From a Times Insider: Covering a Pre- and Post-Roe World

From a Times Insider column by Megan DiTrolio headlined “Covering a Pre- and Post-Roe World”:

Margot Sanger-Katz, a domestic correspondent who writes about health care for The Upshot, shares how previous reporting helped readers understand the future of abortion access in the United States.

In July 2019, The Upshot, an arm of The New York Times that focuses on data-driven journalism, published the article “Where Roe v. Wade Has the Biggest Effect.” Written by the journalists Margot Sanger-Katz, Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui, the article examined what would happen if Roe v. Wade was to be overturned — Where would the number of legal abortions fall? What might happen in states with so-called trigger laws, which would ban abortion almost immediately? Using research, it estimated what could happen under various scenarios, and with maps, displayed what at that point was an alternate reality.

Just under three years later, the Supreme Court overturned Roe. The day of the ruling, the same three journalists published another article with a map that showed how far a woman might have to travel to get a legal abortion in the post-Roe world. (They reported that a quarter of U.S. women of reproductive age could have to travel more than 200 miles.) They have also reported on medication abortion and clinic closures, and contributed to a Graphics desk effort that tracks where abortion is banned.

In an interview, Ms. Sanger-Katz, who covers health care, shared more about the team’s work.

So take me back to 2019 — how did you start covering the topic?
There is a researcher and economist named Caitlin Knowles Myers who was looking at what happened in Texas in the mid-2010s. Texas passed a law that basically regulated abortion clinics. As a result of the law, about half of the abortion clinics in Texas closed. This researcher studied what happened. She and some colleagues put together an estimate using that data: As clinics closed, as women had to travel further in order to get abortions, what did that mean in terms of the number of abortions that happened?

She said, “We can use this model to look at what might happen in a post-Roe world.” We assume that basically the effects will be similar, that it’s poor women who will be affected by a different threshold of distance. In 2019, even with Roe v. Wade firmly on the books, there were parts of the country where it was already extremely difficult for poor women to get abortions. There were places where overturning Roe v. Wade had almost no effect at all because women already had to travel so far. Then, of course, there were lots of places where it would have a big effect. We did a lot of reporting on the local and regional dynamics.

We published this article, then we got a lot of feedback from readers that said, “But that’s just legal abortions. What about illegal abortions?” My colleague Claire and I did a bunch of reporting in 2020 about what illegal abortion looked like and how it was different than in the years before Roe. We got really interested in abortion pills. The F.D.A has approved abortion pills; you can get them through legal channels.

But you can also get them outside of the U.S. health care system. We were writing about the market for these pills and how many of them we thought were happening. We called them invisible abortions.

What was the first thing you did when the draft opinion leaked?
I was sitting on a patio with my husband and my dog. My first journalistic reaction was, “This is a huge breaking news story” — the unprecedented nature of a leak from the Supreme Court. But also that suddenly, the rest of America was catching up to where we were. We had a pretty strong suspicion that Roe was going to be overturned this year. I think that the existence of the draft opinion and the content of it really told the public the same thing. We felt like we needed to explain it to people right away.

I went home and sat on my couch, and Claire and I wrote an article trying to summarize some high-level takeaways. We were trying to get a lot of information out to readers. It reinvigorated our efforts to try to be ready with something ambitious in June when the final decision came down.

The court announced its decision on Friday, June 24. What then?
We felt like we had to be ready every day that they were deciding cases. We had worked on this big article, and we were frantically editing it. We published the map Friday morning and then during the day, Missouri comes out and says, “We’re banning all abortions.” In South Dakota, “We’re banning all abortions.” We start to see all of these states making announcements. So we did another round of revisions on Friday afternoon.

How did the 2019 article match up to the reality of today?
We hope it was helpful for readers in actually doing a good job of setting expectations and showing that there are parts of the country that will not be tremendously affected by losing local abortion services and that there are places that are going to be enormously affected by it. I think that article laid that out pretty well, and it also gave some sense of, and we’re seeing this now, how the clinics were planning and thinking about the future. We were surprised about the number of clinics, even in 2019, that were saying, “If my state bans abortions, I already have a piece of land picked out across the border where we’re going to move.” That’s something what we’re seeing in real time right now.


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