How The Media Is Helping Conservatives Kill Roe v. Wade

If you are a woman, you no longer have the same rights you had 41 years ago.

January 22 is the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, in which the court ruled that women have a constitutional right to choose to have an abortion.

But in the intervening decades, that right has largely disappeared, a process helped by media outlets that have misinformed on these safe and legal health procedures.

Thanks to Supreme Court rulings that came after Roe, states are now free to regulate and restrict abortion so long as new laws do not impose an “undue burden” on a woman's right to choose. But state legislatures are currently testing what qualifies as an undue burden, and in 2013 alone 70 different anti-choice restrictions were adopted in 22 states across the U.S. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, more abortion restrictions have been enacted in the past three years than in the entire previous decade.

In December, Ian Millhiser and Tara Culp-Ressler published a thoughtful piece about this process at ThinkProgress headlined, “The Greatest Trick The Supreme Court Ever Pulled Was Convincing The World Roe v. Wade Still Exists.” They argued that while a woman's right to choose an abortion is still ostensibly covered by the constitution, the reality is that right is increasingly restricted to just wealthy women who happen to live in (or are able to travel to) one of the few states that will still permit them the opportunity to exercise that right.

This sustained attack on women's rights is fast becoming a key issue for politicians in the 2014 midterms. But the media have also played a sizeable role in this process, contributing to the vanishing power of Roe by allowing anti-choicers to control the conversation.

Just in 2013, anti-choice activists manipulated journalists into making a criminal the face of abortion in America. The case of Kermit Gosnell, in which a Philadelphia man was convicted for horrifically murdering women and children, bore absolutely no resemblance to any legal medical procedure. But multiple media outlets -- including The Washington PostNational Review, and Weekly Standard -- repeatedly linked the case to “late-term” abortions.

Those same media outlets also repeatedly failed to note that later-term abortion is an exceptionally rare procedure, with only about 1 percent of all abortions in the U.S. occurring during the third trimester.

And it's not just Gosnell. 2013 was also a year in which a Daily Beast contributor suggested that bombing an abortion clinic wasn't terrorism (before walking it back after a “friend” convinced her otherwise). It was a year in which NBC's David Gregory suggested on Meet the Press that a 20-week abortion ban might be “reasonable,” entirely ignoring medical evidence to the contrary. It was a year in which Fox News personalities, and Jennifer Rubin in the Post, went so far as to advocate for “personhood,” an extremist position on reproductive health which would not only ban all abortions from conception, but could also criminalize miscarriages, in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research, and certain forms of contraception.

It was a year in which the media consistently failed to inform the public on the unprecedented ways in which their rights to safe, necessary medical procedures were being stripped away.

When the Texas State Senate voted this past summer to impose medically-unnecessary restrictions on women's health clinics, ultimately forcing many of those clinics to close, lawmakers in favor of the proposal insisted that the clinics were unsafe and needed increased regulation. But a review of state records by the Texas Tribune following the passage of the bill found no evidence that unsafe procedures were taking place; the only violations were administrative.

The myth of the unsafe clinics was created by anti-choice activists and perpetuated by a media which failed to properly investigate the claims and hold lawmakers accountable before it was too late.

As Millhiser and Culp-Ressler put it, when a state like Texas ignores Roe to decide based on zero medical evidence to restrict women's access to legal and safe procedures, “the world does not look very different than it would look if Roe had been overruled.”

When journalists ignore the evidence to parrot the anti-choice myths that lead to these restrictions, it looks a lot like Roe never even existed.

Image via mirsasha under a Creative Commons License