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Will anti-abortionists use ‘uterus surveillance’ against women in the US? | Arwa Mahdawi



If you are looking for a cheerful column that will make you giggle and distract you from everything that is wrong with the world, click away now. This week I have nothing but doom, gloom and data trackers for you. If you are hoping to sink into a well of existential despair, maybe let out a few screams into the void, then you’ve come to the right place.

Here goes: the US supreme court, as you are no doubt aware, is expected to overturn Roe v Wade and the federal right to an abortion very soon. At least 13 Republican-led states have “trigger laws” in place, which means that the moment Roe is overruled, abortion will be fully or partly banned. Other states will follow suit. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organisation, 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion when Roe falls.

Perhaps you are the glass half-full sort. Perhaps you are thinking: “Well, at least people can travel to a state where abortion is legal.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There are the obvious logistical and financial constraints, for one thing. Then there’s the fact that we live in a world of mass surveillance: pretty much everything we do these days leaves a digital footprint – one that anti-abortion extremists will not hesitate to weaponise. One Democratic senator has described the potential of new technology to track down and punish anyone who might even be thinking of having an abortion as “uterus surveillance”. Expect to see a big rise in this, not least because some anti-abortion states are providing financial incentives to snitch on your fellow citizens. Texas, for example, has passed “bounty hunter” laws promising at least $10,000 to individuals who help enforce the abortion ban by successfully suing an abortion provider.


To be fair, there’s nothing new about uterus surveillance. Anti-abortion activists may be stuck in the past when it comes to reproductive rights, but they have always been adept at using modern technology to further their goals. One tactic they’ve been using for decades is standing outside clinics and recording the licence plates of anyone who enters. As far back as 1993, extremists were tracing the people connected to those licence plates, obtaining their phone numbers, then calling them up to harass them. Years ago tracing someone took a bit of time and effort. Nowadays, you can look up someone’s personal information with the click of a button and a small fee.

The wonders of the modern world mean there are a mind-boggling number of ways in which you can now identify anyone who might even be thinking about an abortion. To begin with, there’s location data. Vice media recently reported that a data location company is selling information related to Planned Parenthood facilities (many of which provide abortions). The data shows where groups of people visiting the locations came from, how long they stayed and where they went afterwards. That data is aggregated so it doesn’t provide the names of individuals; however, de-anonymising this sort of information is not very difficult. There is plenty of evidence that location data is almost never anonymous.

Period-tracking apps, which are used by millions of people, are also a worrying source of potentially incriminating information in a post-Roe world. Experts have warned that rightwing organisations could buy data from these apps and use it to prove that someone was pregnant then had an abortion. Your text messages could also be used against you, as could your browser history. Indeed, authorities in Mississippi have already used a woman’s online search for abortion pills to indict her for second-degree murder after she miscarried. That happened in 2018; imagine what is going to happen in a post-Roe world. Speaking of which, I’ve just realised I Googled the word “abortion” 100 times while researching this. I’m off to scrub my search history.

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