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The Reality of What It Is to Have an Abortion Has to Be Brought Into Every Story

Melissa Gira Grant discusses how abortion access is covered within the broader context of politics in the US.

A woman sits in an examination room as she waits to receive an abortion at the Planned Parenthood Abortion Clinic in West Palm Beach, Florida, on July 14, 2022.

Janine Jackson: The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has generated well-grounded fear and confusion: states ginning up their own specific laws and attempting to extend them to other states, politicians and pundits attempting to shift opinion through rhetoric — it’s not a “ban,” it’s a “standard.” And what about “abortion tourism”?

Combined with horrific emerging stories of women being forced to labor through dangerous complications, it adds up to an unclear but clearly disturbing situation — and to a crying need for reporting with an overt fealty to human rights, rather than a lazy and cowardly both-sidesing of a shifting terrain.

Melissa Gira Grant is a staff writer at the New Republic and the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, from Verso, and of A Woman Is Against the Law: Sex, Race and the Limits of Justice in America, which is forthcoming from Little, Brown. She’s co-director of the film They Won’t Call It Murder, about police murders in Columbus, Ohio, from Field of Vision. And she joins us now by phone from Brooklyn. Welcome to CounterSpin, Melissa Gira Grant.

Melissa Gira Grant: Thank you so much for having me.

I would like to start by situating a story that some listeners will have heard, about a case in Idaho where the mother of a 15-year-old accused the girl’s boyfriend and his mother of taking the girl across state lines to obtain an abortion. Folks may have heard that prosecutors applied trafficking laws here, but that wasn’t quite right.

But it isn’t that some legislators aren’t trying to criminalize interstate travel for abortions, so we don’t want to miss the forest for the trees. Would you tease out, to the extent that you think it’s meaningful, the bit here about some initial misreporting from the reality of the problem that folks are worrying about?

Sure. I think it starts with just a real sense of urgency, a legitimate sense of urgency. After years, particularly in feminist media, and for folks who’ve been covering abortion rights for a long time, journalists have been hearing from other journalists that, like, “Roe’s not going anywhere, don’t you worry,” this patronizing thing. And isn’t it sad that now we’re in this moment?

And people who have that expertise are having to deal with this whole national terrain of stories, different things happening in different states to different people. The story of the post-Roe world is a very fractured story. There’s no single story.

But the biggest fear, I think, is that after the Dobbs decision came down in 2022, there would be an increase in the criminal punishment of people seeking abortions, people having abortions, and people helping people have abortions.

And that’s what it looks like is going on in this story in Idaho. It looks like when a mother initiated this criminal investigation into her daughter’s boyfriend and the boyfriend’s mother, it seems like what was seen as a problem was not just that they had had a relationship when she was underage, or that she had run away, or something like that; there’s definitely some of that in the background. The problem that’s identified is they took her across state lines for an abortion.

What makes this unique is that the state in which this happened, Idaho, was the first state after Dobbs to pass a law, creating this crime that never existed before, of abortion trafficking. And it simply means going across state lines to have an abortion. Idaho is almost a zero-access state, but nearby, in Washington and Oregon, you do have the possibility of accessing surgical abortion.

So that sets the stage here, I think, for a lot of confusion, because this girl’s boyfriend and [his] mother, while it looks like they were criminalized for the act of taking her across state lines for an abortion — or simply being the people who, at her request, took her across state lines for an abortion; it’s not entirely clear — they didn’t use the abortion trafficking law against them. They used an existing statute on kidnapping, but mentioned abortion in the news stories that came out about the case.

And so it was very easy for people to say: This is the first use of this law, it’s happening. This thing we were really scared about is happening.

But the reality was a lot more complicated. And we still don’t know all of the facts, but I understand the need to urgently let people know, when the criminalization of abortion is ramping up at the speed that it is.

It’s not the speed of journalism. Journalism needs to be a lot more slow and deliberate than the speed of a criminal punishment system attacking people for having an abortion.

What we don’t want to be lost, it’s not that there’s no reason to fear prosecutors and politicians using laws and charges that maybe don’t specifically mention abortion, but that still are used to criminalize access to abortion. And you’ve written about that a lot. So it is a larger story, it’s not just an anecdote, it’s a real story about the use of laws, including the Mann Act, which a lot of people will think is a blast from the past, to criminalize abortion access?

Yeah, this has been going on, even when we had the protections of Roe, you would find examples — groups like Pregnancy Justice and If/When/How, reproductive justice lawyers have done extensive research, going back 20 years or so, looking at how people have been prosecuted for their own abortion, even though abortion was legal where they had that abortion.

And there’s lots of charges that can be weaponized in this way, charges related to disposal of fetal remains, for example, in several cases. One that I wrote about, in Georgia in 2015, involved a woman who had taken misoprostol, an abortion-inducing drug. When she went to the hospital seeking care, they reported her, and the police arrested her out of her bed, and charged her with malice murder of the fetus.

She was also charged with using drugs while pregnant. And that’s another common charge that we see, you know, people trying to find ways to punish people for having an abortion, even though, by the letter of the law, they’re not supposed to be able to do that.

And I think, because this is such a complicated question — there’s no one law that’s being used, right? You can’t just look for everybody who’s been charged with “this” crime. It involves getting into this much more political and nuanced story about what prosecutors do with the law, what they think they can get away with, and that’s different in different places.

In the Idaho example that we began with, that prosecutor now is out in the press saying, “Oh no, this has nothing to do with the abortion. The abortion has nothing to do with the case.” Who knows if that’s true or not, but it is good for people to know that this incident didn’t need the abortion trafficking law to result in criminal punishment for this abortion. And I think that’s a nuance that just isn’t coming across in most reporting.

Certainly people who cover the criminal legal system a lot see that all the time. But because that kind of reporting and reporting on abortion are often siloed from one another, we aren’t learning across issues of what it is to deal with a prosecutor in a politicized case, and what power they have with the law that exceeds what many of us might think the law could actually do to us.

Absolutely. And you noted it as one of many things calling for an “appreciation of the power of storytelling,” of the way that we present these issues to people. And you make a point that we’ve talked about on CounterSpin, which is, if you just read newspapers, you might think of abortion as, like, there’s two sides. It’s an “issue.” We’re going to see who “wins.” And the reality is so much more complicated.

And, in fact, reproductive rights advocates and providers have never believed that Roe was enough to truly protect all people’s ability to access abortion. I mean, the Hyde Amendment itself would tell you that. But they also didn’t think the overturning of Roe was going to shut down all of their work. But the main idea presented by a lot of politicians, and by corporate media, is that abortion comes down to electoral politics or Supreme Court rulings. And that’s just always been misleading, hasn’t it, about where this actual fight is?

It really says something about mainstream political media’s value of the lives of women, or anyone who has an abortion, how reproductive rights are seen within the broader context of politics in the United States, that this has truly been treated as a separate, special issue that doesn’t have very much to do with people who actually need abortions; it’s mostly about voters, right? Or it’s about the Supreme Court, and what voters think about what’s going to happen at the Supreme Court. It’s about something transactional that has nothing to do with the actual abortion itself.

Maybe that’s because there’s still places in media where there’s a reluctance to even say the word “abortion.” We have a president who’s reluctant to say the word “abortion.” So the reality of what it is to even have an abortion, what that entails, is something that has to be consciously brought into every story about this.

One of the people that I really admire, in how she does this, is Renee Bracey Sherman, who is the co-executive director of a group called We Testify that does abortion storytelling work. That’s how they do their advocacy. And when she testified in Congress earlier this year — or may have been the end of last year, I’m not 100% sure, but sometime since the Dobbs decision came down — in her testimony, she actually verbally gave the instructions for how to use medication for an abortion, how to use misoprostol and mifepristone. So that’s in the congressional record now; that’s on C-SPAN. That is information that could be considered against the law to share in some states. The degree to which information is powerful here, I think isn’t quite fully appreciated.

And what that also means is that every story kind of feels like people are reinventing the wheel, particularly in mainstream outlets. There has been incredible reporting from outlets like Rewire, formerly RH Reality Check; from outlets like Bitch, which is no longer; outlets like Jezebel, which we’ll see — I think they just got revived today, maybe.

There’s been incredible reporting under the umbrella of “women’s media” that has gotten to this nuance, and that was really marginalized right up until the moment Roe was a big story in 2022. Or whenever there’s an election, and abortion becomes a story for five minutes.

So the information is out there; it just needs to become part of the practice, particularly in legacy media, and to realize that this is a story that has implications for people in their day-to-day lives, not just every four years, or when a Supreme Court seat opens up.

Exactly. And I’m just following on from that to say how galled I am by pieces like — OK, this one’s from Steven Roberts. But still, it’s reflective of, I think, a pervasive kind of Beltway media attitude, and it’s a syndicated column, the headline’s “Why the Abortion Issue Matters.”

All right, so already I read “issue,” so I know that my human rights are, first and foremost, a political football, like an “issue” to be considered. And then in the same breath, there’s the idea that somebody needs to have it explained why it matters. Somebody doesn’t understand why it’s important. But then he goes on to explain that why it matters has to do with what’s damaging to Joe Biden, and whether Trump might be able to finesse a new line on abortion.

But I guess what maybe bothered me most was that Steve Roberts says that polls show US public opinion is clear and it’s unchanged. Americans want legal abortion, they want access to abortion. And he then says that, since Roe, “abortion remained an abstraction to pro–abortion rights voters. Their rights were protected and their attitude was complacent.”

Now, I don’t doubt that Steven Roberts had a lot of cocktail parties with some complacent white women. But reporting is not supposed to be, as my mother-in-law used to say, something that happens to or near an editor. You’re supposed to seek out the views of the people who are affected by the things that you’re talking about. And reproductive justice, of course, extends beyond the right to abortion: the right to have a pregnancy, and a child, in a safe, healthy environment.

It just seems like reporting about abortion has so much to do with who they talk to or who they listen to, and that defines their understanding of what the meaning of access to this right means.

And I guess I just want to say, you’re a reporter. What would you like to see more or less of in this coverage?

One thing that’s maddening about that kind of coverage is it feels like, at its best, when somebody who has that kind of perspective does decide to actually reach outside their small network of friendly sources, and maybe try to contact somebody who works in a clinic, or is a provider, or is involved in some direct way with the provision of abortion, they tend to not treat those people with a lot of respect.

This comes down to who they listen to and who they believe. The best reporting on abortion comes from people who are not treating their sources like a pump that they can just hit at will and get what they need out of them.

The stories I was hearing from people who work in clinics, leading up to Dobbs and immediately after — hearing from reporters they had never heard from before, reporters who wanted to come by in two hours and talk to someone who just had an abortion. I mean, just outrageous stuff that I can absolutely hear an editor telling them, like, “Oh, that would be a great idea.” But it is your job to push back and say, “I don’t know. I think that maybe a better time to interview someone about their personal experience of abortion isn’t an hour after they’ve had one when it might be illegal.”

There hasn’t been a full appreciation of how people’s ability to speak out about this is going to be shaped by who is worried about the legal consequences of abortion. We are disproportionately probably going to see people in states that have legal abortion access, people who might not fully appreciate the criminal risks that they’re having abortions under, which does include a lot of those white cocktail party women, wherever they live.

It’s a lot, I understand, to ask of the way that news, particularly political news that treats abortion as just an issue that we return to when it’s time to talk about elections or what voters want, but that kind of reporting feels so unnecessary and so out of pace with where we’re at right now.

We need stories about this gap between the rhetoric of politicians, in places like Texas and Montana, about valuing mothers, showing that that’s not actually playing out in the lives of people in those states, who are having huge maternal mortality rates, who aren’t able to get access to childcare, all of these women that they say they’re going to support because they’re taking abortion away from them, but “don’t worry, we’ll support you when you’re pregnant and parenting.”

That support is not showing up. It was never that great before this moment, and it’s not great now.

And those are the people that need more scrutiny. Those are the people who should be held to account. There’s so many attorneys general, there are so many Republican lawmakers, there are so many judges, oh my God, there’s some incredible judges with really consequential abortion cases in front of them right now.

My favorite/least favorite is Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk. He’s in Amarillo, Texas. He gets a lot of cases from the right, because he takes 98 to 99 percent of cases that come to his court. So if you are a conservative who wants a favorable ruling, this is your guy.

And he has a case before him right now that could result in mifepristone being essentially delisted from the FDA’s approved drug listings, which would mean that it would be much more difficult to get, and there would be legal pathways to it that would be cut off.

Where is the scrutiny on him? I feel like the frame maybe has to be shifted around now: The story of abortion is about the story of people who are creating harm in the lives of people who now have to fight that much harder to access abortion.

I think that’s the other thing that’s been lost. Abortions haven’t changed. I mean, there are people who have not been able to have abortions as a result of this, but abortions haven’t stopped. They’ve just become less accessible. And I feel like that nuance is also often lost.

It’s, again, this binary of pro-choice or anti-abortion, or however it gets bracketed out. But the reality is, no matter what people’s politics of abortion might be, they’re going to need an abortion, or they know someone who needs an abortion, or has had an abortion. And access is really the much more critical question than politics.

And I also feel that in your reporting, you’ve worked out or explored the intersectional aspect and the historical aspect that is outside of the frame of the way that a lot of corporate news media are coming to this as, “It’s an electoral politics issue of 2024,” when in fact it’s a deep issue. You’ve connected attacks on women’s reproductive rights to attacks on trans people. There’s a bigger picture going on here, and, just finally, there’s a need for journalism right now.

Yeah, I think it’s — I’m trying to think of how I could possibly sum that up.

Please. I don’t know. That’s why I asked you.

In terms of the history, I love bringing that into my work. I know that that’s certainly not something that everybody can do in their own journalism, but set me up to write about the Comstock Act of 1873, and I will go to town, and I will find a way to bring that into reporting on what’s going on in the present.

Because it’s meaningful, right? If you’re trying to explain to people how we got to where we are, I don’t feel like history is outside of reporting. You’re trying to tell people how we got to where we are, and that’s crucial.

And it leaves avenues open to opponents of abortion when those aren’t under scrutiny. One of the reasons I’m writing about the Comstock Act right now is there’s this legal theory emerging on the right, and among anti-abortion groups, that we already have a national abortion ban in the Comstock Act of 1873, which was never fully taken off the books, and did criminalize using the mail system to mail any instrument that could cause an abortion.

And so they’re testing this out now in places like district courts in Texas. They’re trying to build something that would create precedent, or get it in front of the Supreme Court again, that essentially says we already have this national prohibition on abortion.

That is not getting the coverage—outside of a couple of legal experts who focus on abortion reproductive rights—that it needs. Because it’s complicated; I get it. But I just can see a story like that, in a year, people describing it as like “the law that no one saw coming.” So we could see it coming if we wanted to.

I’m going to end right there. We’ve been speaking with Melissa Gira Grant. You can find her work, primarily at the New Republic, online at TNR.com. Melissa Gira Grant, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thanks for having me.

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