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Critics Say Info Provided to GOP-Proposed Pregnancy Database Could Be Weaponized

Yet in many ways, abortion surveillance is already here, experts say.

Sen. Katie Britt speaks to reporters during a news conference with Sen. Ron Johnson, Sen. John Hoeven and Sen. John Cornyn at the U.S. Capitol on July 20, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Last week, leading up to Mother’s Day, Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.) introduced the More Opportunities for Moms to Succeed (MOMS Act), a bill that would create a federal database for pregnant people nationwide.

Specifically, the database would be called “pregnancy.gov,” and provide resources related to pregnancy — including adoption agencies and pregnancy care providers — but it excludes abortion-related services. In fact, the proposed legislation forbids anyone who “performs, induces, refers for or counsels in favor of abortions” to be included.

In addition to excluding abortion providers, users could “take an assessment through the website” and provide consent to have the user’s information shared with the government who might conduct outreach via phone or email to provide additional support. The bill would also provide grants to crisis pregnancy centers and apply child support obligations during pregnancy, signaling support and further acceptance of fetal personhood.

The news sparked public outrage as concerns were raised about how it could be used to collect data on and monitor abortion seekers. A spokesperson for Britt has publicly denounced these concerns, stating that the website wouldn’t require users to log in to the site and that it wouldn’t ask for a person’s pregnancy status.

This news comes a couple weeks after a report surfaced that a man in Texas submitted a petition to investigate his ex-partner’s out-of-state abortion. In 2023, another Texas man attempted to sue three women for wrongful death, claiming they allegedly helped his now ex-wife end her pregnancy by undergoing a medication abortion via the abortion pill.

As Dr. Carole Joffe, a professor in Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California–San Francisco, told Salon in 2022, a post-Roe landscape would likely have “less injuries,” as self-managed abortions are safer than ever thanks to abortion medication — but it will come with “more surveillance.” The culmination of recent events show in many ways abortion surveillance is already here.

“In a world in which abortion is legal everywhere, there were still dangers because we saw various prosecutions before Dobbs,” David S. Cohen, a professor of law at Drexel Kline’s School of Law, told Salon, mentioning the 2022 case in Nebraska when Meta turned over chats between a mother and her daughter in an investigation of an abortion. “But now in a world where abortion is illegal in 14 states, highly restricted and another six or seven states, there’s just that more of a possibility for legal consequence if the information becomes public.”

As explained by If/When/How’s 2023 report, pro-abortion advocates have been long concerned about digital surveillance. Digital communications with friends and family, internet searches, data shared with mobile apps and locations can become evidence used in prosecutions against women obtaining abortions and those helping people obtain abortions.

“With people increasingly relying on technology in day-to-day life and the proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI), digital traces left on websites and personal devices such as cell phones and computers expand private parties and state actors’ ability to gather, track and share information about users,” the report stated. “Whether abortion laws target providers, aiders and abettors, or women themselves, the criminalization of abortion necessarily involves the surveillance of women.”

Cohen said digital data is available for people who seek it out, but that he doesn’t think it’s being “sought out a lot.”

“We have a few lawsuits in Texas, like I mentioned, even though I think it seems like it’s too easily attainable, the information, it does not seem like it’s being used right now, in any kind of high-volume way to harm people,” he said. “But that could change and it’s scary to think of possibilities.”

As Axios previously reported, period tracking apps have been of high concern. “There really aren’t any real safeguards against the ways police can weaponize this data against users, when they’re actively investigating a crime in a world where abortion increasingly is criminalized,” Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told Axios.

Both California and Washington have data shield laws that include provisions to prevent companies from turning over data requested by law enforcement from abortion ban states for cases related to abortions. As researchers at Brookings noted in a recent report, such shield laws could provide one significant hurdle if law enforcement attempts to investigate and prosecute women who have abortions.

Dr. Josie Urbina, an OBGYN and complex family planning specialist at the University of California-San Francisco, told Salon if she had patients in a state with abortion bans or restrictions, she wouldn’t advise that they use period apps.

“We only know about the cases that have been highlighted in the news,” Urbina said, adding that surveillance is happening in marginalized communities and these stories might not be making news headlines. “We know that there’s criminalization of pregnant people occurring that nobody knows about — that is definitely happening — and it’s happening to people in marginalized communities, who often get forgotten about and that’s why we haven’t been seeing them in the news.”

When asked about Britt’s proposed MOMS Act, Cohen said any kind of identifiable information about someone during pregnancy that’s stored by the government could be weaponized against them. And there are already plenty of examples when the government knows people are pregnant or starts monitoring anything related to that, and then using that data to police people.

“We’ve seen states like South Carolina and Alabama and Tennessee take action against pregnant people in large numbers because they are doing things that they think will damage a pregnancy.” he said. “That kind of information could be weaponized against someone who’s pregnant.”

Urbina agreed.

“Anything that mentions pregnancy without mentioning abortion is completely not supportive of the paradigm of full spectrum sexual and reproductive health care, and that’s what people like me, like OBGYNs get trained to offer,” Urbina said. “We would be doing a disservice to the American people if abortion isn’t included as an option and in the conversation. And the fact that these grants would be given to so-called crisis pregnancy centers, it’s abhorrent.”

Urbina said crisis pregnancy centers are known for preying on pregnant people and providing them with misinformation.

If people want to protect themselves from surveillance, Urbina recommended using one of the encrypted period tracking apps like Euki, which is available in English and Spanish.

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