from Handy saying she treated her apartment “as if it was a tomb” because of her illegal possession of fetal remains.
Local outlets covering the discovery of the fetuses in Handy’s home often gave both Handy and PAAU an uncritical platform, failing to offer pushback against its tactics or its anti-choice agenda more broadly:
- In a story about the discovery of the fetuses in Handy’s home, Washingtonian magazine quoted PAAU extensively, but did not quote any pro-choice advocates. The only pushback against PAAU’s claims came from police and the Washington Surgi-Clinic, from which the fetuses were allegedly obtained. The story uncritically allowed PAAU member Randall Terry to advance the group’s narrative that it had obtained the fetuses to give them “a proper Christian burial.” Terry is also quoted as saying it is “offensive that anyone would call into question [the activists’] manners or their integrity for having these babies in the refrigerator, when they took such care to treat them with honor and dignity.”
- Local CBS affiliate WUSA9 did a sit-down interview with Handy and Bukovinac, giving them a platform to defend their actions, push their narrative that they obtained the fetuses to give them a funeral, and speculate that some of the fetuses might have been aborted illegally. (Both D.C. police and the clinic have said the fetuses were aborted legally). In another news package linked on the same page, WUSA9 republished PAAU’s video in which activists open boxes allegedly containing fetal remains, giving the organization additional free publicity.
- WUSA9 also ran a story about Republican demands for an investigation into the abortions of the fetuses, platforming PAAU and GOP legislators’ unfounded speculation about illegal “partial birth” abortions without interviewing any pro-choice advocates. The story included only one short comment from D.C. police as pushback.
- FOX5 DC’s coverage of the search of Handy’s home played extensive video from a PAAU press conference and allowed PAAU to advance its story about how it got the fetuses, including just one quote from the National Abortion Federation as pushback. Curtis Bay did not comment for this story.
- WDVM’s online story about the search extensively cited Handy and PAAU, uncritically allowing the members to narrate their story of how they obtained the fetuses and quoting them calling the fetuses “dead babies.” Pushback was limited to one sentence at the end noting that the abortions were conducted legally. The outlet did not quote any pro-choice advocates.