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July 04, 2024

Abortion surveillance isn't new but monitoring has increased post Dobbs, activists say

The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports a spike in doxing of abortion providers and police departments sharing more automated license-plate reader data with neighboring states.

Government Abortion
abortion surveillance Megan Smith/USA TODAY

Since Dobbs, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports there has been a spike in doxing of abortion providers and assistance groups. Some police departments also have started sharing automated license plate reader data with authorities in neighboring states where abortion is not legal. This file photo shows activists on both sides of the issue outside the U.S. Supreme Court in June on the second anniversary of the court's Dobbs decision.

Abortion surveillance is something former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has said is up to states. But for abortion providers and advocates, surveillance and monitoring by anti-abortion activists has long been the reality. And post-Dobbs many states are actively trying to expand government surveillance.

"There is a lot of confusion in our patient population — because most of them are coming from states that have banned abortion — about the legality of coming to another state," said Michele Landeau, chief operating officer of Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois.

Just across the border from St. Louis, Missouri, Hope Clinic serves as one of the closest abortion clinics to several banned states in the Midwest and the South. After Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, the clinic increased its staff and capacity to accommodate an influx of patients, more than 80% of whom are coming from outside of Illinois, Landeau told States Newsroom. She said the clinic has also seen an influx of protesters, especially on Saturdays, who can sometimes be heard shouting patients' out-of-state license plates.

"That can cause a lot of anxiety and fear," Landeau said. "I believe the protesters know that, and that's why they do it."

Since Dobbs, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in digital civil liberties, has seen a spike in doxing of abortion providers and assistance groups, said staff attorney Lisa Femia. Another increased privacy threat since Dobbs, she said, is police sharing automated license plate reader data with police in states where abortion is not legal.

Illinois is among several states that have adopted abortion rights in the lead-up to and since Dobbs, most recently travel data privacy protections. A law that went into effect earlier this year prohibits the sharing of data from automated license plate readers with law enforcement for the purpose of investigating or enforcing a law that "denies or interferes with a person's right to choose or obtain reproductive health care services."

But even in this abortion-haven state, Mark Lee Dickson's Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn initiative helped pass an ordinance banning the mailing or shipping of abortion pills in Danville, a town along Illinois's eastern border with Indiana, where abortion is not legal. The ordinance (which the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois says is "unlawful and unenforceable" because it violates state law) was passed the same month an anti-abortion extremist drove a car loaded with gasoline-filled containers into the building of a planned abortion clinic in Danville.

Femia said increased legal challenges have so far not upheld laws that attempt to restrict interstate abortion-related travel or information. But it's still early, she said.

"I think we also have to remember that in sort of the scheme of the legal system, it hasn't really been very long since Dobbs and since states have actually started implementing extremely abortion restrictive laws," Femia told States Newsroom. "So we're still in sort of the nascent stages of abortion prosecutions."

To fight for reproductive health privacy, Femia said the Electronic Frontier Foundation has tried to put pressure on government to enforce privacy protections on the books as well as educate the public.

This week, the nonprofit MSI Reproductive Choices launched a digital guide for safely searching abortion-related information online in partnership with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the Vagina Privacy Network, and as part of the launch handed out free burner phones at three different reproductive rights marches in Indiana, Tennessee, and Georgia.

New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence T. McDonald for questions: Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and X.