Abortion rights demonstrator Elizabeth White leads a chant in response to the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Corporate Media Has Failed to Report Accurately on the Threats to Women's Reproductive Rights

The establishment press ignored stories about the right's racist assault on reproductive health for years.

In the weeks since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the corporate media has been saturated with analyses and reports about the implications of the ruling for women's lives and health. Legal observers have weighed in on the conservative majority's reasoning in the case. The impact of the ruling on the 2022 midterm elections has been discussed endlessly. The state-by-state battles over legislation and state-level constitutional amendments banning abortion have been covered exhaustively, as have efforts by women's rights groups and medical providers to ensure that women get the reproductive health services they need.

History shows that the corporate media are not reliable guardians of women's reproductive rights.

Yet, in the decades leading up to the Court's ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, the establishment press overlooked a number of important stories about the rightwing--and in some cases, neo-fascist--push to outlaw abortion, not to mention the steps many states and federal agencies had already taken to restrict women's access to reproductive health services in the U.S. and around the world.

Consider the link between the anti-abortion movement and armed right-wing nationalist and white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Christian Identity movement, Gun Owners of America, and other "militia" groups. Feminist publications such as On the Issues and other independent news outlets reported on the connection between the militant right and anti-abortion organizing back in the 1990s. One example highlighted in this coverage was "the conviction in July 1996 of three members of the Oklahoma Constitutional Militia (which included a Christian Identity "prophet" and his followers) for conspiring to blow up abortion clinics, along with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other civil rights targets."

But the affiliations between the radical right and the anti-abortion movement did not end in the 1990s. In recent years, prominent Republicans have embraced the so-called "great replacement" theory, the racist fantasy that white people in the U.S. are being deliberately marginalized thanks to unregulated immigration from majority non-white countries, and see legal abortion as part of a long-term plan to decimate the country's white population. Both Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson have paid lip service to this delusional theory and endorsed authoritarian, pro-natalist polices. Even further to the right, virulently anti-Semitic pastor Rick Wiles has claimed that there would be no abortion in America were it not for "powerful, influential, rich Jews."

As Alex DiBanco detailed in a February 2020 article in The Nation, fascist and alt-right groups from Abolish Human Abortion (AHA)--whose logo resembles some of the new swastika-like symbols favored by white supremacist groups--to the neo-Nazi Traditional Workers Party have infiltrated the anti-abortion movement. Writing in Ms. Magazine, feminist scholar Carol Mason explained that extremist anti-abortionists were "in the mix of white supremacists, paramilitary militia and conspiracy believers who stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C." while militant anti-abortion groups including Operation Save America cheered on the insurrection via social media.

The corporate media have belatedly awoken to the influences of racist ideology and far-right activists on the organized opposition to women's reproductive rights. On May 15, 2022, MSNBC interviewed Dorothy Roberts of the Penn Program on Race, Science and Society about the racist "great replacement theory" that informs the most extreme anti-abortion rhetoric and action. "Underlying anti-abortion rhetoric and action is the idea that white women should be having more babies to build up the 'white nation'," Roberts explained. Since the horrific, racially-motivated May 12, 2022 mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, the Washington Post has been raising the alarm about the popularity of the "great replacement theory" among Republican politicians and conservative commentators. But independent media outlets--including The Intercept, The Nation, and Ms. Magazine--have conducted the most sustained and detailed reporting on connections between the racist right and the anti-abortion movement.

Every year, Project Censored--the media-monitoring organization, established in 1976, to which we both contribute--releases a list of 25 significant news stories that have gone underreported by commercial, for-profit media. The 1996 story about the link between militias and the anti-abortion movement was on the Project's list back in 1997. We helped to compile and co-edit the top 25 list for 2021-22, which will be released in December as part of Project Censored's State of the Free Press 2023, published by Seven Stories Press and Censored Press. A number of other stories from the Project's annual lists of marginalized stories have highlighted the campaign by conservatives and religious groups against abortion and women's reproductive rights.

Global Gag Rule Reinstated

In its 2021 list, for example, Project Censored highlighted reporting about the Trump administration's restoration of a rule blocking international nonprofits that provide abortion services or counseling from accessing some $9 billion in US health aid. Known as the "global gag rule," this policy has been repealed and reinstated repeatedly since 1984, but the Trump administration's version of it was the strictest yet, preventing NGOs whose health services include abortions from receiving funds from the State Department, USAID, the Department of Health and Human Services, or the Department of Defense. Writing in Sierra magazine, Karen Coates pointed out that then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "interpreted the rule to include subcontractors and partner organizations working with any group receiving US health aid." As a result of this incredibly restrictive policy, abortion providers across the Global South experienced a dramatic decline in funding, leading to what family-planning organization Marie Stopes International estimated would be an additional "600,000 unsafe abortions and 4,600 maternal deaths." Moreover, organizations at the forefront of fighting the spread of HIV/AIDs, maternal malnutrition, and malaria were starved of money by the gag order. A week after his inauguration, on January 28, 2021, President Joe Biden reversed the Trump gag rule.

Although the New York Times and some of the big TV networks covered how the Trump administration restored and ratcheted up the global gag rule, corporate media mostly ignored the sweeping nature of the ban and its dramatic impacts on women across the world.

Women Face Prison for Miscarriages

The Project's 2020 list included a story about the effects losing Roe would have on women's risk of prosecution for endangering unborn fetuses. As Naomi Randolph explained in a January 22, 2019 post for Ms. Magazine's blog, even before Roe was overturned, the drive by far-right lawmakers in state legislatures to eliminate abortion rights and access to contraception had the consequence of rendering women vulnerable to criminal charges for miscarriages. Thanks to laws such as Alabama's 2019 Human Life Protection Act, which granted "personhood" rights to fetuses, women from Indiana to Pennsylvania were at risk of being jailed for giving birth to stillborn infants. And, as Randolph outlined, even before the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, women who had miscarriages in certain states were being prosecuted on charges ranging from "concealing a child" to murder and manslaughter for "crimes" such as failing to report a stillborn infant quickly enough. These punitive policies affected women of color disproportionately because they tend to have limited access to affordable healthcare, including addiction counseling and prenatal care. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has made this already dire situation even worse.

The independent media saw the dangers posed by state laws such as the Human Life Protection Act years before corporate news outlets started covering them with any consistency.

Catholic Hospital Mergers Threaten Reproductive Rights

Back in 1999, Project Censored included another reproductive rights-related story originally reported by Ms. Magazine on our top 25 list, this one about the effect of hospital mergers on women's health. Christine Dinsmore's July/August 1998 investigation into the Roman Catholic Church's expanding influence over American health care was alarming, to the say the least. As Dinsmore reported, increasingly hospitals and HMOs around the country with no religious affiliation were merging with Catholic medical facilities. Once merged, the facilities would no longer allow abortions for 'non-medical reasons' or provide contraception and family planning services. In response to the shrinking number of hospitals providing these services, women's health advocates began founding individual women's health clinics. However, these women's health clinics were smaller, underfunded, and easy targets for anti-abortion extremists. Like so many other news items about women's reproductive rights, this story received virtually no coverage outside the independent feminist press.

Don't Count On Corporate Media To Watch Out For Women's Reproductive Rights

The Supreme Court's decision to eliminate federal protection for women's control over their own bodies has sparked widespread outrage--and, finally, a flurry of establishment new coverage.

But history shows that the corporate media are not reliable guardians of women's reproductive rights. As Project Censored's monitoring of underreported stories shows, independent media, especially independent feminist outlets such as Ms. Magazine and Rewire News Group, do a much better job of reporting on reproductive health issues than most corporate outlets. If you are looking for a forewarning of the next brazen assault on women rights, and what reproductive rights activists are doing to forestall it, you'd be much better off reading Ms. or other independent news outlets than relying on CNN or The New York Times.

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