Abortion bans pose huge challenges for pregnant survivors of domestic violence — and for reporters who want to tell their stories

Published on
May 2, 2024

I was on a flight to Tulsa, Oklahoma, reading Rachel Louise Snyder’s award-winning book “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us,” when two lines jumped out at me: “Domestic violence is hard to talk about. It is also, I learned in the course of this research, among the most difficult of subjects to report on.” 

Snyder wrote that the often-hidden nature of intimate partner violence, the shame survivors sometimes carry, and the dangers they can face in telling their stories are some of the barriers that make this subject hard for journalists to cover. Ultimately, this casts domestic violence further into the shadows and hidden from lawmakers who can enact change to help tackle it.

When I read those lines on my way to report what I thought would be my second story — on how abortion restrictions were impacting survivors of domestic violence — for the Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship, I realized that covering abortion, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court Dobbs decision, would present some of the same challenges as covering domestic violence. It is, for some, shrouded in secrecy, particularly now, when 14 states have banned abortion and people can face years in prison and/or thousands of dollars in fines for helping someone access services. I also realized that covering how abortion and domestic violence overlap — as I hoped to do in Oklahoma, which has one of the strictest abortion bans and one of the highest rates of intimate partner violence — was probably going to be a lot tougher than I thought. 

And it was. The focus of my story changed a few times as I encountered reporting challenges and moments when it felt like I’d hit dead ends. But I learned valuable lessons about how to cover the intersections of abortion restrictions and intimate partner violence, or any two similarly sensitive, overlapping topics. 

First, remember that nobody owes you their story, particularly when you’re reporting on people who have experienced trauma. You need to be prepared to change course if you aren’t getting the material or sources you hoped for. Initially, I thought I’d try to report out a survivor’s firsthand account of how abortion restrictions were hindering their ability to leave an abusive relationship. My rationale was that while I’d seen several headlines predicting the impacts Dobbs could have for survivors, I hadn’t seen reporting that actually showed the impact.  And I soon realized why. There’s little data on the topic, and the few times when sources put me in touch with, or told me about, survivors who were actively trying to get an abortion or had already done so in order to leave an abusive relationship, I wasn’t able to interview them. One was in the midst of figuring out if she’d actually be able to get an abortion and feared sharing her story for her own safety. The other was difficult to reach and stopped calling me back after we’d missed each others’ calls a few times.

Once I realized I wasn’t going to have a survivor’s account, it became clear to me that the story I did have was about how abortion restrictions were impacting advocates, the workers who staff domestic violence shelters, hotlines, and other treatment and prevention organizations. In “No Visible Bruises,” Snyder calls advocates — along with police, who can often be their foils — one of “the two main entities poised at the front lines”  of domestic violence. They are also often underpaid and contending with vicarious trauma, making their crucial jobs all the more difficult.

In Tulsa, Heather Williams, an advocate at the nonprofit Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS), told me about counseling clients in the aftermath of Dobbs who found out they were pregnant following assaults. Although they were upset about their pregnancies, Heather said, the survivors hadn’t asked about abortion, and she hadn’t mentioned it as an option even in other states. This surprised me, given the role advocates are supposed to play in providing survivors with resources.

But through further conversations with Heather and other advocates and experts across the country, I learned this wasn’t uncommon, and there was good reason for it. Many advocates in states with abortion bans feared they could be tossed in jail for helping someone access an abortion, didn’t know what their state law said, and weren’t getting good guidance from their organizations about how to discuss the topic. This was a problem I had never thought — or read — about.

This brings me to another tip: As one of my first editors used to say, go there. Particularly when you’re reporting on sensitive topics that may involve trauma, there is no substitute for showing up to report in person. Without my trip to Tulsa — which was funded by a travel grant I received as part of the fellowship — I likely never would’ve met or spoken to Heather. Her intense job made it hard to reach her by phone. Hearing about the challenges she faced, I found the seed that ultimately became my story. (This is another great component of the fellowship: You’re on the hook to produce a story, which means you may find one that you otherwise would have overlooked if you didn’t have to deliver something. Without the fellowship, I likely would have given up on this after I was unable to find a survivor to profile.) 

Lastly, if you’re having trouble reaching the sources you think are most impacted by your topic — in my case, a survivor of intimate partner violence seeking an abortion — consider who else around them may be experiencing the ripple effects of the issue. In this case, it was advocates. To get the full picture, I reached out to all the federally funded state coalitions on domestic or sexual violence in the 14 states with total abortion bans and two states with near-total bans. Only 13 of the 24 coalitions told me they had addressed this issue with their advocates, in part due to legal threats and fears that I delved into in the piece.

If you wind up focusing on the challenges facing a workforce tasked with supporting people who are experiencing trauma, try to figure out who may be failing the helpers. Learn the organizational structure of their field to ensure you’re asking the right people in power the right questions. 

As a recipient of the National Fellowship, I set out to cover the lesser-reported ripple effects of abortion restrictions. I was forced to pivot, but by listening to the struggles facing a crucial, yet often overlooked, workforce, I ultimately found another story worth telling