Print Friendly, PDF & Email

As the chaos continues around the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, the states have become a free-for-all of right-wing conservatives figuratively jumping over each other in their attempts to become the state with the most absurd restrictive interpretation of women’s Constitutional rights. In their enthusiasm, they may well trample the First Amendment rights of the press, whose role is as a watchdog on democracy.

Women’s Equality Day historic image. Image courtesy of

These zealous state legislators are not working in a void. They are working from the National Right to Life Committee’s (NRLC) new model law.

This “model” now appears to not just aim at removing women’s reproductive freedom over their own bodies (and as happened recently in Ohio, advocating forcing a victimized 10-year-old child into having a baby), but it targets websites that “encourage” abortion. We point out that this is part of a long history of suppressing speech—including news coverage—that centers on marginalized people in the U.S.

The question: what does it mean for a website to “encourage” abortion?

New anti-abortion model legislation from the NRLC could force anyone who publishes any work online, including journalists who cover abortion and women’s health issues, squarely into legal crosshairs. The first NRLC model anti-abortion law is already in place in Nebraska. The NRLC put their new model language up online, then pulled it after news media began to point out the obvious threat. (It is available here courtesy of the Wayback Machine)

The NRLC model legislation would subject people to criminal and civil penalties for “aiding or abetting” an abortion, including “hosting or maintaining a website, or providing internet service, that encourages or facilitates efforts to obtain an illegal abortion.” This seems squarely targeted at anyone providing what we used to call knowledge and that which supports an informed public.

Apparently, ignorance is a desired NRLC outcome? Or is it just control?

Marchers throng F Street headed towards Riverside Park for June 26, 2022 rally against Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Daniel Flanders photo

The thing is, there is no guidance in the “document” that indicates how narrowly or broadly that model law would be interpreted. As pointed out by Prism Reports, there are many questions for which there are no answers:

“Does it cover an article on how medication abortion is accessible by mail or reporting on the medical consensus that it’s safe? What about a story on the opening of a new abortion clinic, or one covering the work of abortion care clinicians, advocates, and doulas? Is it too ‘encouraging’ for a website to simply remind readers that despite the leaked draft Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Whole Women’s Health, abortion remains legal, and people are free to keep their appointments?”

If this is the case, then even journalists at trusted news organizations could face legal jeopardy, harassment, and surveillance just doing their jobs; fighting misinformation, and providing readers with up-to-date, in-depth reporting, and fact-based information that reflects the state of the nation and helps women navigate their place within it.

So of course, it’s no accident that NRLC appears poised to attack the informational infrastructure around abortion — including news coverage. It is redundant to point out that news coverage IS information and information is power.

Such attacks aren’t new — during the 19th century, Congress passed a “gag law” preventing abolitionists from petitioning against slavery. The breakaway southern states took it a step further; making it illegal to speak a word of anti-slavery speech in the confederacy. Even publishers in “free” states faced physical threats, had their offices burned down and their presses destroyed. (Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, who became one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and reported on post-Civil War civil rights injustices and started an anti-lynching campaign, was routinely threatened.)

Just as it became common in the 19th century, the attack on First Amendment rights — free speech and the freedom of the press —  is not just verbal intimidation, it is physical violence. It may surface more in states where the NRLC Model abortion criminalization laws are shaping up to be the most extreme, or it may surface anywhere.

Even in the present day, it’s clear that speech-suppressive laws are part of a systemic approach that emboldens violence against the groups they target. In the past few years, the state of Florida has been a leader of anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ, and “anti-CRT” (critical race theory or any discussion of racial injustice) and not-so-veiled racism against black and brown teachers. That they have added language that threatens women’s right to control the health care decisions for their own bodies should come as no surprise.

Now, with a law specifically targeting abortion-related speech, the risks could be serious. Why? Because so many of the journalists leading the way on reproductive rights and justice reporting are women of color. They point out that the scientific data reveals the much higher risks of maternal and infant mortality in their communities. They already face disproportionate harassment, as they tell you the truth.

Childbirth in this country is dangerous; especially if you are a poor minority in a state forcing you to have a baby while denying you access to even minimal health care provided by the Affordable Care Act. Especially if you’re still only a child and are a child victim of rape and incest,

In the wake of the ruling, confusion is spurring delays and denials for some lifesaving pregnancy care. As reported this weekend by The Washington Post, miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies and other common complications are now scrutinized, jeopardizing maternal health.

There was nothing forced about Roe V. Wade; it offered women control of their own bodies and their own health care decisions. Everything about the reversal of Roe V. Wade is forced.

Purposely vague legislation prohibits “encourag[ing] abortion access,” which could mean virtually anything—which is the point. This is about control. With laws like these, both the cruelty and the vagueness are by design — to allow each Republican-controlled, state, sheriff, or court to apply their own interpretation, which could snag news media in legal quagmires (which is why we carry media liability insurance).

Silence – for us in the media — is not an option. There are no two sides here — there is only the truth.