Right-wing media haven’t been subtle about manufacturing controversy over inaccurate characterizations of abortions undertaken later in pregnancy. But the messaging strategy fueling this latest meltdown — over comments Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke made about abortion — is as opportunistic as it is obvious. President Donald Trump has centered anti-abortion fearmongering in his 2020 election messaging, and as this latest outrage demonstrates, right-wing media will continue to be in lockstep.
During a March 18 event, O’Rourke was asked by a staffer from the far-right conspiracy outlet Infowars (which is currently banned from YouTube and other platforms) whether he supports later abortion access. In particular, the staffer asked O’Rourke if he would “protect the lives of third-trimester babies because there’s really not a medical necessity for abortion,” echoing inaccurate right-wing talking points about the necessity of abortions later in pregnancy. O’Rourke responded that he supported abortion access broadly and that it “should be a decision that the woman makes,” adding that he trusted people to make their own decisions. Although innocuous, O’Rourke’s comments sparked an outcry from right-wing and anti-abortion media outlets, which pointed to the moment as the latest example of so-called Democratic extremism on abortion.
National Review accused O’Rourke of refusing to address “the morality of third-trimester abortion” and argued that his answer was “reflective of the Democratic presidential field, which comprises lawmakers who maintain a blanket opposition to abortion restrictions regardless of gestational age.” Townhall argued that O’Rourke’s support for abortion “past the point of fetal viability” is unpopular and that he was “not the only one in his party defending abortion up until birth.” On social media, right-wing and anti-abortion figures similarly attacked O’Rourke and other Democrats as “despicable,” “ghoulish,” and extreme. Although many criticisms focused on casting Democrats as “the party of late-term abortion in 2020,” some anti-abortion groups like the Susan B. Anthony List took this rhetoric further, alleging that O’Rourke and other Democrats support “abortion up until birth.”
Cries of Democratic “extremism” have been building in the right-wing echo chamber since earlier this year, when abortion rights measures in New York and Virginia sparked widespread conservative outrage. Fox News, and right-wing media more broadly, spent weeks whipping audiences into a frenzy over various inaccurate depictions of later abortion — alleging that Democrats supporting these measures were endorsing “infanticide” or so-called abortions “up to birth.” In reality, neither of these characterizations accurately reflects abortion procedures or the specific circumstances faced by those patients needing an abortion later in pregnancy. Similarly, although right-wing media often claim that supporting abortion rights is harmful for Democrats electorally and that polling supports this allegation, clear and accurately phrased polling actually demonstrates the opposite. In particular, support for abortions later in pregnancy increases when people are given context about the medical or logistical circumstances necessitating later abortions.
Nevertheless, Trump and the Republican Party have already adopted right-wing media talking points about abortion as a core part of their 2020 messaging strategy. Anti-abortion misinformation and allegations of Democratic extremism have transitioned from Fox News fodder, to Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, to various speeches at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference, and statements from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Right-wing media and conservative politicians aren’t being subtle about using anti-abortion misinformation as a cudgel to stoke outrage — because they don’t have to be. Especially when other media outlets have already demonstrated that they will uncritically parrot inaccurate framing and talking points borne of the right-wing outrage machine. Anti-abortion fearmongering isn’t going anywhere as coverage around the 2020 election ramps up. Already, conservative media are trying to spark a secondary round of coverage over O’Rourke’s comments. It’s only a matter of time before right-wing media gin up another candidate-based controversy to attack abortion access and those who support it, no matter what the consequences may be.