Image: Jim Cooke
This story was supposed to be about abortion pills. I intended to write about how a federal judge temporarily suspended the Food and Drug Administration rule that forced patients to pick up the pills in person, from either a hospital or clinic—a significant barrier to early abortion. But when I pitched the editor of this story, she wrote back to tell me that it was a good idea, and important to cover, but difficult to get anyone to read about. Even on a site like Jezebel, where a large swath of the audience is ostensibly interested in the topic, a reported piece on abortion was likely to get little engagement. Why was that, she asked, and how could we get readers to care about something like an FDA regulation?
This question stung at first, but it was the sting of recognition: I’ve written about reproductive rights for years, and rarely has it been the boon to readership my editors hoped. I wanted to find a satisfying answer not so I could get more people to click on my stories, but to solve a problem that I’m positive is structural.
Attacks on abortion rights are constant, but they don’t register for most people unless they reach the Supreme Court or, like the spate of six-week bans that blanketed the South last year, they are too outrageous to ignore. It is difficult to get readers to pay attention to the more subtle infringements on access, even though those infringements—from waiting periods to restrictions on public funding and insurance loopholes—are the most common and effective obstacles to the procedure.
Over the last few years, tens of thousands of people in the United States have turned to the internet to buy pills to give themselves abortions because decades of anti-choice lawmaking has made the procedure inaccessible. (This is a safe and effective way to have an abortion, but not everyone’s preferred method.) And that is to say nothing of those who are unable, in the end, to find a way to end their pregnancy, like the patients Diane Greene Foster followed in her famous Turnaway Study, who were denied care because they missed the gestational limit in their states. The course of a life, Foster concluded, changed dramatically based on whether or not a person who wanted an abortion got one.
Every day, esoteric policy and legislation might be imperceptibly transforming the lives of friends, family members, and colleagues. I desperately hoped that there was an answer to my editor’s question because it would determine the way people thought about and understood abortion—if they thought about it at all.
Three years ago I worked at a legacy news outlet where I got paid by the click. The company gave its staff writers meager base salaries, and then doled out monthly bonuses based on how much traffic we each brought in. The news director explained the arrangement to me after I had gone in to interview for a position on the publication’s news desk, where she wanted me to write about “women’s issues.” She assured me that every writer hit a million clicks a month no matter what they covered, which was equivalent to a bonus of about $3,000.
The whole enterprise sounded dubious, but I briefly considered that I might become “rich” writing about so-called women’s issues. (At 24, a rich person was someone who made more than $50,000 a year.) I don’t think I ever got close to a million clicks, though other people did. A reporter whose beat was “the Trump family” was often well on his way to two million some months, and I would sulk in my cubicle thinking about how he probably made twice my income.
At that particular publication, writing about reproductive rights didn’t pay, literally. The click economy wasn’t friendly to stories about crisis pregnancy centers or Title X funds, and sometimes even my editors seemed to consider my pitches too tedious. I once spent several days trying to persuade an editor to let me write something more in-depth about a Trump administration official who had tried to block immigrant teens from abortion, but he remained unconvinced, telling me it was too in the weeds.
I resented the idea that a story about abortion might be niche or “in the weeds,” even though, sadly, there is some truth to that. Sometimes, reporting on abortion can feel like only weeds. Even when I placed a human subject at the center of a story, I often felt that I’d obscured them with all of the explanations required to help the reader understand the most basic details of their circumstance.
Writing about a person struggling to access medication abortion, for example—as I might have done for this piece—usually means explaining what medication abortion is (a two-pill regimen for abortion up to 10 weeks); describing the federal restrictions that require it to be dispensed by not just any provider but a specially-licensed one, at a hospital or clinic (but the restriction is just on one of the two medications, mifepristone); and noting the state laws around abortion in that particular state (which vary wildly). Anti-abortion lawmakers have passed such a volume of restrictions that the human stakes of the issue—which might otherwise be so clear—are easily lost in a muddle of policy and legislation.
When I called Emily Shugerman, a Daily Beast reporter who covers abortion rights, we lamented how reporting on abortion can also involve writing about the same laws over and over again, since national anti-choice organizations provide lawmakers with fill-in-the-blank templates, allowing them to propose virtually identical bills state-by-state. We had both written about six-week bans (also misleadingly called “heartbeat bills”) several times apiece.
“Abortion has been conceived of as a policy issue—we need to pass these laws, overturn these ones, prevent these ones from going into effect,” Shugerman told me. “When you have to focus so much on the policy you lose some of the human aspect.”
This isn’t just a me-and-Emily problem, but a problem that has defined an entire movement. Historically, the mainstream abortion movement has been focused on legal rights, at once a conscious choice and a necessity: Immediately after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade, an enthusiastic and determined anti-abortion camp crystallized, aiming to reverse the ruling. Since then, these groups have worked tirelessly toward this goal, primarily by passing arcane legislation that chips away at Roe little by little, carving out so many exceptions that it will eventually be rendered completely meaningless, if not overturned outright.
In response, pro-choice organizations have built up a movement primarily by rallying people around state laws and critical Supreme Court cases. Though roughly 70 percent of the country believes that abortion should be legal, a large swath of supporters remains disengaged from the issue, alienated by the emphasis on legal rights and uncertain that the fight for access has anything to do with them.
Everyone I spoke to for this piece brought up a recent New York Times story, which featured several Gen Z and millennial activists who said that the calls to defend a Supreme Court ruling didn’t resonate. It did not seem like an issue that affected their lives; at the least, one young woman said, it wasn’t a matter of life or death.
“A lot of the language I heard was about protecting Roe v. Wade,” Brea Baker, 26, told the Times. “It felt grounded in the ’70s feminist movement. And it felt like, I can’t focus on abortion access if my people are dying. The narrative around abortion access wasn’t made for people from the hood.”
In a February poll commissioned by Teen Vogue and conducted by IPSOS, the majority of participants in Baker’s age group—18- to 34-year-olds—supported expanding abortion access, but few saw it as a top priority, ranking it behind issues like climate change, Medicare for All, and student debt. If that poll were conducted today, in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, they might rank police brutality above abortion access as well.
If women of color, and Black women, in particular, feel estranged from the mainstream pro-choice movement, it’s at least in part because it has historically centered white women and still largely targets white women with its messaging. It’s only relatively recently that national organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL have more vocally embraced the issues that intersect with abortion access, like immigration and economic justice. Framing abortion as a single issue, one that’s concerned with rights rather than justice, has made many believe they have to choose between issues like reproductive health and racial violence, which are intertwined.
“When people hear ‘reproductive health’ they think about birth control and abortion,” said Monica Simpson, the executive director of SisterSong, a reproductive justice organization based in Atlanta. “But for us, it has never been just about those things. It’s also about how safe our communities are, our ability to create our own families the way we want, and our ability to care for those families.”
This way of thinking about reproductive health isn’t new. The term “reproductive justice” was coined more than two decades ago, by a group of Black women who attended a 1994 conference to discuss a Clinton administration health care proposal. When the discussion failed to include many of their concerns as Black women within the purview of “women’s health,” they broke off and formed their own coalition, creating a new framework that accounted for overlapping struggles. More than a dozen reproductive justice groups sprung up out of this watershed moment, and they continue to advocate for this approach to reproductive health activism. But larger, predominantly white reproductive rights organizations have gotten more funding, more attention, and therefore more power to shape the national discourse around abortion.
“White women-led groups have to give that power up if we want to see meaningful change and have full bodily autonomy once and for all,” said Alison Dreith, the deputy director of Hope Clinic in Illinois, and the former executive director of NARAL’s Missouri affiliate. “A lot of reproductive rights [organizations] are beginning to talk more about reproductive justice, but we’re not there yet.”
One day while I was writing this piece, I took a break and went to Rockaway Beach, in Queens. On the train ride home, I read the recent archival issue of The New Yorker, which included a 1969 Talk of the Town column by the feminist writer Ellen Willis, who had covered a hearing on legislation that would roll back abortion restrictions in New York. “The repeal bill has received little public attention,” she wrote at the time. “Newspapers that mention it at all tend to treat it as a quixotic oddity. Most people do not know that the [bill] exists, and some legislators, when asked for their support, have professed not to have heard of it. A number of women’s organizations, however, are very much aware of the repeal proposal and are determined to spread the word.”
“This really sums up abortion reporting lol,” I texted my boyfriend from the train. Most people don’t know this bill exists. Women’s organizations are determined to spread the word. For a moment, I was buoyed by a sense of solidarity with Willis, who was writing about something few people seemed to care about. Still, I wasn’t sure how I could begin to solve a problem that has persisted for decades.
I often felt that when I told friends or peers what I was covering—usually something having to do with abortion pills—it was as though I was describing something happening far away, at several removes from where we were having the conversation. Maybe they were someone who couldn’t get pregnant or someone who couldn’t see themselves in a position where the pregnancy might be unwanted. Maybe several other terrible things in the world had happened that same week—police killings, protests in the streets, a spike in cases of a deadly virus—and abortion, seemingly unrelated, would have to wait.
When I wrote about abortion, I was often describing a single moment in a person’s life, and pivotal as it can be, it was not the whole life. It could not be separated out from the rest—from questions of whether that person could pay their rent, or breathe clean air, or let the children they already have play outside without worrying that a police officer might fatally shoot them.
It makes intuitive sense to me to see the fight for abortion rights as just one part of an overarching struggle for justice, and that talking about it this way instead could bring the issue closer for those who might otherwise think it had nothing to do with them.
“As the people who have worked on reproductive justice for decades have tried so hard to drive home, abortion is something related to so many parts of life and so many different issues,” said Ema O’Connor, a social justice reporter at BuzzFeed News. “That’s what I tried to do in my beat: show how it’s connected to issues like immigration and economic justice.” Covering abortion this way can capture more people’s attention, she said. It’s also an implicit argument against a judgment we had both encountered before, that abortion is too “niche” to cover with the same gusto as other political issues.
Readers may not be interested in the intricacies of, say, the FDA’s policy on mifepristone, but I could get them interested in the person who needed the drug, who had to scrape together $650 to pay for the pills, or who went to the internet to buy them for $90 instead because they didn’t want to disappoint their son, and use the tax return they had meant to spend on his birthday present on an abortion, as one woman explained to me earlier this year.
“Unless you’re a policy wonk in D.C., a lot of stuff goes over people’s heads,” Simpson said. “But if we start making more connections for people they can understand that, at the end of the day, whether you’re advocating to defund police or to expand abortion access, what we’re all fighting for is the human right to self-determine and have bodily autonomy.”
Marie Solis is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Vice, Gothamist, Newsweek, The Awl, and other publications