Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684bc48f8b-9ddkh Total loading time: 0.78 Render date: 2021-04-11T04:34:58.857Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true }

Exploiting a Crisis: Abortion Activism and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 January 2021


How do social movement organizations involved in abortion debates leverage a global crisis to pursue their goals? In recent months there has been media coverage of how anti-abortion actors in the United States attempted to use the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict access to abortion by classifying abortion as a non-essential medical procedure. Was the crisis “exploited” by social movement organizations (SMOs) in other countries? I bring together Crisis Exploitation Theory and the concept of discursive opportunity structures to test whether social movement organizations exploit crisis in ways similar to elites, with those seeking change being more likely to capitalize on the opportunities provided by the crisis. Because Twitter tends to be on the frontlines of political debate—especially during a pandemic—a dataset is compiled of over 12,000 Tweets from the accounts of SMOs involved in abortion debates across four countries to analyze the patterns in how they responded to the pandemic. The results suggest that crisis may disrupt expectations about SMO behavior and that anti- and pro-abortion rights organizations at times framed the crisis as both a “threat” and as an “opportunity.”

© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:


Abortion Rights Campaign. 2020. “Press Release: Activists across the Island Call for Emergency Measures to Include Abortion Telemedicine.” Abortion Rights Campaign. Retrieved May 4, 2020 ( Scholar
Ahmed, Wasim, Bath, Peter A., Sbaffi, Laura, and Demartini, Gianluca. 2019. “Novel Insights into Views towards H1N1 during the 2009 Pandemic: A Thematic Analysis of Twitter Data.” Health Information & Libraries Journal 36(1): 6072.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Andrews, Kenneth T. 2002. “Movement-Countermovement Dynamics and the Emergence of New Institutions: The Case of ‘White Flight’ Schools in Mississippi.” Social Forces 80(3): 911–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Austin, Lucinda L., and Jin, Yan, eds. 2017. Social Media and Crisis Communication. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ayoub, Phillip M., and Chetaille, Agnès. 2020. “Movement/Countermovement Interaction and Instrumental Framing in a Multi-Level World: Rooting Polish Lesbian and Gay Activism.” Social Movement Studies 19(1): 2137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Baumgartner, Frank R., and Jones, Bryan D.. 1993. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Baumgartner, Frank R., and Jones, Bryan D.. 2009. Agendas and Instability in American Politics. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Bennett, W. Lance, and Segerberg, Alexandra. 2011. “Digital Media and the Personalization of Collective Action.” Information, Communication & Society 14(6): 770–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bennett, W. Lance, and Segerberg, Alexandra. 2012. “The Logic of Connective Action.” Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 739–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Birkland, Thomas A. 1997. After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
Birkland, Thomas A. 1998. “Focusing Events, Mobilization, and Agenda Setting.” Journal of Public Policy 18(1): 5374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Birkland, Thomas A. 2006. Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events. Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
Birkland, Thomas A., and Lawrence, Regina G.. 2009. “Media Framing and Policy Change After Columbine.” American Behavioral Scientist 52(10): 1405–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boin, Arjen, 't Hart, Paul, and McConnell, Allan. 2009. “Crisis Exploitation: Political and Policy Impacts of Framing Contests.” Journal of European Public Policy 16(1): 81106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boydstun, Amber E., Hardy, Anne, and Walgrave, Stefaan. 2014. “Two Faces of Media Attention: Media Storm versus Non-Storm Coverage.” Political Communication 31(4): 509–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Braun, Virginia, and Clarke, Victoria. 2006. “Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology.” Qualitative Research in Psychology 3(2): 77101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Campaign Life Coalition. 2020. “‘Playing Politics during Pandemic: It Is Sheer Hypocrisy to Assert That Non-Essential Medical Services Must Be Suspended While, at the Same Time, Allowing for #abortion on Demand. Please Contact Your Premier. Https://T.Co/Uxbpm5hq76#AbortionIsNotHealthCare#AbortionIsNotEssential Https://T.Co/HwJtPrh5jt’ / Twitter.” Twitter. Retrieved April 28, 2020 ( Scholar
Canadian CBR. 2020. “Canadian CBR on Instagram: ‘During This Crisis, Truck Drivers Are Essential. Our Truck Drivers Are Dedicated to Bringing the Truth to the Public When We Can't Have….’” Instagram. Retrieved May 4, 2020 ( Scholar
Conway, Bethany A., Kenski, Kate, and Wang, Di. 2015. “The Rise of Twitter in the Political Campaign: Searching for Intermedia Agenda-Setting Effects in the Presidential Primary.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 20(4): 363–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dorf, Michael C., and Tarrow, Sidney. 2014. “Strange Bedfellows: How an Anticipatory Countermovement Brought Same-Sex Marriage into the Public Arena.” Law & Social Inquiry 39(2): 449–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Feezell, Jessica T. 2018. “Agenda Setting through Social Media: The Importance of Incidental News Exposure and Social Filtering in the Digital Era.” Political Research Quarterly 71(2): 482–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Freelon, Deen, and Karpf, David. 2015. “Of Big Birds and Bayonets: Hybrid Twitter Interactivity in the 2012 Presidential Debates.” Information, Communication & Society 18(4): 390406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gamson, William A., and Meyer, David S.. 1996. “Framing Political Opportunity.” In Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements, eds. McAdam, Doug, McCarthy, John D., and Zald, Mayer, 275290. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gamson, William A., and Wolfsfeld, Gadi. 1993. “Movements and Media as Interacting Systems.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 528(1): 114–25.Google Scholar
Graham, Todd, Jackson, Dan, and Broersma, Marcel. 2016. “New Platform, Old Habits? Candidates' Use of Twitter during the 2010 British and Dutch General Election Campaigns.” New Media & Society 18(5): 765–83.Google Scholar
Gruszczynski, Mike. 2020. “How Media Storms and Topic Diversity Influence Agenda Fragmentation.” International Journal of Communication 14(0): 22.Google Scholar
Halfmann, Drew. 2011. Doctors and Demonstrators: How Political Institutions Shape Abortion Law in the United States, Britain, and Canada. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Hodder, Patrick, and Martin, Brian. 2009. “Climate Crisis? The Politics of Emergency Framing.” Economic and Political Weekly 44(36): 5360.Google Scholar
Hood, Christopher, Jennings, Will, Hogwood, Brian, and Beeston, Craig. 2007. “Fighting Fires in Testing Times: Exploring a Staged Response Hypothesis for Blame Management in Two Exam Fiasco Cases.” Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation. CARR Discussion Paper 42(July): 127.Google Scholar
Hunt, Kate. 2019. “Twitter, Social Movements, and Claiming Allies in Abortion Debates.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics 16(4): 394410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hunt, Kate, and Gruszczynski, Mike. 2019. “The Influence of New and Traditional Media Coverage on Public Attention to Social Movements: The Case of the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests.” Information, Communication & Society. Scholar
Iyengar, Shanto, and Simon, Adam. 1993. “News Coverage of the Gulf Crisis and Public Opinion: A Study of Agenda-Setting, Priming, and Framing.” Communication Research 20(3): 365–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kearney, Michael. 2017. Rtweet: Collecting Twitter Data. Retrieved March 25, 2018 ( Scholar
Keeler, John T. S. 1993. “Opening the Window for Reform: Mandates, Crises, and Extraordinary Policy-Making.” Comparative Political Studies 25(4): 433–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kingdon, John. 2010. Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, Update Edition, with an Epilogue on Health Care. 2d ed. Boston: Pearson.Google Scholar
Klein, Naomi. 2010. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.Google Scholar
Koopmans, Ruud, and Olzak, Susan. 2004. “Discursive Opportunities and the Evolution of Right-Wing Violence in Germany.” American Journal of Sociology 110(1): 198230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kuipers, Sanneke. 2005. The Crisis Imperative: Crisis Rhetoric and Welfare State Reform in Belgium and the Netherlands in the Early 1990s. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lawrence, Regina G., and Birkland, Thomas A.. 2004. “Guns, Hollywood, and School Safety: Defining the School-Shooting Problem Across Public Arenas.” Social Science Quarterly 85(5): 1193–207.Google Scholar
Levitz, Stephanie. 2020. “Andrew Scheer Allows Conservative MP to Introduce Bill Seeking Ban on Sex-Selection Abortions | National Post.” National Post. Retrieved May 4, 2020. ( Scholar
McCaffrey, Dawn, and Keys, Jennifer. 2000. “Competitive Framing Processes in the Abortion Debate: Polarization-Vilification, Frame Saving, and Frame Debunking.” Sociological Quarterly 41(1): 4161.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
McCammon, Holly. 2013. “Discursive Opportunity Structure” in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements. Retrieved March 22, 2020 ( Scholar
McCammon, Holly J. 2012. The U.S. Women's Jury Movements and Strategic Adaptation: A More Just Verdict. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Meyer, David S., and Staggenborg, Suzanne. 1996. “Movements, Countermovements, and the Structure of Political Opportunity.” American Journal of Sociology 101(6): 1628–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Munson, Ziad. 2018. Abortion Politics. Medford, MA: Polity.Google Scholar
Nord, Lars W., and Olsson, Eva-Karin. 2013. “Frame, Set, Match! Towards a Model of Successful Crisis Rhetoric.” Public Relations Inquiry 2(1): 7994.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O'Loughlin, Ed. 2018. “Irish Lawmakers Vote to Allow Abortion, Part of Landmark Liberal Shift.” The New York Times. Retrieved April 23, 2020 ( Scholar
Olsson, Eva-Karin, and Nord, Lars W. 2015. “Paving the Way for Crisis Exploitation: The Role of Journalistic Styles and Standards.” Journalism 16(3): 341–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Parliament of Canada. 2020. “Private Member's Bill C-233 (43-1). First Reading: Sex-Selective Abortion Act, Parliament of Canada.” Retrieved April 23, 2020 ( Scholar
Peters, Jeremy W. 2020. “How Abortion, Guns and Church Closings Made Coronavirus a Culture War.” New York Times. Retrieved April 29, 2020 ( Scholar
Pleyers, Geoffrey. 2020. “The Pandemic Is a Battlefield. Social Movements in the COVID-19 Lockdown.” Journal of Civil Society. Scholar
Precious Life. 2020. “(21) Precious Life on Twitter: ‘Precious Life Slam Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill's Outrageous Push for Dangerous and Deadly DIY Home Abortions in Northern Ireland Https://T.Co/L41OEymR8M#AbortionIsNotHealthcare#abortionisNOTessential#RepealSection9#COVID19#WeAreThe79PerCent#Prolife Https://T.Co/QLhLEANesT'/Twitter.” Twitter. Retrieved May 4, 2020 ( Scholar
Pro Life Campaign. 2020. “08.04.2020: Health Minister's New Guidelines Permitting ‘Home Abortions’ Is a ‘Reckless Move’ Says PLC.” Pro Life Campaign. Retrieved May 4, 2020 ( Scholar
Rohlinger, Deana A. 2002. “Framing the Abortion Debate: Organizational Resources, Media Strategies, and Movement-Countermovement Dynamics.” Sociological Quarterly 43(4): 479507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rohlinger, Deana A. 2014. Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Saurette, Paul, and Gordon, Kelly. 2013. “Arguing Abortion: The New Anti-Abortion Discourse in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 46(01): 157–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Saurette, Paul, and Gordon, Kelly 2016. The Changing Voice of the Anti-Abortion Movement: The Rise of “Pro-Woman” Rhetoric in Canada and the United States. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sawyers, Traci M., and Meyer, David S.. 1999. “Missed Opportunities: Social Movement Abeyance and Public Policy.” Social Problems 46(2): 187206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shaw, Dorothy, and Norman, Wendy V.. 2020. “When There Are No Abortion Laws: A Case Study of Canada.” Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology 62:4962.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Snow, David A., Rochford, E. Burke Jr., Worden, Steven K., and Benford, Robert D.. 1986. “Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation.” American Sociological Review 51(4): 464–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sobel, Laurie, Ramaswamy, Amrutha, Frederiksen, Brittni, and Salganicoff, Alina. 2020. “State Action to Limit Abortion Access During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” KFF. Retrieved September 7. 2020 ( Scholar
Sood, Rahul, Stockdale, Geoffrey, and Rogers, Everett M.. 1987. “How the News Media Operate in Natural Disasters.” Journal of Communication 37(3): 2741.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stier, Sebastian, Schünemann, Wolf J, and Steiger, Stefan. 2018. “Of Activists and Gatekeepers: Temporal and Structural Properties of Policy Networks on Twitter.” New Media & Society 20(5): 1910–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tarrow, Sidney. 1998. Power in Movement: Social Movements, Collective Action and Politics. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tavernise, Sabrina. 2020. “Texas and Ohio Include Abortion as Medical Procedures That Must Be Delayed.” New York Times. Retrieved May 1, 2020 ( Scholar
't Hart, Paul. 1993. “Symbols, Rituals and Power: The Lost Dimensions of Crisis Management.” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management 1(1): 3650.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
't Hart, Paul, and Tindall, Karen. 2009. “Understanding Crisis Exploitation: Leadership, Rhetoric and Framing Contests in Response to the Economic Meltdown.” In Dispersed Democratic Leadership: Origins, Dynamics and Implications, ed. Kane, John, Patapan, Haig, and 't Hart, Paul, 2141. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Tian, Yan, and Stewart, Concetta M.. 2005. “Framing the SARS Crisis: A Computer-Assisted Text Analysis of CNN and BBC Online News Reports of SARS.” Asian Journal of Communication 15(3): 289301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
We Need a Law. 2020. “(20) WeneedaLAW on Twitter: ‘“When Will the Canadian Public Wake up to the Deeply Contradictory Stance of Staying Home to Protect the Vulnerable, While Keeping Abortion Clinics Open to Kill the Vulnerable?” Https://T.Co/DVnX41m7Iz Https://T.Co/Ugzd8BFdPL’ / Twitter.” Twitter. Retrived August 19. 2020 ( Scholar
Yeginsu, Ceylan. 2020. “Legal Abortion Begins in Northern Ireland.” New York Times. Retrieved April 23, 2020 ( Scholar

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 212
Total number of PDF views: 62 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 25th January 2021 - 11th April 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Exploiting a Crisis: Abortion Activism and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Exploiting a Crisis: Abortion Activism and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Exploiting a Crisis: Abortion Activism and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *