Without a dramatic storyline, little national attention
While discussing abortion legislation on NBC’s Meet the Press (7/14/13), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nevada) told host David Gregory: “I think we should deal with the problems that affect this country. We need to do something to help the American working class and stop worrying about fringe issues.”
A notable lack of media coverage on recent abortion legislation indicates that Reid’s not the only one who thinks of abortion as a fringe issue.
National anti-choice organizations have amped up their state-by-state campaign to chip away at abortion rights; as of July 1, 17 states had introduced bills that put limits on abortions, two of which have been enacted (Guttmacher Institute, 7/1/13). Americans United for Life writes model bills for state legislators across the country to copy and paste, hires lobbyists to push these bills and assists state attorney generals in defending the laws in court (Progressive, 5/1/13).
Yet these new state laws have gotten surprisingly little national media coverage, despite the fact that they are part of a nationwide anti-choice strategy to challenge protections for reproductive rights long thought to be guaranteed by federal judicial rulings. In the one case where national media did pick up the story—Texas—the spotlight on state Sen. Wendy Davis tended to leave in the shadows the larger implications of the legislation and its effect on women.
Although Roe v. Wade gave women the right to an abortion before the fetus is viable outside the womb—at about 24 to 28 weeks of gestation—a new North Dakota law, HB1456, bans abortions in that state after a fetus’s heartbeat can be detected, which can happen six weeks into the pregnancy, a point at which many women don’t even know they’re pregnant (New York Times, 7/25/13). According to the director of the sole abortion provider in the state, the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, 89 percent of her patients come to the clinic after this six-week period (Reuters, 7/11/13).
The director, Tammi Kromenaker, was one of the few women given an opportunity by the media to address the issue—a longstanding problem in coverage of abortion rights (Extra!, 8/92) and an example of the broader problem of leaving those most affected by political questions out of the debate (Extra!, 9/90, 6/13). The Reuters piece, an exception to this trend, not only quoted the female abortion provider but also talked to a woman who had relied on her services:
“If I hadn’t been in that position, maybe I wouldn’t care as much [about the new limits]. As a former patient, this is very upsetting. They are taking our rights away,” said Shannah Labrensz-Smith, who utilized the facility in 2005.
A federal judge has blocked the North Dakota legislation from going into effect while it winds its way through the courts (CNN, 7/22/13).
The North Dakota legislature passed two other abortion-related bills on the same day, March 26, which was rarely clarified in the coverage. The second bill, HB1305, bans abortions on the basis of genetic abnormalities—making it the first state to do so in the U.S. (New York Times, 4/1/13; Huffington Post, 7/15/13). This means women cannot decide to have an abortion if the fetus has a “defect, disease or disorder that is inherited,” such as Down syndrome or Tay Sachs disease (HB1305, 3/26/13).
A recent study revealed that 77 percent of people support the right to abortion when a fetus has a serious defect (National Opinion Research Center, 5/1/13). While the right to abortion, like other civil liberties, should not depend on public opinion, this bill’s position far outside the mainstream of that opinion should certainly make it newsworthy.
The last bill, SB2305, requires physicians to have admitting and staff privileges with hospitals within 30 miles of the facility. Similar legislation has been passed in other states as well (Guttmacher Institute, 7/1/13).
Clinic director Kromenaker (Reuters, 7/11/13) explained that these hospital agreements aren’t protecting women:
They are putting up barriers that sound reasonable, that sound like they care about women who are having abortions. But in fact they are just trying to put up a wall of regulations and requirements that are impossible to meet.
Even Republican state Rep. Kathy Hawken (Huffington Post, 3/21/13) agreed: “North Dakota hasn’t even passed a primary seatbelt law, but we have the most invasive attack on women’s health anywhere.”
According to the Nexis database, over the course of the week and a half in which these bills were passed, March 23 to April 1, they were mentioned in 207 national news articles, wires and transcripts. During the same 10 days, the March Madness basketball tournament was covered in 1,407 stories.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed off on a state budget, known as HB59, at the end of June (WLWT, 6/30/13) that included provisions restricting funding for preventive care for family planning groups. The bill requires abortion providers to set up transfer agreements with hospitals, even though it prevents public hospitals from actually accepting these arrangements (New York Times, 6/30/13). A provision like this is essentially designed to prevent clinics from achieving the state’s standard.
The budget also suspends funding from rape crisis clinics if counselors suggest abortion as an option (Reuters, 6/30/13)—another position far outside the mainstream, as 78 percent of people support the right of women who have been raped to seek an abortion (National Opinion Research Center, 5/1/13).
Moreover, the budget provisions force women seeking abortions to have ultrasounds and to have abortion providers tell the patient if a fetal heartbeat is found (Mother Jones, 7/1/13; Washington Post, 7/1/13; Reuters, 6/30/13). Similar ultrasound measures have been passed in seven other states (Guttmacher Institute, 7/1/13).
Coverage of the budget’s anti-choice measures was limited to 139 U.S. news reports between June 27 and July 6; the primary female voices in these reports were legislators or abortion rights advocates and opponents.
While Texas’ abortion legislation was reported heavily, coverage mostly focused on Sen. Wendy Davis, who staged a dramatic filibuster of the bill—which bans abortions after 20 weeks into the pregnancy and requires clinics to have hospital-style surgical centers (FAIR Blog, 7/9/13; New York Times, 7/19/13)—and garnered 610 media mentions from June 24 to July 3. Texas actually proposed seven anti-abortion bills in the weeks following the filibuster (Mother Jones, 7/16/13), which received paltry coverage in national media.
When the filibustered bill returned and passed in a new special session, news outlets watched closely; the bill was mentioned in 789 stories during the week and a half it was voted on, from July 9 to 18. Davis has become a sensation because of her perseverance and stand for women’s reproductive rights, but some news outlets seem to have little interest in the issues she was fighting for. ABC News’ senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny interviewed Davis (This Week, 6/30/13). The conversation was particularly focused on her running shoes.
ZELENY: Why did you decide to wear your running shoes? Let’s take a look at those, they’ve kind of been rocketing around the Internet.
DAVIS: They’ve gained a fame all their own. [Puts shoes on table]
DAVIS: At the last minute, I was running out of my apartment; I thought maybe I would need something with a little more support, so I grabbed these on the way out the door. These are actually my running shoes.
ZELENY: I mean, these are the shoes now—probably the most famous shoes in politics. And is this a pink—?
DAVIS: I would call it a pink, or a salmon pink, yeah.
ZELENY: But you’re also a runner. I mean, these are legitimate running shoes.
During the interview, Zeleny did not ask about the substance of the bill she stood against and what it would do to restrict women’s rights. Then, in what became a common media obsession (NBC News, 7/1/13; Washington Post, 7/15/13; Texas Tribune, 7/15/13), he asked Davis if she “will run” for governor in the future, which was included in the extended interview on his Web program (Fine Print, 7/2/13).
While journalists are speculating about one state senator’s future, women across the nation, including Davis, are focused on the restrictive bills advancing under the guise of “protecting women’s health” or attached to unrelated legislation.
Meanwhile, Davis begged in a CNN.com op-ed (7/11/13) for Texas politicians to pay attention to “real Texans”—the citizens whose health and well-being are affected by this and other bills—but she may as well have been speaking to journalists: “Can you hear us now? And, more important, are you listening?”