Reproductive health researchers have shown that media sources often portray abortion inaccurately, which affects public understanding of the issue. For instance, mainstream news media typically discusses abortion primarily as a political issue rather than a healthcare issue. Additionally, popular culture misrepresents the percentage of abortion seekers who are low-income and people of color, the rate of medication abortions (as opposed to surgical), and the safety of abortion procedures. Television and film tend to show single, white, middle class or wealthy women obtaining surgical abortions. However, in reality, the majority of abortion-seekers are already mothers, most are non-white, and over half of abortions are medication procedures. Moreover, state-mandated misinformation about abortion perpetuates myths about the effects of abortion on pregnant people’s health.
However, since the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, which eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the role of abortion in ensuring the health and well-being of pregnant–capable people. The reproductive justice framework, developed by Black women and other women of color in the 1990s, helped reproductive rights and health advocates see the interconnectivity of concerns that mainstream discourse and white-centric social movements saw as separate and even opposed to each other. This framework catalyzed research showing how states with abortion restrictions have higher maternal death rates. Additionally, research demonstrated that defunding abortion globally leads to poorer health outcomes for women and families, that people who are denied the abortions they seek are more likely to suffer mental and physical health issues, and that the adverse outcomes of the abortion ban more greatly impact women of color. This research illustrates that pregnant-capable people need bodily autonomy to ensure their health and that of their loved ones.
Although some of this research was produced before Roe v. Wade was overturned, the extent to which abortion access is critical to reproductive health is becoming undeniable to the broader public. In July 2022, Louisiana medical providers described the devastating effects of the state’s trigger law, which bans abortion in all cases except to prevent the death or severe impairment of the birthing person or if the fetus is deemed medically futile by two physicians. These providers find themselves in ambiguous legal and ethical territory when faced with common pregnancy-related complications. For instance, the case of Nancy Davis, a Baton Rouge woman whose fetus was diagnosed with the lethal disorder of acrania (a condition in which the fetus develops without a skull), illustrated the futility of the exceptions written into the law. Even though Davis’s pregnancy was deemed nonviable, she was denied an abortion in Louisiana due to the hospital’s legal concerns. She was forced to travel to New York for the procedure, drawing out her pregnancy for an additional six weeks and increasing risks to her health.
We are now eight months from the end of Roe and just beginning to see the ramifications of state-level abortion bans. Researchers are working hard to find ways of quantifying the changes in rates for legal and extralegal abortions, as well as the numbers of people carrying pregnancies to term which they would have otherwise terminated. As this information slowly comes to light, a much broader swath of the U.S. public is becoming aware of something that those who have been studying this issue for decades already know: that abortion access is integral to the health of our society.
By Professor Clare Daniel, Tulane University
Clare Daniel is an American Studies scholar at Tulane University’s Newcomb Institute, where she teaches courses, conducts research, and coordinates student programming related to reproductive rights, health, and justice. She is the author of Mediating Morality: The Politics of Teen Pregnancy in the Post-Welfare Era and several articles published in Signs, Frontiers, Feminist Media Studies, The Hill, Ms., and elsewhere.