“Violent.” “Sickening.” “Disgusting.” “Inhuman.” These are all words regularly used by prominent media sources to stigmatize and mislead on the reality of abortion.
Listening to these words used to smear and shame women who exercise the right to an abortion, it’d be easy to forget that 43 years ago the Supreme Court protected that constitutional right.
Women’s access to reproductive health care is as much in jeopardy as ever, as anti-choice activists and their GOP accomplices in Congress are rapidly chipping away at that right, emboldened by the echo chamber where media figures perpetuate abortion stigma.
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Abortion stigma is the “shared understanding” that abortion is morally wrong or socially unacceptable. It shows up in all facets of popular culture but is especially dangerous when it taints news coverage of abortion stories.
Abortion Stigma Takes Many Forms
Abortion stigmatization can be incredibly obvious in right-wing media, where abortion is often referred to as sickening, “grizzly,” unethical, and on par with terrorism, while abortion providers are smeared as villains and compared to Nazis. But some of the most insidious perpetuations of abortion stigma are subtly pushed by mainstream media, like in news stories about abortion laden with emotionally manipulative language and images, and in popular culture, such as our favorite TV shows and movies.
When news outlets use footage of extremely pregnant women and even babies to cover abortion stories, the viewer’s focus shifts from the women seeking abortions to the contents of their wombs. Stock footage that cuts off the heads of women and shows only their bodies in later stages of pregnancy is particularly egregious. These images also offer a subtle nod to the anti-choice activists who want news consumers and voters to believe that the majority of women getting abortions are 40 weeks pregnant. But that could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of abortions – 90 percent – occur during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when it’s often not visible.
The media also help carry water for anti-choice activists when they squander opportunities to correct misinformation. In the past year alone, states have introduced 45 TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers), which are deceptive measures aimed at shutting down abortion providers by imposing medically unnecessary regulations under the guise of protecting women’s health. TRAP laws include requirements for abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges and rules that clinics must be outfitted like ambulatory surgical centers – measures that are not only unnecessary, but that also impede abortion access and put women’s health at risk by delaying or even preventing care. When the media report on these TRAP laws without acknowledging the medical community’s consensus that these rules are medically unnecessary, they further promote abortion stigma by telling women that abortion is inherently unsafe and in need of regulation.
Hollywood Is Also Part of the Abortion Stigmatization Process in Media
Rush Limbaugh is wrong – Hollywood will not do “anything” to “normalize” and “promote” abortion. In fact, it’s often the opposite. Abortion stigma shows up in other media as well, like when our favorite TV shows and movies depict abortion as anything other than a routine medical procedure. A recent study conducted by University of California, San Francisco sociologists Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport of TV stories from 1916 to 2013 explained that abortion in fictional shows is often linked to death for female characters – whether they obtain the procedure or not – perpetuating the false myth that abortion frequently causes death. In reality, pregnancy is a more frequent cause of death than is induced abortion. Another study by Sisson and Kimport identified how TV depictions of abortion contribute to misconceptions about who has abortions and why. In an interview with The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg*, Sisson explained that characters who get abortions on TV tend to be wealthy, white teenagers who have never given birth before. She noted that while in reality, such women do get abortions, the depictions on aggregate underrepresent the Latina and black women who obtain abortions, and distort the reasons why they obtain them. When shows emphasize women obtaining abortions when they either don’t want children, or want to prioritize their careers or education, and underrepresent women who make the choice due to financial pressures, health risks, or a need to focus on their other children, they create the “perception that abortion is a want rather than a need.” And when they depict a disproportionate number of women obtaining abortions because the pregnancies were the result of rape or incest, they send the message that abortion is a legitimate choice only in those horrific circumstances.
Abortion Stigma Creates Space for Anti-Choice Activists and Extremists to Justify Violence
The year 2015 saw an uptick in the number of attacks against abortion providers over previous years, culminating in the deadly November shooting attack on a Colorado Planned Parenthood by a man who called himself a “warrior for the babies” and said he was trying to ensure that there were “no more baby parts.” The phrase “baby parts” had been used repeatedly in cable news coverage about Planned Parenthood in the months prior to the attacks. The deadly attack on a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood affiliate came after an FBI Intelligence Assessment reportedly concluded, “it is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff and facilities.” And as Vox’s Emily Crockett pointed out in November, “threats, vandalism, and violence against abortion providers and clinics have escalated since this summer,” when the anti-abortion organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP), “released deceptively edited videos that accused Planned Parenthood of ‘selling baby parts.'” CMP’s smear campaign was bolstered by the conservative echo chamber and right-wing media, which obsessively aired and backed the organization’s false claims that Planned Parenthood had committed crimes. The Colorado Springs shooter’s vitriol bore remarkable resemblance to the deceptively edited smear videos. It serves as a tragic reminder of the violent repercussions of pervasive abortion stigma when anti-choice activists are able to capitalize on the conservative echo chamber.
At least five other Planned Parenthood facilities were attacked in 2015 since the release of CMP’s first video in July (some reports from September 2015 indicated there may have been as many as nine criminal or suspicious incidents targeting the group). Before Colorado, clinics in Thousand Oaks, CA; Pullman, WA; Aurora, IL; and New Orleans, LA, experienced attacks that in some cases impeded clinic operations.
There is no definitive evidence tying a specific attack to a specific media report, but it is crucial to note that the incidents have occurred in the midst of a prevalent smear campaign against abortion providers that has been enabled in part by abortion stigma.
Attacks on reproductive rights don’t occur in a vacuum. According to RH Reality Check, “A report released in February  found that threats of harassment, intimidation, and violence against women’s health clinics have doubled since 2010. Reproductive rights advocates have raised concerns that radical anti-choice activists have been emboldened by a wave of GOP legislative attacks on reproductive rights.”
Abortion Stigma Is Used to Justify Laws That Close Down Abortion Providers
Legislative attacks by the GOP on reproductive rights are marshaled in by media figures perpetuating abortion stigma. According to a November 2015 report from NARAL Pro-Choice America, 22 states enacted 41 anti-choice measures in 2015. These measures included medically unnecessary TRAP laws, mandatory delays that force women to wait a certain period of time before obtaining an abortion, and laws barring abortion providers from receiving public funds.
This year there will be a landmark decision regarding abortion access when the US Supreme Court hears Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The case is expected to determine the constitutionality of a Texas anti-choice law that, if allowed to stand, will have far-reaching consequences involving the ability to access abortion. The law is both medically unnecessary and based on the myth that abortion is unsafe and requires extra regulations to protect women’s health – a myth used to stigmatize abortion and shutter providers.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s previous decisions on abortion have already echoed stigmatizing language on abortion.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has repeatedly adopted one of the right-wing media’s favorite stigmatizing anti-choice abortion myths. Slate notes that Justice Kennedy has exhibited a troubling pattern of using “language straight out of the anti-abortion movement’s talking points,” including floating the right-wing media myth that women “regret” their choice to have an abortion. Medical experts have repeatedly debunked the stigmatizing myth, explaining that the vast majority of women receiving abortions “felt it was the right decision.” Amicus briefs have been submitted to the justices in the Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt case that were meant to combat the media-encouraged stigma and ensure that justices hear from women who say access to abortion care improved their lives.
Anti-choice laws have dire consequences for women and families, causing clinic closures and restricted access to services. Texas’ anti-choice restrictions have already forced about half the state’s clinics to close, and some estimates predict up to 75 percent of clinics could ultimately close as a result of the law. The closures would disproportionately harm low-income women in rural areas of the state and strand nearly 1 million women more than 150 miles from the nearest abortion provider. The Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP)interviewed a number of women whose access to abortion care was severely impeded as a result of Texas’ anti-choice law, and found that women’s health care “was delayed, and in some cases [women were] prevented altogether” from obtaining an abortion. Investigators noted that women not only “reported a lack of information and confusion” in the wake of clinic closures, but also that once they had located an affordable provider, many “faced substantial added travel and hotel costs when seeking abortion services.” Experts have warned that the Texas law could actually place more women at risk, predicting that women are more likely to self-induce abortion “as clinic-based care becomes more difficult to access.”
Abortion Stigma Should Have No Place in 2016
Abortion isn’t scary, but the threat that these laws and anti-choice extremists pose to women’s health and basic human rights is terrifying. Imagine a potentially imminent future where women are forced back into the margins of society, and expected to sacrifice their lives, jobs, and education because they no longer control their own bodies or decision to give birth – where miscarriages can become criminalized and the basis to investigate women for self-abortions. That future sounds alarmingly like the past, like a time when women were forced to take their health care into their own hands, and risk their lives to end unwanted or life-threatening pregnancies in the shadows. When women lose control over their reproductive health, they lose control over nearly every other aspect of their lives.
*Rosenberg is married to Media Matters Research Director Matt Gertz.