Recent coverage of Roe v. Wade reaffirms what providers have been saying for years: Journalists need to change the way we cover abortion.
Last week, Scalawag hosted a Twitter Space with abortion workers across the South to unpack the performative nature of abortion coverage, share paths toward refocusing the reporting, and explain the intersections between abortion care and abolition work.
Ko Bragg, Scalawag’s Race & Place Editor, leads the discussion with Ash Williams (Abortion doula and organizer), Laurie Bertram Roberts (Co-founder, Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund; Executive Director of the Yellowhammer Fund), Nzingha H. (abortion doula), and Robin Marty (Operations director, West Alabama Women’s Center).
Note: This conversation took place on May 19, 2022 in Scalawag’s Twitter Space. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and length. This story is co-published with Scalawag. For more of Scalawag’s journalism, follow them on Twitter or sign up for their This Week in the South newsletter.
Ko: Laurie, something that you and I have had the pleasure of talking about is the way that media covers and undercovers, distorts, et cetera, stories about abortion — and even our approach of sourcing stories about reproductive rights, etc.
I wanna also ground in and talk about what journalists do wrong and then, if anything, what we do right or what we should be doing to cover abortion.
Laurie: Yeah, Ko knows me and has known me for a while and I know that she follows me on Twitter and knows that I’m constantly yelling into the void to try to get media to cover us when it’s not a crisis. And then suddenly it’s a crisis and everybody descends upon us like vultures onto a dead carcass to pick apart our traumas and feast upon, especially Black and Brown trauma. And not just them, but also national organizations who want to cast our traumas and stories and life for fundraising. One of the things I’ll say that media does wrong is that it stems from not just journalists, but from editors, and who decides to green light longer form stories, when the deadlines are, and how they craft stories and pick them apart after they are written. Because we’ve definitely seen a lot of that.
But also, the way that journalists call us is almost cliché at this point, especially cis-het men. I’m just going to name this out because they’re the worst: Vice. Vice News has a great tradition of calling us and being like, “Hey Lori, you know we’d love to interview you.” Which, they really don’t; they don’t really want to interview me. It’s almost like they’re saying that because they think that’s a big hit for me, like I actually want to be interviewed. I don’t care. That’s number one. That’s the first mistake they make, they think that I actually care about them interviewing me — I don’t.
And then number is they go, “You know, could you just find us someone who’s in the process of seeking their abortion? It’d be even better,, you know, the more intersections of barriers that you could find.” And they don’t want to say Black, they don’t want to say poor, but they usually get around to it. “If they happen to be like low-income, or what are the normal barriers you guys see? Something like that, like the most oppression you guys usually see.” And I’ll just go, “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” and then I never return their call.
Ko: Yeah, I think that’s so interesting what you named. Also, it seems like [they’re] positioning it as a favor to you for the “access” […] and you’re not seeing it as that.
Laurie: Yeah, because it’s not a favor. Here’s the thing, for a lot of us who have been in this for a while, during “feeding season” — I call it feeding season — I don’t have to take your offer of access. Everyone wants to give us access, okay? So you giving me access is nothing. When the Guardian is calling and CBS is calling and ABC is calling and all these other people are calling, I don’t care about you. I can interview with a number of other outlets. Also, who told you that I even want to talk to any of y’all?
It’s part of our job and yes, we have to do it, but I also can be very selective about who we want to talk to and how we want our messaging to be put out and what outlets we prefer to speak. I’ve made an intentional choice to spend more time talking about Black and Brown media in recent times, and also spending more time on podcasts and that’s been very intentional.
Ash: I wanted to add some more things about what I think the media gets wrong, in addition to Laurie’s comments. As abortion doulas, we are supposed to be destigmatizing abortion and really making sure that folks know the role that stigma and shame play, and misinformation as well.
One of the ways we combat that is providing care that comes with good information, so it’s really important for people who are writing about abortion to to get it right. There’s no model abortion-haver. There’s no model abortion storyteller. So while journalists are kind of looking for these specific kinds of stories, I think it’s important to remember that all types of people get abortions, like folks who already have children, so forth and so on.
Another thing that I want to say is that I must see more written about, talking about transgender people having abortions. Not only do people have to talk about trans people having abortions, y’all need to do it the right way. We’re here and we have abortions.
Laurie: And can I piggyback off that just a little bit? This is something I’ve been stressing with media a lot: moving away from the narrative of exceptions. Stop talking about exceptions. Exceptions are a false conversation because exceptions do not work in reality. When you give in to this conversation about how, “Oh, well, this bill doesn’t even have exceptions for rape and incest,” and you think that you’re presenting how extreme this bill is, just say it’s a ban, because it’s a ban.
Those exceptions do not exist in reality. Exceptions do not work in reality and we already know that, because the exceptions for Medicaid are never used. We know that because in Catholic hospitals exemptions still lead to people dying. So like, let’s just admit that exemptions are a falsehood and don’t actually work the way that they’re presented to work. They’re just a way to to make abortion bans more palatable so that people can think that “good abortions” will be available to them when and if they need them.
Ko: Right now, I think the media is scrambling. And I also think a lot of people in the general public are scrambling. We’ve seen a lot of the media showcase a lot of performative action in the last few weeks following the SCOTUS leak: We’ve seen people in Handmaid’s Tale costumes, people mailing wire hangers to SCOTUS. I want to focus on what is helpful in this moment.
Robin: I find it really interesting that you bring that up like right after the media discussion, because these two problems are so dramatically intertwined. The reason that we’re seeing this sort of performative action, the reason that we had marches all over the country — in a lot of ways they still weren’t tapped into the local organizations that really needed the resources and needed to be fronting these — is because these are actions that, in all honesty, were thrust upon states in our own best interest in order to create a media profile. Because that’s the only way that foundations and donors have any ability to say, “Okay, we think something succeeded and you have done something worthy with my money.”
Our entire movement, frankly, from a national standpoint, is run on the idea of: The only metrics that prove that something has been accomplished is, did somebody get elected? And, did this get media coverage? So of course, we have an entire national and local press that’s feeding frenzies over people who are trying to get abortion right now, over clinics that are about to get shut, over the people who are being denied care, because that is all we’ve ever learned as a way to figure out what is valuable. Media needs money. Foundations need media, and organizations need money that they get from foundations and have to feed the media.
Laurie: Can I jump in on this? The stuff that annoys me so much is like, every white person that decides to see media about the crisis and jumps up with a thought and a dream, and $5 can get honestly five to 10 times as much media as a fund in Texas that has been in existence for five or seven years. That pisses me the fuck off.
You know who I haven’t seen? La Frontera Fund. You know who I haven’t seen? The new funds that are opening in flyover states in the Midwest. I’m not seeing as much for Holler Health Justice and other funds that I know are smaller funds. I’m not seeing NOLA Fund as much. I’m the one having to bring up to people Indigenous Women Rising. Other funds who are larger constantly bear the burden of bringing up these other funds and it shouldn’t be like that.
Media should, instead of running to the first white person who’s like, “We’re going to be the Underground Railroad for abortion access” — get the fuck out of here. Instead of that, go find where the abortion fund is next to where these white women are trying to reinvent the wheel and go find out what they’re doing.
Robin: Building off of Laurie, who remembers, not even 12 months ago, the high school graduate who used her speech to “change the world” and all of a sudden everybody [was] like, “This is the youth speaking,” and she got a book deal and she was going to be the new face of the movement?
Planned Parenthood was putting her up front on everything because suddenly, “Look, the people have spoken and the youth are interested and we’ve got a cute white girl.” It’s always going to be a bunch of people — especially Planned Parenthood, I’m just going to say that — taking something that’s already hot and viral and trying to build off of that rather than do the work that needs to be done.
Laurie: Meanwhile, the Houston Hoochie‘s been out here for over a year. They’re young, they’re out here in the streets. They’re doing work, they’re vocal, they’ve got all these followers on TikTok. Why ain’t nobody talking about them? I’m just throwing it out there. I’m just saying, one white girl says something at a graduation and it’s a viral moment.
It’s the same struggle that I had in Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund to even originally get press for our organization. And even now, the only reason that I get as much press as I get now is because I now have Yellowhammer under my name. Let’s be real, and it doesn’t hurt that I’m light skinned. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m femme presenting, even though I’m non-binary. Let’s keep it all the way 100.
So you know, like I understand how this all works, but it’s also bullshit because this is how funds end up failing.
Ko: I want to re-up something that you said, Ash that we published in Scalawag in our day in the life of an abortion doula piece you were interviewed for. One of the things that you said was, “Abortion bans don’t scare us,” and I want to unpack that. But also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t read the rest of that quote there, which is also that, “We, in the South, we are not putting all of our eggs in the basket of Roe. I’m also not putting all of my eggs in the basket of the law.”
Ash: So, one of the reasons why abortion bans don’t scare us (those of us on this stage right now) is because we are we are not new to this and we’re true to this.
And as Robin Marty helps me have the language for, we know these post-Roe realities because we’re already living them so we’re not afraid of an abortion ban because we are already trying to figure out how to get somebody across state lines to an abortion. We’re not afraid of no abortion bans because we’re already trying to work under some of the conditions that folks are just getting hip to in the last two weeks. That’s why we’re not afraid.
And we’re not afraid because, SCOTUS: One monkey don’t stop no show. One Supreme Court leak don’t stop nothing. If that has the ability to make us shake in our boots, you know we’re not in the right place. Because, as those of us who are not new to this and true to this know, there’s always a ban.
While this one is a little bit different, we know what that’s like, and we are trying to help people traverse these conditions — some of the most violent and harmful conditions. We are under this Mason-Dixon line, where folks are already dealing with police violence in our communities. There are natural disasters impacting folks’ ability to get to their appointments. Things like poverty and not having enough fucking money is also in folks’ way of making a decision about whether or not to have an abortion.
The work of doulas is just so important and getting these stories right is so important because what we’re doing isn’t new. And it’s important for folks to remember that, especially as these new things are popping up and part of what we have been trying to say is rely on some of the existing networks of support, right?
I also want to say, as a trans person, I know better than to put my eggs in the basket of the law. I know better. I know how the law can make me visible as a person and invisibilize my Black, trans, disabled ass under the Mason-Dixon Line. I’m very clear about how I’m going to show up when and if abortion becomes even more restricted. And I’m urging other people to get clear about what they’re willing to do as well, because that’s where we’re at now.
Laurie: The other thing is, as an abortion doula and someone who’s been out here educating people on how to use pills safely, because to me that’s just harm reduction, it’s harm reduction to help people understand how to self manage their abortion safely. We don’t want people in our communities doing extreme things because that’s harmful. And those are things that have been passed down from generation to generation. The fact that I heard about turpentine being used in my community not too long ago — y’all, that’s dates to slavery. Now we’ve got better things, y’all, let’s not do that anymore.
Doulas, regardless of what kind of doula you are, your main job as a doula is education and support. That’s your job. If you ever talk to a midwife, midwives will tell you your main job as a midwife is community education. Yes, you catch babies. Yes you do healthcare. But I remember the granny midwife who helped me become a doula. First of all, she said doulas are made. They’re not created. Either you a doula or you not, right? You know you can be trained, but you got to have that kind of empathy in you. The other thing she said is that your main job as a community birth worker is to educate your community. And that might be in the checkout line at the supermarket, or it might be in someone’s home, but your job is education. Yes, healthcare. But, education.
Ko: That’s so important, and I think that there are a lot of public-serving entities that forget about their true purpose in that education-as-service piece.
I really want to talk about the intersection of abolition and abortion work. For people who don’t know, Scalawag is an abolitionist media. We are all thinking about and about how to liberate our journalism, liberate the people who read our journalism, the people who write our journalism.
I think that there are a lot of people waking up to a world where, “Oh my gosh, abortion is criminalized,” who have not been listening to Black and Brown people whose pregnancies have been criminalized since forever, since people have been brought to this country against our will, or Indigenous peoples. What [does] it mean for abortion and abolition to stand in the sun together?
Ash: One of the ways that I’m thinking about those things together is much like how you situated it for us, and that is through chattel enslavement. A couple months ago I was the Take Root keynote speaker, and my keynote was on abortion and abolition. Part of what I did was start with the history of chattel enslavement to talk about how reproductive justice asks us to go back to that history but also to think critically about control and domination and how it shows up in our lives and the medical-industrial complex and our work in our homes, in our reproductive parts.
And so when I think about abolition, it asks us to do a lot of things, but one of the things it asks us to do is to refuse control and domination. And when I think about the the work that some of us are being called to do as abortion doulas, and advocates organizers, we are having to make these connections for our communities, but also we are being called to refuse control and domination in the form of abortion bans, but also in the form of the anti-trans legislation that we’re seeing sweeping. That third principle of reproductive justice that talks about the folks that are alive, the children that are alive, they should live free from control from another person, the state, the environment — we have to think about all of that.
I believe that abolition lives there, too. Abolition asks us to create worlds from a place of ungovernability. And that’s what we’re trying to do when we are trying to make sure that someone can get to their appointment, right? Like, I recently shared some creative — or, they’re not creative solutions, they’re 1 + 1 solutions — about what people can do, and it was actually a presentation for a white-led, very big repro rights org. And then, when it came time for the creative solutions, I was pressed on, “Well, why aren’t you sharing shit about banner drops and covert actions?” And I kind of feel like, well I don’t need those white ladies to like be doing banner drops. I need them to give me $20 for someone’s appointment.
And, furthermore, funding abortions is disruptive. Organizing drivers to give abortion-havers rides to their appointments like that is disruptive because of what’s happening. As we are doing that we are having abolition in mind and refusing control and domination at every step of the way.
Ko: I literally just took a note about wanting to bring up something about agency here. At Scalawag, we’re very keen on passing the mic to people without having that middle person there as a buffer. What does it look like to have full agency of your body, of the narratives that come out of the South, about your body or your abortion story?
Laurie: To bring it back to what we were talking about earlier with media, a lot of what people want to say is extreme gatekeeping around storytelling and around access to people who are going through the process of having their abortion is about agency. It’s not about us being like big meanies, horrible gatekeepers. It’s about agency and ethics. It is not ethical for me as someone who has money in my hand to give to somebody during their procedure in their process to then be like, “Hey, do you mind talking to this media person?” which could seem coercive. What if they don’t do it, we’re not going to give them their money? Even if we say we will, right? It’s just not fair. It’s not okay.
Even afterwards, people feel indebted to us, oftentimes. It’s not okay, and to ask us to do that after we explain that to you and then still pressure us to give you access to people we work with is quite disgusting. We are not here to pressure people for their stories. I don’t even tell people’s abortion stories in vague ways unless I have their permission. They are not my stories to tell. I don’t care if it’s someone who told me a story in confidence 11 years ago and I don’t have any identifying details about them. Unless they told me it’s okay for you to share this, I don’t share it.
I have hundreds of abortion stories. Now, I can give you an abstract, but that’s not our stuff to tell. I just think we have to hold on to that agency, and we have to hold on to the agency as the South, of being able to tell our narratives and not have people writing our narratives as everyone is barefoot and lives on dirt roads. That’s not reality that we don’t live on the roads or we don’t live on farms. Some of us do. But for people to come down here and make the narrative like we’re all just a bunch of people who are uneducated, don’t know what’s going on. Guess what? Some of those people who are barefoot on dirt roads are some of the most politically engaged and savvy people you’ll ever meet. And if you actually talk to them like you know humans, you would find that out.
And so that’s part of it to me. That’s why we have to control our narratives, and that’s why we have to make sure, instead of just taking sound bites out of their lives and snapshots of them as caricatures.
Robin: It’s been two weeks now since the SCOTUS leak, and I’ve done a lot of media recently about what the impact of having Roe announced will be on our clinic. And our clinic — like, literally — has to stop the moment that we get the decision because we have a pre-Roe ban on the books. We have a very hostile legislature and a hostile state, so we know that if we do even one procedure after the point in which that can be enforced that everybody’s in trouble: us, the person who’s receiving the abortion, everyone.
In the two weeks since, I have had, I am not exaggerating, 12 different reporters ask me if they can be there the day of the decision. Like, after I’ve explained that literally we’re going to have to make patients go home who have already come in who have already had their first days because, in Alabama, you have a first day and you go away for two days. So these are people who already started and then are going to be sitting in the waiting room or maybe already back in the exam room, but the doctor hasn’t gotten started yet. Or maybe waiting in the group room to take their pills and we have to say, “No, I’m sorry. Go home.”
I keep being told that this is a historic moment that somebody needs to document. And I don’t understand how I can’t make people understand that this is their lives. Abortion, whether you are conflicted about it, totally positive about it, whatever is going on, it is still a very personal decision. And it is a very personal moment. And no, having a stranger there with a camera to document it or even just to write it down, no. Absolutely not. No.
Laurie: Also, how come you can’t document the political moment without exploiting someone’s trauma? When did we get to this part in journalism where people can’t use their freaking words? You’re a writer. Write something. Write. Something. You don’t need to watch somebody’s trauma to know that it was a traumatic day. Because this thing happened. Use your words. Do some interviews. I don’t know? Talk to the people that were there. Like what the hell?
Holly Rosewood and Curtis Yee edited this conversation.