Covering abortion: ‘Sensory detail guides the way I conduct interviews’

Shefali Luthra covers the intersection of gender and health care at the 19th*

How can reporters find new ways to tell stories about legislative threats to reproductive health?

We asked Shefali Luthra, a reporter covering the intersection of gender and health care for the 19th*, about how she approaches big policy stories in ways that connect with audiences.

She’s written about the experience of seeking an abortion in a state with a six-week ban; what it’s like to work at an abortion clinic as protections disappear; and what it feels like to take medication abortion.

Journalists want to get the 5 Ws reported. How do you use each of your five senses in your reporting?

Luthra: Abortion stories are perhaps uniquely intimate. My reporting emphasizes the experiences of individuals who have sought abortions — often in highly restrictive circumstances — and who are simultaneously navigating the physically intense sensation of pregnancy.

I want readers to understand just what this feels like on an emotional level but also a physical one. Sensory detail guides the way I conduct interviews and the way I try to craft narrative. Physically, what did pregnancy feel like? How was their taste or smell affected — was there nausea? Morning sickness? Medication abortions involve abdominal cramps and heavy bleeding. Are there smells or physical sensations that they recall? I ask people what they saw, what they heard. As much as they can, I work with them to reconstruct the scene of what they experienced and how, physically, it felt. 

This is not easy for the people I interview. There is inherent trauma in being pregnant when you don’t want to be. And with medication abortions specifically, the pain involved can be overwhelming. The conversations I have can make people relive experiences that many would rather forget. In doing interviews, I try to be conscientious and space out specific, detail-oriented questions as much as possible. I want people to feel comfortable before the conversation progresses and to feel like they can take a break when needed.

I rely on my own senses to build a sense of scene and place. I imagine with my own senses what sort of physical pain people experienced, what they smelled, what they tasted, what they heard and what they saw. I [then] ask very specifically for concrete details of physical sensation: How did it feel? Were you feeling morning sickness? Did your breasts hurt? Were you tired? 

Those sensory-oriented questions can be revealing and helpful. As much as I can, I try to recreate those sensibilities in my journalism. If done well, this kind of narrative can help readers better understand just what it feels like to be pregnant, and what it feels like to be in need of an abortion.

Journalists say they “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” How does that inform your reporting on the intersection of gender and healthcare policy?  

Luthra: The people I write about most often are those who have experienced unintended pregnancy and who are now seeking abortion. I try to treat their stories with compassion. Inherent in the notion of “the comfortable” and “the afflicted” is the idea of power differentials. 

Some people have the power to dictate the course of our society. And others have to live in a world in which their choices, options, and lives are dictated by those insulated by institutions — state politicians, medical establishments, the courts, and federal lawmakers. I try to craft stories in a way that understands the power imbalances in our society and that recognizes how they shape people’s access to health care.

Good journalism requires holding to account people in power. That throughline guides my writing about how lawmakers approach gender and health care, and particularly my writing about reproductive health care. But journalism also requires empathy for the people who have less power — even while constantly recognizing that those people are full, complex individuals, who have their own individual agency.

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