Open Notebooks: Here’s How I’m Seeking To Balance My Abortion Coverage.

Our Open Notebook series offer our readers a behind-the-scenes look at how our journalists work. In this Notebook entry, Annelise Pierce shares how her personal history informs her approach to abortion stories, what that coverage costs her emotionally, and how she defines “balance” when it comes to this complex and polarizing topic.

I think Scout should balance its reporting on pro abortion and pro life protester actions.”  

– A recent message from one of our readers.

At it’s surface, America’s red-hot abortion controversy is about which matters more, a woman’s right to bodily autonomy or the fetal right to live. But at its roots, the abortion debate is something much deeper and more fundamental: who gets to decide where truth is found.

Since Roe v. Wade was struck down, I’ve dedicated significant time to covering local abortion protests. Sometimes that’s meant spending hours in conversation with anti-abortion protestors in front of a local women’s clinic. Other times it’s meant walking the lines of those who support abortion access in front of City Hall. 

As a journalist focused on civic engagement, government accountability, and religious and political movements, coverage of abortion access is central to my work. But the subject is also so polarizing and so divisive that reporting about it brings special, and often time-consuming and emotionally-exhausting, challenges.  I spend hours carefully choosing my framing and language before I publish stories on abortion, and I dedicate more hours to the difficult heart-work of engaging with my readers about the topic after the story comes out. 

I strongly believe this kind of emotional labor is central to the work of community journalism and I’m committed to continuing and deepening this work. But I also want you to know that it comes at a cost. Here’s why.

Where I Was Taught To Find Truth

As a child, I was taught that God’s voice is the basis of all truth. That he, and those he chooses, have dominion over the earth and everything in it. It’s a belief system that has shaped my identity, and established the arc of my life. It came with a series of core values that were instilled in me with deep intention, through words and actions, over the years of my childhood. 

What does that have to do with abortion? Everything. How do you teach a woman that God says her most important assignment is to carry life and nurture it? You start early, and you communicate one core concept at a time.

I was five when I learned that the most important thing in life was obedience, to God, and to those in authority over me. I was six when I learned that I was a good girl because what I most wanted to become when I grew up was a mother. I was seven when I learned that what grew inside a woman’s stomach was a baby, a human life, and something to be protected at all costs. I was eight when I learned that the most shameful thing that could happen was to become pregnant before I was married. I was nine when I learned that because I was a woman I would always have to be obedient to men. I was ten when I carried my own sign in the National Right To Life march in Washington D.C. I was eleven when I realized that my body could be dangerous, and that it was my job to protect men from myself. I was twelve when I learned (on my own) what sex was. I was fourteen when I began fielding interest from multiple adult men in my fundamentalist church environment. I was sixteen when my father granted permission for the man I would marry to court me. I was eighteen when I made what I believed must be a lifelong vow to that man, in marriage. I was nineteen, married and completely financially dependent on my husband, when I began volunteering in an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center. I was a few weeks short of 20 when I produced our first child. A girl, like me. 

I Carry that Complicated History into my Abortion Coverage

A few months ago, after a morning covering a protest at the Women’s Health Specialists clinic in Redding, I went home emotionally spent. As often happens when I’m working on difficult stories, I found it hard to express, even to myself, why I felt so overwhelmed. 

Over time, I’ve learned to listen to the physical exhaustion and brain fog that descend on me when I’ve reached my emotional limit on a story and I’ve found ways to cope that work for me. For me, small acts of physical labor that don’t require much cognitive processing allow me to become more present in my body and make space for my emotions. 

Over an afternoon spent cleaning my house and caring for my children, I gathered the mental strength to dive back into the work. I began the next day by listening to several hours of voice memos I had recorded at the clinic. As usual while transcribing interviews, I was processing the conversations a second time, listening for themes and looking for a few powerful quotes that I could pull in to my piece.

Amidst the friendly hum of the coffee shop, the themes were easier to hear clearly than they had been the day before on the picket lines. It was the words of the men I had spoken with that stood out most. Words that had been able to work their way deep into my mind and emotions the day before, in part because they echoed the voices of my childhood.

Men trying to establish what God wants a woman to be. Men stating that 99 percent of abortions are about convenience. Men referring to birth control as another form of murder. Men judging that women wouldn’t be having unplanned pregnancies if they weren’t out having unmarried sex. Men explaining that ectopic pregnancy is rare (it isn’t) and should be handled medically on a “case by case” basis. Men deciding that it’s not the government’s responsibility to provide for women’s needs when they experience a planned or unplanned pregnancy. Men trying to assert that they are “abolitionists” who are working for women’s freedom. Men stating that they’re intent on ignoring the law (Roe) and will answer to God instead. 

A small portion of my interview with Scott Hord on-site at the Women’s Health Specialists clinic in Redding. Hord is an anti-abortion activist who travels around the country training other anti-abortion activists. Yelling from other activists can be heard in the background. I hope hearing a snippet of this conversation will help you understand the complexities of remaining professional with all kinds of people on all kinds of topics. Please be aware, as usual for me, some of the questions I ask are not because I don’t know the answers, but because I want to find out what this particular person’s response will be.

Connecting the Dots

I know the beliefs, values and mindsets within America’s pro-life movement. I was raised deep inside of it, homeschooled throughout my childhood by a mother who was one of the first employees of the Christian Action Council, an organization that was pivotal to early Christian efforts to politicize abortion and mobilize protestants to become vocally anti-abortion. 

Yes, I marched in pro-life demonstrations as a child and yes, I held one of my first jobs working at a crisis pregnancy center where I was taught to offer ultrasounds that could convince women not to abort. But much more fundamentally, I was raised to know where truth came from (God), and where I would find my rightful place in the world (under what men told me God wants.)

That understanding allowed me to embrace a world view based on a deep value for the Bible (as translated by white men), for the leadership of those God had put in authority over me (my parents, my husband, the church and the state), and for my role in the world as a life carrier, and life nurturer.

Those values, and the determination to pass them on to my own children, were central to much of my adult life. They determined how I saw and expressed my sexuality, who and when I chose to marry, when and how many children I would have, and whether or not I chose to access an education or work outside the home. They helped me understand whose rules I should obey (always God over men, almost always men over women.) They determined who I shared community with, what I taught my children, and how I voted. 

For women, if truth is found in God, if men tell us what God thinks, and if our duty is to obey what we’re taught, then certain things become inescapable: that our sexuality does not belong to us, that our bodies are for men’s pleasure and for reproduction, and that our intelligence and wisdom and work should be constrained to our smaller females spheres of influence, especially the bearing and raising and teaching of our children. 

Where We Find Balance

So how does this personal history instruct my reporting? It shows me what balance really looks like, and how to find it. Balance is not about offering equal space or time, context or commentary to the polarized sides of the issue. After all, balancing a seesaw doesn’t actually depend on how much weight we place on either side, but more centrally, on where we place the fulcrum.

In the same way, covering abortion is not about determining which side has the better, or weightier, arguments. Surveys show that most Americans are at least a little conflicted about the topic. That’s because when it comes to abortion, we’re both responding to what our core values tell us about truth and also deeply aware of the nuance and complexity of humanity, something fundamentalist truth often seems to leave little room for. 

That’s why I’m using my reporting to focus in on the fulcrum of the polarized abortion debate, those core truths that motivate the two very opposite sides, and everyone in between. Because what we often view as balance, in life, in our bodies, in reporting, fundamentally depends on where we choose to center ourselves.

I want my writing to help you recognize that where your neighbors find truth centers their perspectives, affects the ways they vote, and impacts the safety and rights of others. I want to both humanize the people I cover and be clear about how the church and the state have often worked together to constrain human behavior on behalf of the powerful.

By doing so, I hope I’m making more space to broaden and deepen conversations around polarizing topics. What you decide to do with that will be up to you.

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