After the so-called “South Carolina Fetal Heartbeat and Protection from Abortion Act” became the first highly restrictive abortion ban to be enacted — before being blocked by a federal judge just one day later – our Global Strategy Group partners conducted a one-week analysis of related national and local news coverage of the movement of this legislation. Governor Henry McMaster’s signing of this near-total abortion ban would ban almost all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy when doctors can typically first detect cardiac activity in an embryo and before most people know they are pregnant
Alarmingly, our findings again confirmed several of the insights we identified in our original analysis of top-tier print outlets. In an analysis of 20 news articles published from February 17 – 19, 2021 in both local and national outlets in which the main topic was the South Carolina abortion ban, we found:
- Sixty percent of the articles quoted a politician, but none of articles included the perspective of an impacted or pregnant person. Two of the articles included a statement from Dr. Katherine Farris, Chief Medical Officer for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. The lack of representation of the two most important stakeholders in abortion access – pregnant people and medical professionals – is even more stark than in our original analysis, where we found that 14 percent of articles included the perspective of physicians and 8 percent included the experience of an impacted person.
- A majority of the articles (13 of 20) included some variation of the phrase “heartbeat bill” or “heartbeat abortion ban” — both in and out of quotes and separate from the use of “heartbeat” in the bill’s title — which is an inflammatory and medically inaccurate term used by anti-choice activists. Use of the phrase was more difficult to avoid for this legislation because the bill has “heartbeat” in its name. While all of the articles that included the phrase provided some context, such as the fact that this typically occurs when someone is around six weeks pregnant, only two of the articles provided medically accurate context for the phrase clarifying that the “heartbeat” refers to fetal cardiac activity.
- Most articles mentioned the Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, usually in the context of efforts to overturn the decision. However, none of those articles either mentioned widespread support of abortion access or mentioned the overwhelming support of Roe nationally (77 percent in NPR/PBS/Marist poll). In our larger analysis of national reporting, just one in 10 articles from our sample mentioned the fact that the majority of Americans support Roe.
- Only 7 of the 20 articles analyzed mentioned the disproportionate impact restrictive abortion bans have on BIPOC communities in South Carolina. Between 2014 and 2018 the maternal mortality rate in South Carolina was 2.6 times higher for Black and non-white parents than white parents.
The insights we uncovered in this brief analysis echo – and are at times even more troublesome than – what we learned in our larger analysis of news coverage in 2019. Trends such as the use of disinformation-based rhetoric like “heartbeat” bill without context, the omission of the fact that the vast majority of Americans support reproductive freedom, and the disregard for the unique challenges BIPOC communities face when seeking reproductive health care, continue to appear in coverage of abortion restrictions. With more anti-choice laws moving forward in states across the country, bringing awareness to the subtle prominence of this disinformation is more important than ever.