Last month, just two days after the inauguration of our 46th president and first female vice president, the nation marked another milestone — the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding access to safe abortion as a woman’s constitutional right.
But even under a Democratic administration and Congress, the confluence of these events should serve as a reminder to the philanthropic world of the growing vulnerability of abortion rights in this country.
In the last four years, former President Donald Trump appointed three anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court, building a conservative majority that puts the security of a woman’s right to choose at serious risk. At the same time, attacks on women’s health are increasing, due in large part to the rise of disinformation on the internet and the decline in local news. When there aren’t enough reporters in statehouses where laws restricting abortion are created, people have less access to accurate information about what’s happening in their state and what is needed to fight back.
Just last week, the Republican governor of South Carolina signed into law one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws, banning the procedure when a fetal heartbeat is detected — often just six weeks into a pregnancy or before many women even know they’re pregnant.
“We have seen a dramatic drop in public outcry because people aren’t learning about bad legislation and other threats to reproductive rights until it’s too late to change course,” says Lizz Winstead, the founder of Abortion Access Front, which uses satire and pop culture to deliver daily news and updates about reproductive rights.
Groups like Winstead’s are working in the trenches to fight back, but they need more philanthropic support. While funding the local statehouse reporter remains critical, grant makers in the media arena should also take a close look at scrappy nonprofits like Winstead’s, which deploy less-traditional communications tools to promote a science-based counternarrative about abortion and women’s health.
The need is urgent. Anti-abortion activists are engaging in a dangerous effort on social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to mislead and confuse the American public. Their science-free narratives claim that abortion is unsafe and are typically accompanied by the horrifying images of mutilated fetuses common at pro-life rallies. These messages have caught on rapidly on social media where lies spread much faster than the truth and are making their way into state capitols where lawmakers across the country use them as the basis for further restricting access to abortion care.
One such example is an Alabama law enacted in 2019 that classified abortion as a Class A felony that could result in a life prison sentence for doctors who perform the procedure. The law mirrored a narrative circulating on social media that abortion, regardless of what stage it occurs, is murder. (Implementation of the law has been blocked by legal challenges.) Just last month, an Arizona lawmaker introduced legislation that would require prosecutors to charge women who get abortions, and the doctors who perform them, with homicide. And in Texas in 2019, lawmakers considered instituting the death penalty for women who have abortions.
Bans on Political Ads
The social-media disinformation campaign is flourishing in part because these platforms banned political ads and have labeled abortion political. That means abortion-rights nonprofits are unable to counteract false claims with paid advertising. Instead, they need to use innovative techniques to cut through the cacophony of disinformation and engage activists.
Winstead, who was the co-creator and head writer of The Daily Show before founding Abortion Access Front in 2015, says the lack of a consistent counternarrative is the “number-one roadblock” to exposing the falsehoods and hypocrisy spewed by those fighting reproductive rights. Her team of comedians, writers, and producers uses a multitude of platforms to tell a different story based on facts and science.
For instance, the group launched #ExposeFakeClinics in 2017, a national effort with more than 60 partners dedicated to raising awareness through social-media campaigns and public actions about the manipulative tactics deployed by fake reproductive-health centers posing as “crisis pregnancy centers.” The campaign influenced Google to enact a new policy requiring ads mentioning abortion services to include disclosures that identify whether or not the advertiser provides abortions.
Abortion Access Front, which is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Roddick Foundation, the Lalor Foundation, and others, also travels across the United States to provide in-person aid, moral support, and comedic relief to abortion providers in states where the backlash to abortion is fierce. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the team has set up drives to fulfill patient and staff needs, providing items such as snacks, scrubs, blankets, phone chargers, and catered staff meals. They have assisted with clinic communications and fundraising projects and secured donations of emergency contraception, condoms, and hand sanitizer.
Social Media Drives
Even in the face of massive disinformation campaigns, some grant makers are starting to recognize the power of digital platforms to educate, instead of mislead, various audiences. Teenagers and young adults, for instance, increasingly turn to social media for health information.
The digital media project Amaze, supported by the WestWind Foundation, uses animated videos to “take the awkward out of sex ed.” The nonprofit is creating a library of sexual and reproductive health videos for YouTube at a time when many schools have abandoned common-sense sex education. And the Lalor Foundation is funding Abortion Access Front’s content creation on TikTok, where it has received more than 5 million views since April 2020 and gained more than 40,000 mostly young-adult followers.
Philanthropy must still, of course, continue to support high-quality journalism — a critical tool for inoculating audiences against disinformation and providing a counternarrative. This should include organizations such as Rewire News Group, a nonprofit media outlet dedicated to evidence-based investigative reporting and analysis on reproductive and sexual health.
Countering anti-abortion disinformation can also be viewed as part of a larger funding strategy to undermine the type of inflammatory rhetoric that fueled the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
In fact, part of Abortion Action Front’s media work is focused on highlighting the overlap between anti-abortion extremism and white nationalism. “Because of our years of research and tracking of anti-abortion activities and our relationships with local activists on the ground, within hours of the attack we had identified and documented more than a dozen prominent anti-abortion leaders and activists who were participating in the D.C. insurgence,” Winstead says.
Ultimately, what groups like Winstead’s need is more grant support — there simply isn’t enough right now to counteract the harmful and extremely well-funded forces of disinformation about reproductive health and abortion. Grant makers need to step up now to ensure that the anti-abortion narrative doesn’t become the only narrative.