If it were decided to overturn the historic ruling that allows the right to abortion, the social consequences for the weaker sections of the population would be incalculable.

Abby Ohlheiser

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision on the sentence shortly Roe v. Wade which in 1973 legalized abortion. If the leaked draft opinion is confirmed, it will end federal protection for abortion access in the United States. If that happens, the consequences for millions of people will be far-reaching. One of these is that it could significantly increase the risk of anti-abortion activists using surveillance and data collection to track and identify people who want to terminate a pregnancy, sending information to authorities that could lead to criminal prosecution..

Opponents of abortion have been using methods such as license plate tracking for decades. Confronted with many clinics in the United States, this behavior remains a daily reality. For example, to get to the parking lot of the Preferred Women’s Health Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, people have to drive through two lines of protesters who film their arrival and record all their movements.

Heather Mobley is part of the Charlotte for Choice organization, a group of women who voluntarily stand between those who have to go to the clinic to terminate the pregnancy and the anti-abortion protesters. Mobley uploads examples of what happens in these situations to TikTok and her videos document with great truth the dramatic impact of these protests.

Image: Heather Mobley / Charlotte for Choice

“They always have a GoPro or similar looking camera installed when they’re out there,” says Mobley. Protesters claim they are filming those who are going to the clinic to “protect women”. Sometimes, he continues, activists create a public Wi-Fi network called “abortion information” which, if you connect thinking it is a service offered by the clinic, leads to a page full of anti-abortion materials.

New tactics, same message

According to Charlotte for Choice, even though anti-abortion activists have not recently used the data to track down and harass abortioners, there is a long story behind it that says otherwise. If the Supreme Court decides as planned, access to legal abortion will be subject to state law; 13 states have ready-to-go laws that would ban abortions if the Roe ruling were overturned. For residents of states that prohibit abortion, this type of surveillance could make it dangerous to cross state borders in search of health care.

The biggest fear is that there will have been states that will not only ban abortion in a short time, but will begin to criminalize pregnant women who seek abortion services even outside of state.Says Nathan Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

Some states that guarantee the possibility of abortion may be able to limit the action of law enforcement agencies across the border, he notes, but that “does not mean that there will be no anti-abortion vigilantes who will record information outside the clinics and then they will send to magistrates in states where abortion is prohibited “.

There is evidence that anti-abortion activists are already pursuing a similar line of behavior. In 2014, for example, a recording of a training session for anti-abortion activists from Texas, led by Karen Garnett of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee of North Texas, became public. In this video, Garnett explained how to use license plate tracking to monitor both a clinic’s clients and its doctors..

Although the news at the time framed this monitoring as a novelty, the tactic dates back decades. A 1993 Buffalo News article mentions several reports from clinic staff and clients of harassing phone calls from anti-abortion activists that appear to be the result of license plate monitoring. In the same year, a training session in Florida for activists organized by the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue indicated how, starting from the plates, to identify the names, addresses and telephone numbers of customers and operators of the clinic.

Also that year, a member of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, outside a clinic in Melbourne, Florida, told ABC News that the group was using the database to “send publications to those who went to the clinic” to make them ” fully aware of what they are doing “.

But the examples don’t stop there: In 1996, a police officer in Canada was accused of using police computers to track down the license plates of the clinic’s clients. In 1999, the abortion clinic targeted by Operation Rescue in Florida sued anti-abortion activists, accusing them of using license plate monitoring to harass clients and doctors. The lawsuit did not go through because the clinic’s lawyers did not collect the documents necessary for the continuation of the case.

Derenda Hancock, one of the volunteers who accompany and protect terminating women at the Jackson Women’s Health “Pink House” clinic in Jackson, Mississippi (the clinic at the center of the case pending before the Supreme Court and the latest operating in the state) , says cameras are common in that area, and that footage shot outside the clinic may appear on a website dedicated to monitoring abortion doctors.

No safe place

Anti-abortion activists have long denied that this data is used to harass or contact people who terminate pregnancy e they argue that they only serve to track doctors and assess whether activism prevents people from returning to the clinic to have abortions. Neither Texas Right to Life nor Operation Rescue, which was renamed Operation Save America, responded to requests for comment.

Wessler, of the ACLU, says the potential of the footage is exacerbated by the use of facial recognition technology. In his opinion, there are two possible scenarios on this front: Law enforcement in states that prohibit abortion could use facial recognition databases to scan clinic footage, or private groups and organizations could use the technology.

The ACLU recently won a lawsuit against facial recognition company Clearview AI, banning it from selling its services to many companies. But the New York Times recently mentioned PimEyes, an accurate and affordable facial recognition service that virtually anyone can pay to use.

Texas and Oklahoma now have laws that allow private citizens to sue anyone who performs or aids in having an abortion. Wessler says that in a world where federal statutes offer no protection from such lawsuits, it’s easy to see how, with a post-Roe law change, even people trying to abort could be sued.. “This possibility,” continues Wessler, “coupled with clinical surveillance systems, could produce a huge increase in lawsuits against people who are barely able to afford gasoline to move to a state where they can legally abort.”

Mobley fears that if states pass restrictive abortion laws, clinics like his will become subject to even more scrutiny. It’s not just a hypothesis, ”concludes Hancock, but a problem of ‘when’ it will happen.

Image: Pixabay


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