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The past two years have seen a concerted and intensive assault on women’s reproductive rights. According to the Guttmacher Institute, Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country passed 43 different restrictions on abortion in 2012 and more than twice that number, 92, in 2011. More recently, we read that Republican senators, desperate to energize their base, hope to mimic Texas and plan to introduce a bill that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks, like the one that passed the House in June. The goal is clear: to whittle away at Roe v. Wade until it’s almost meaningless, or to pass laws that will make it to the Supreme Court, which would then overturn Roe.
But the larger objective, as we know, is to humiliate and police women, to place their bodies and sexualities under surveillance, and to eliminate any agency they have over their reproductive health.
In the media coverage of this onslaught of anti-choice bills — laws that disproportionately affect lower income and poor women, rural women and women of color — we’ve heard men like Marco Rubio and Rick Perry insist that a 20-week restriction is just good common sense. Less coverage has been given to the fact that, according to Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, nearly 99 percent of abortions already occur before 21 weeks; those sought after that time are often due to severe fetal abnormalities or real threats to the woman’s health.
Indeed, just as state and federal mostly-white-male lawmakers have sought to silence women’s voices on abortion and contraception, so too have the national media massively underreported women’s responses to this misogynistic juggernaut. Yes, Wendy Davis became a hero for her filibuster of the Texas abortion bill, but where were the interviews of all those pro-choice demonstrators who rallied with her? Barely covered at all have been the Moral Monday protests by a coalition of activist and religious groups, staged outside the North Carolina General Assembly, rallying against restrictive abortion bills, assaults on voting rights and other extreme proposals. Nearly 1,000 people have been arrested in these ongoing protests, many of them women. Where are their stories?
Women fighting for their reproductive rights isn’t newsworthy. But when the subject is female sexuality, stop the presses: Ivy League women are hooking up! In July, the New York Times published its instantly buzz-worthy piece, “She Can Play That Game, Too,” about hookup culture at the University of Pennsylvania; it may not be entirely driven by guys after all. Most of the young women interviewed by reporter Kate Taylor said they were too busy for — or uninterested in — a relationship, but still sought out drunken sex. “For many,” read the caption, “building a resume, not finding a boyfriend (never mind a husband), is their main job on campus.” Possibly to counter the Times’ notorious habit of focusing on elite women as representative of some hot new trend, Taylor did interview a student from a less privileged background who has not participated in hookup culture. Nonetheless, the image coming from much of the article was one of overachievement in the classroom and extracurriculars, and sexual agency in leisure time.
Leave it to the Times to celebrate the unconstrained sexcapades of Ivy League women at a time when legislatures are competing mightily to see which one can pass the most reactionary abortion laws. The Times article included zero references to contraception, access to abortions or STDs. With the fear of unwanted pregnancy or inability to access birth control never mentioned, the implication is that these are problems of the ancient past, and so the need for access to safe abortions is now irrelevant.
The alleged sexual agency of college women is deemed newsworthy; so is the passage of draconian anti-abortion bills. But women’s political defiance? Barely covered. So the “common sense” that emerges is one of anti-abortion forces as unassailable, the pro-choice movement as losing steam and privileged women as not caring anyway, because this won’t affect them. That media frame further enables the agenda of the most extreme anti-choice forces in our country who, while targeting poor women, have their sights on us all.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.