Our personal experiences matter, but the media (including us!) owes patients more

December 22, 202212 Minutes


It’s been 181 long days since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. And every morning, you probably pick up your phone to learn a horrific new consequence of that decision: bleeding patients turned away from hospitals, pregnant people prosecuted, doctors told by lawyers that they cannot do their jobs.

Abortion is everywhere now. Not the procedure—that’s been around for 4,000 years—but the subject, which has re-entered public discussion after several decades of euphemisms and stigma. (All it took was an apocalypse.) As someone who worked through a lot of those silent, euphemistic years, I’m wowed daily by the commitment and resourcefulness of the journalists on this beat, along with the patients telling their own stories under the toughest circumstances.

All of which has made me reflect on my own coverage of abortion—and how to do it better.

A little personal history: When I first started in women’s magazines in the 1990s, few major outlets covered abortion. (The publications of the 1980s had done so more openly—it was on the cover of People in 1985!—but by the ‘90s, the self-proclaimed “pro-life” movement had begun its ascent, and the assumption that abortion was distasteful and divisive settled in.) I was lucky enough to work for a boss who felt differently. When state legislatures began to pass bills requiring teenage girls to get permission from their parents—or a judge—in order to end a pregnancy, I walked into an editorial meeting, voice shaking, and pitched a story on the laws; she green-lit it—unusual at that time—and we went on to do a series that exposed the rising shortage of doctors willing to do abortions at all.

Over the years that followed, I was proud of the stories the teams I led did—and generally confident that sharing the truths of what pregnant people experience would prompt progress to roll forward, and minds to change. By the time I got around to writing about my own abortion (emboldened by many who’d shouted before me), TRAP laws and doctor assassinations were putting more and more providers out of business; the Hyde amendment had made abortion difficult-to-impossible for low-income women. (All while Roe still stood!) But I still held out hope, on some level, that personal stories mattered. Wouldn’t it make a difference, I wrote, if the people who wanted to deny us our freedom had to look us in the eye? 


Well…maybe. Since then—and especially since Texas’s SB8 went into effect last fall—personal abortion stories have come fast and furious. On talk shows and the floor of Congress, in Sunday sermons and YouTube testimonials, in amicus briefs, and the set of SNL, people who’ve chosen abortion have shared their experiences with mounting urgency and the frustration that comes from feeling like no one cares.

In the years that come, those stories are going to be especially important, and some will be devastating. But what do we (meaning the media, The Meteor included) owe the people who tell these stories? And now that everyone’s talking about abortion, how can we talk about it better than we used to?

  • First of all, keep talking. Remember that era of silence on abortion? The silence, it turns out, was mostly on the left: One study of cable news coverage during the ’10s found that 94% of all abortion mentions were on Fox. Eighty-five percent of those were filled with lies—about abortion’s risks or what Planned Parenthood does all day—but at least among major news outlets, they went unchallenged. In other words: Even if it feels like we’ve talked enough—we haven’t. And if we stop, they’ll fill the void.

  • Oh, and talk to the right people. Abortion is health care. But one reason we don’t always see it that way is that the media doesn’t. A 2020 NARAL study found that while 65% of news stories about abortion quoted a politician, only 14% quoted a medical professional—and only 8% quoted an actual human person who’d had an abortion! (Even more enragingly, the NIH found that language personifying the fetus turned up twice as often as any story about a woman.) In the years to come, providers and patients will be closest to the pain, and they should be the loudest voices. As Renee Bracey Sherman says, borrowing a quote from the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us without us.”

  • And remember who “us” is. Even in 2022, a year where you were more likely than ever to see a TV character making an abortion decision, the majority of those characters were white, wealthy, and not parenting a child, according to a new report from Abortion Onscreen. In reality, the majority of people who seek abortions are BIPOC, have at least one child, and wrestle with the financial realities of care. (Abortion pills—now used in the majority of American abortions—are also weirdly absent.) Portraying abortion frequently is good; portraying it frequently and accurately is better.

  • Speaking of accuracy: No more using anti-abortion terms as if they are fact. The misnomer “pro-life” is, at long last, being phased out of news coverage. (I wish I could erase it from old headlines I edited.) But right-wing-manufactured terms like “heartbeat bill” and “fetal pain”—or the habit of calling the pregnant person the “mother,” as Andrea Grimes has reported—still pop up in mainstream outlets even though they have no basis in science. Let’s use a better, fairer dictionary.

Finally, and most importantly: It’s not just about abortion. During my decade and a half as the editor of Glamour, we published plenty of abortion stories I was proud of—how it felt to have one, to self-manage one, to jump through legal hoops to get one. But in 2010, the GOP weaponized gerrymandering to rewrite the makeup of key legislatures; pretty sure we never covered it. In 2013, the Supreme Court green-lit voter suppression with its historically awful Shelby County v. Holder decision; again, we never covered it.

Obviously, we should have—for a million reasons, but partly because the political machinery the right put in place over that decade laid the groundwork for our current abortion hellscape. Many of the trigger bans which snapped into cruel effect after Dobbs were in states like Ohio, Missouri, and Georgia, where the majority of people favor legal abortion, but ruthless gerrymandering or voter suppression meant it just didn’t matter.

We were telling stories, but not the whole story.

The story of abortion is fundamentally not just a story about bodily autonomy and why crusty white men should have any say about whatever’s in your uterus. (Although, let’s be clear, they should not.) It’s a story about why our country still accepts that presidents who lose the popular vote can nominate justices who are confirmed by a Senate which radically over-represents white, agrarian states and that those justices then can green-light laws passed by state governments which no longer represent the will of their people. It’s a story about misogyny, yes, but it’s also about the malapportionment of the Senate—even though those words are really hard to make appealing in a Good Morning America segment. (Only Stacey Abrams can do that).


A few days after Roe fell, I interviewed Dahlia Lithwick, and her words rang in my head for months. That very first week, “I had a pollster say to me, ‘Dahlia, women just don’t care about structural democracy reform,” she said. “And my answer was kind of like, well, then prepare to keep losing, ’cause we can’t fix this with marching and tote bags.” And she’s right: As Black women organizers have been saying for a century, voting rights underpin all other freedoms, and abortion is no exception.

Though it may sound impossibly optimistic, I believe we are going to win on abortion, at least eventually and at least technically. There are too many of us, there will be too many horror stories, and the punishment for politicians, even in this messed-up democracy, is already evident. Securing reproductive freedom might take years and would be heroic. But if we only attend to abortion and not the larger landscape that permitted the laws against it to thrive—the same landscape that enables laws against LGBTQ populations, poor people, immigrants, and gun reform—we will be back, Whack-a-Mole style, to attend to the next issue, and the next, and the next.


Cindi Leive is the co-founder of The Meteor, the former editor-in-chief of Glamour and Self, and the author or producer of best-selling books including Together We Rise. Her related reading recommendation: This CJR piece; it’s excellent.