The cognitive dissonance of watching the end of Roe unfold online
People learned about the decision on the same devices they’ll use to help those in need circumvent it.
I learned on a liveblog that I had lost the right to have an abortion.
When the United States Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade on the morning of June 24, 2022, I was one of the nearly 16,000 people reading SCOTUSblog, a news site launched 20 years ago, which has no official relationship with the Supreme Court, which has never been granted press credentials to the court, and which won a Peabody Award in 2013, the first blog to do so. On opinion days, its writers offer rapid-fire analysis and field reader questions on the liveblog, a space where legal-news obsessives follow updates alongside first-time readers who just want the news and sometime a place to vent. When landmark opinions are anticipated—and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was one—the liveblog readers often get word before those watching cable news networks.
“This is it,” said SCOTUSblog media editor Katie Barlow on TikTok, posting live from outside the court. Barlow was one of the few correspondents on camera the moment the opinion was released. “It’s loading. Give me a minute.” She was silent for a few seconds, glancing down at her phone, nodding, before looking up again and succinctly announcing the crux of it: “The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.” A reader on TikTok commented that it was hard to watch live as Barlow silently read the opinion, “to see the reality of the decision wash over you,” adding: “Thank you for your work.” It was a fitting way to enter the official post-Roe age: on platforms that can feel so personal to their publics, even as history unfolds. And even more so because the Supreme Court is so notoriously opaque, while also wielding such immediate power over the most intimate parts of our lives. When opinions are read from the bench, most of us don’t get to watch the justices as they dictate the boundaries of our liberty. We are left to imagine them.
On the day of the ruling, the National Network of Abortion Funds reported $3 million in new donations across its 97 member funds, from 33,000 new donors.
Though the SCOTUSblog team reported from outside on the day of the decision, they had more freedom than those with credentials, who would typically—but for covid-19—be inside. Before the pandemic, reporters who gained entry to the press room at the Supreme Court would not be permitted to bring phones or other personal devices to their seats in the press gallery, many of them with an obstructed view of the bench. All that gear would have to remain back in the press room, where significant real estate is still occupied by typewriters and broadcast booths. Those who wanted to remain online would have to stay behind in the press room too, and listen in via an audio feed. (Not until the covid-19 pandemic did the court even post an audio-only livestream for the public.) A few minutes after 10 a.m., when opinions are released, print copies would be made available there. News organizations dispatch interns to grab these documents and run them from the court to the cameras set up just outside. It is a startling anachronism, especially now that anyone can just go on CourtListener.com, search for a legal opinion, screencap it, and tweet it out with commentary (and a link back to the full document, so readers can reference it themselves) in minutes or seconds. The press room, in other words, may as well exist in a pre-Roe world.
On January 22, 1973, a New York Times reporter called the Austin law office of Sarah Weddington, who had argued for Roe’s side in the case. The reporter wanted to know if she had a comment on Roe v. Wade. But Weddington wasn’t there. “Is there some particular reason she should have a comment about it today?” her secretary asked. Yes, he told her: the decision had been announced minutes before. Weddington was in Washington, DC, where an NBC reporter for The Today Show called her office to ask for comment. But Weddington had her own question: What had the court said?
There was one other way she could have heard the news. Earlier that morning, an issue of Time magazine appeared on newsstands, announcing that “abortion on demand” had been legalized by the Supreme Court. Through a combination of shoe-leather reporting and advantageous scheduling, David Beckwith, a new reporter, had scooped the court’s own announcement by a few hours. “No one had any mal intent,” he told Jane Mayer at the New Yorker this year. “They just had the bad judgment to trust me.” Even though other outlets didn’t pick up the story, Justice Harry Blackmun, who authored the majority opinion, was incensed. He’d been ready to release the opinion earlier but believed it was held back so that it would not upstage the second inauguration of President Richard Nixon.
The Time scoop is hardly what most people remember about that day, though it acquired a new resonance when the draft opinion overturning Roe was leaked in May. They would sooner recall the news delivered in a familiar broadcast voice, like that of Walter Cronkite on CBS, over pastel renderings of the justices’ faces—all men, like the experts solicited to provide commentary. NBC correspondent Betty Rollin gave the “pro-abortionist” reaction from a clinic and the “against” view from the Roman Catholic Church in New York, after the network cut into the coverage to announce the death of former president Lyndon Johnson. Roe would play second in most headlines.
Throughout the day, Weddington and her staff “pumped reporters for information,” she later wrote in her 2013 book A Question of Choice. She found a lawyer friend who could go to the Supreme Court to pick up a copy of the opinion and read her “the significant portions,” but Weddington had to give interviews before she could read it herself. They worked the phones to get the news to those who had been part of the effort; they could not reach the woman known as Jane Roe to tell her personally. The next morning, Weddington woke up early to get all the major newspapers and read about her own case. She received a telegram from the Supreme Court. “Judgment Roe against Wade today affirmed in part and reversed in part,” it read. “Opinions airmailed.” Paper copies arrived a few days later.
On June 24, 2022, there were no telegrams announcing the decision in Dobbs—they barely exist anymore. The Center for Reproductive Rights tweeted out the opinion at 10:11 a.m. The phone might still be how you learned of the decision made by six justices, but now the phone could also give an instant voice to millions whose rights were rolled back with their ruling. Accounts on Twitter like @AbortionStories, run by the group We Testify, aggregated personal narratives by people who have had abortions. Overall, according to one report from a Tufts University research initiative, there were 1.8 million negative Twitter mentions of the decision. Those whose rights were stripped did not wait for the news media, with its professional legal commentators opining on what they called “a very dark day in America,” to put a face on their future.
The weeks after Dobbs have only made it more plain that the war on abortion is also a war on information.
The phone where we received the news was the same device that could let us help someone we have never met before travel to a state where abortion is still legal. On the day of the ruling, the National Network of Abortion Funds reported $3 million in new donations across its 97 member funds, from 33,000 new donors, even though its website briefly crashed that morning. The phone was how we learned where we can still get an abortion, through services like INeedAnA.com, and through Plan C, which shares information on self-managed abortions with pills—one mifepristone and four misoprostol—that can still beordered online.
If anything, though, the weeks after Dobbs have only made it more plain that the war on abortion is also a war on information. Because the phone, groups like Digital Defense Fund have advised, brings with it security threats: exposing our browser histories, our private messages, our location data, to platforms and law enforcement alike. This is what could make abortion riskier after Roe. The otherwise safe procedure itself is no more dangerous. But without Roe, the tools people use to quickly share information and resources—the ways we keep each other safe—have themselves been made dangerous.
Melissa Gira Grant is a journalist, author, and filmmaker.
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