Post-Roe, Anti-Abortion Forces Seek to Censor and Silence

Pro-abortion demonstrators march from the Massachusetts State House in Boston on June 25, 2022, to protest the Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case, ending a guarantee on a fundamental right to abortion. (Craig F. Walker / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It’s been a little over 100 days since the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and already countless U.S. women and girls are being forced to grapple with life-and-death situations. All the while, disinformation is spreading across social media platforms, often unchecked. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, there has been mounting confusion as doctors, lawyers and the broader public attempt to make sense of how differing state-level laws on abortion are meant to work in practice.

This dust storm of confusion and climate of fear is not a byproduct of a Roe reversal, it’s tactical—a major component of a long-game by far-right religious conservatives to consolidate patriarchal power domestically and abroad. The full extent of damage extends beyond the cataclysmic loss of abortion rights to include the isolation and disempowerment of people (not just those with the capacity to become pregnant) who dare to challenge the status quo.

With this reversal comes a tidal wave that seeks to erode the right to freedom of expression and right to privacy across the U.S. and beyond.

Disinformation: What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You

Access to information is critical for reproductive rights and gender equality. One of the anti-abortion movement’s tactics is to instigate confusion, instill fear and obstruct people from making informed decisions in their own lives.

Confusion and fear, in-and-of-itself, was enough to get health practitioners to immediately halt the provision of emergency contraceptives. In many instances, these contraceptives became available again, but the damage was already done to the many people who were denied the medication during the narrow window when the pills would have been effective for them.

Seemingly bizarre incidents—like when the president and CEO of Americans United for Life (AUL) tried to redefine abortion to the House Judiciary Committee—are more easily explained when we understand disinformation as the center of the anti-abortion playbook. This was one of many cunning sand-kicks to our eyes as AUL and other groups, who continue their decades-long endeavor of developing model anti-abortion legislation, which many states have recently adopted.

Within the disinformation ecosystem, online harassment and abuse also thrives. This is especially the case for women journalists and human rights defenders, who are often met with online threats for conducting their work. Reports have emerged of an increase of online threats towards journalists reporting on abortion rights following Roe‘s reversal, with newsrooms resorting to special measures to safeguard staff amidst heightened risk.

Disinformation is one of the biggest roadblocks towards achieving gender equality. It’s through this confusion and manipulation of media and narratives whereupon far-right groups propagate oppressive stereotypes and stigma, further weaving discrimination into the fabric of society.

Traditional ‘Values’ of Discrimination and Censorship

Alongside disinformation, the anti-abortion playbook is underpinned by the concept of “traditional values.” On its face, this argument elevates local culture in the determination of laws and practices. But it’s often abused by governments and religious groups worldwide to counter human rights and legitimize discrimination against women, LGBTQ+ people and minorities. In Russia, an anti-LGBTQ+ law prohibiting “ gay propaganda” functions as a vehicle for the persecution of LGBTQ+ people and silencing any discussion about gay or queer issues.

Abortion bans across the country include restrictions on aiding people in obtaining abortions, which can include providing information on abortions. This places large uncertainties over the right to freedom of expression in the U.S. and our ability to speak about sexual health and reproductive rights. In South Carolina, Republican state legislators sought to institute a bill that would also ban websites that speak about abortions. These same far-right forces are also seeking to undo gains on LGBTQ+ rights through moves such as the Florida’s Parental Rights in Education—the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill—which bans speaking about gender and sexual identity in children’s classrooms. 

This also calls the future of privacy rights into question. Menstruation or fertility apps, once helpful in managing sexual health, can hold sensitive data used to single out people who have had miscarriages or abortions. Texas’ abortion ban also includes a bounty-hunter scheme to actively encourage the public to spy on one another and bring lawsuits against anyone suspected of violating the ban.

The U.S. Anti-Abortion Movement and Its Global Spread

The loss of Roe v. Wade follows years of the U.S. revoking abortion services around the world. This battle over abortion rights has long been at the center of the provision of U.S. foreign aid and international engagement.

Upon coming into presidential office, Trump instituted the “Mexico City Rule,” which stipulates that grantees of U.S. global health assistance could not perform or actively promote abortion, including through the provision of educational materials. The Biden administration has since revoked this, but it can be reinstated with a change of leadership. To highlight the underpinning “traditional values,” then-Secretary of State Pompeo referred to this policy as “decent and right.”

In July, the United Kingdom held an international ministerial conference on freedom of religion and belief. Controversy arose after the U.K. edited the conference’s joint statement on gender equality to later remove commitments on sexual health and reproductive rights, despite already having signatories from more than 20 countries. This move was alarming and raised international suspicions—and it later emerged that prominent figures from the U.S. anti-abortion movement were not just in attendance, but also celebrated at the conference.

This collective disorientation is the intended outcome of the unraveling of legal precedence by the anti-abortion movement—making the production and sharing of accurate information frankly life-saving. Advocates are constantly pushing governments—at the U.S. state-level and also abroad—in support of abortion rights to take publicly strong stances and to decry these types of backslides—like when Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands refused to re-sign the edited U.K. statement. There needs to be pushback against traditional values and point to this rhetoric not as a “value” but as a political vehicle for human rights abuses.

Hear more on the global impact of Roe v. Wade‘s reversal and how people are taking action via ARTICLE 19’s podcast “Boundaries of Expression” Episode 6, in which Judy Taing speaks with journalist Jo Glanville; Venny Ala-Siurua, executive director at  Women on Web, a pioneering international website that helps women access safe abortion services and contraception; and Lana Dimitrijevic, lawyer and founder of the Women’s Rights Foundation in Malta.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Judy Taing is the head of gender and sexuality for ARTICLE 19. She sits on the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Advisory Board on Online Harassment, and co-authored the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Resource Guide on the Safety of Female Journalists Online.