Who benefits from sensationalised media coverage of abortion? Hint: not women, whose lives are at stake

Media outlets too often cover abortion-related news in inaccurate and derogatory ways. Activists and progressive journalists must work together to change this.

Nandini Archer
21 May 2018

Women protest for legal and safe abortion in Brazil, 2016.

Women protest for legal and safe abortion in Brazil, 2016. Photo: Fotoarena/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The portrayal of abortion in the media can sway public perception in a major way, and can even influence policy agendas. When this media focus is honest and accurate, it has the potential to arouse global outrage at violations of women’s rights.

We saw this amid media coverage of Savita Halappanavar’s death in 2012, after she was refused an abortion in Ireland despite life-threatening pregnancy complications. Public outrage over this case helped to mobilise people in their demands for a referendum on Ireland’s restrictive abortion law, which is now set for next month.

More recently, Brazil's congress was set to vote on a constitutional amendment including a clause which could effectively ban abortion in all cases; currenty it is legal only in cases of rape, fetal anomaly, or to save a woman’s life. The media played a vital role in documenting the social movement against the proposed motion; the vote has been repeatedly postponed.

Journalists can be co-workers in the fight for abortion rights. Yet, a recent series of interviews with more than 30 journalists in the US found that they face stigmatisation and political opposition when seeking to report positively on abortion. This can mean that even progressive journalists inadvertently pick-up and repeat anti-abortion myths, language and imagery.

Working with the International Campaign on Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, I encounter common media mistakes daily.

'Progressive journalists inadvertently pick-up and repeat anti-abortion myths, language and imagery.'

Many journalists, for example, feel that they must present the anti-abortion argument alongside the pro-choice case, in the name of balance.

When the Chilean Congress voted to ease its abortion ban last year, reporters interviewed both pro-choice and anti-abortion groups in attempts to show neutrality. But the pro-choice viewpoint is inherently balanced; it respects each woman’s right to decide what’s best for her. Denying women human rights is not neutrality.

Protest in Brussels against the tightening of the abortion law in Poland, March 2018.

Protest in Brussels against the tightening of the abortion law in Poland, March 2018. Photo: Wiktor Dabkowski/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Reporters often dramatise cases to make stories newsworthy, sometimes unintentionally repeating misconceptions around abortion.

A 2010 analysis of seven British and five Scottish national newspapers found that abortion was repeatedly presented as physically and emotionally risky. This is false: World Health Organisation research shows that abortion is one of the safest surgical procedures when performed by trained persons. This also applies to the self-administration of medical abortion pills.

Rather than exaggerating the harms of safe abortion methods, the media should focus on the scandal of states refusing to make abortion safe, forcing pregnant women to turn to life-threatening options. Powerful journalism has explored, for example, the highly restrictive Senegalese abortion law and the imprisonment of women who have had unsafe abortions.

'The media should focus on the scandal of states refusing to make abortion safe, forcing pregnant women to turn to life-threatening options.'

Abortion does not cause mental health problems. But being denied an abortion and forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term can damage anyone’s mental state. A study of more than 200 children in Prague in the 1960s found that being unwanted in early pregnancy was also associated with psychological problems in children.

Well-meaning journalists often use misguided language. Terms like pregnant woman and fetus should be used rather than mother and baby.

Media from Armenia, China and India frequently speak about ‘aborting girls’ in regard to sex-selective abortion. Sex-selection is an outcome of discriminatory cultural norms; coverage should thus focus on sex discrimination, not abortion.

Another common problem in progressive and positive abortion-related articles is the use of inaccurate images, usually inserted by an editor. Many media reports celebrated Sierra Leone’s parliament voting to remove its 150-year-old colonial abortion law. However, articles were supplemented by ill-informed imagery, such as heavily pregnant bellies, or fetuses detached from bodies.

A graphic focus on late-term abortion can generate a wrongful perception that is in turn used to spearhead calls to restrict women’s access to these services. Most abortions take place in the first trimester.

'Progressive media coverage should use imagery that emphasises abortion as ordinary healthcare, or highlights the pro-choice movement.'

Progressive media coverage should use imagery that emphasises abortion as ordinary healthcare (such as images of medical professionals or abortion pills), or highlights the pro-choice movement. The Women's March in the US, and the Black Monday protest in Poland, produced empowering images of activists fighting for changes to abortion legislation, in favour of women’s rights.

Finally, journalists frequently seek personal experiences of those who have had an abortion to powerfully illustrate what’s at stake. However, abortion rights are also a collective issue; the case for these rights cannot rest on an individual story. Media coverage should reflect the complexities of abortion experiences, including among adolescents, trans people and married women with children.

Ill-informed media stories can eclipse the truth about abortion in public and political arenas. It is essential that journalists stick to facts and normalise the experience; one in four women globally will have an abortion in her lifetime.

Importantly, I do encounter thought-provoking media on a daily basis which demonstrates the vivacity of the pro-choice movement and its strength in tackling the backlash against women’s rights. This will gradually influence discourse around the need to decriminalise abortion, and reduce the need for unsafe abortions.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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