Even though apps and data are important, people are often the weakest link.
In the years before Roe v. Wade, a group of women in the Chicago area known only as “The Janes” worked together to help pregnant people in need get safe, secret abortions. Over a few years, the group helped with more than 11,000 abortions. When the police finally caught them in 1972, it wasn’t because the police were watching them or because they were against the war or because they were willing to help pregnant family members of police officers get an abortion. The police were told about Jane by a member of her family.
Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the organization We Testify, says, “Some nosy bimbo tried to tell on someone who needed an abortion.”
Even though it’s been 50 years, the threat that brought down The Janes is still a big one for people who want to get an abortion but can’t because of the law. Even though activists are right to warn about text messages, browser histories, and other digital evidence trails, low-tech and human security breaches often pose the biggest risk.
Most security problems are caused by people and don’t require much technology.
“The biggest threat to the privacy of people who want to get an abortion is other people,” says Laura Huss, a senior researcher at If How, a legal group that works to protect the rights of people who want to get an abortion. In cases where people have been charged with a crime for self-managing an abortion, private information like what they searched for on the internet or what they texted to others has been used as proof. But again, the most common reason is that someone else told the police about them, which gave the police the power to take people’s devices.
If did research on adults who have been criminally investigated or arrested for allegedly self-managing or helping with an abortion? They found that in 45 percent of those cases, a doctor, nurse, or social worker told the police about the situation. Friends or family members informed 26% of those polled. Twenty-eight percent were found by police in other ways, like when they found foetal remains or when someone called 911. In the other 11% of cases, If couldn’t figure out how police were first notified.) These results are in line with what we know about cybersecurity in general: most of the time, the weakest link in the chain is another person.
The best way to keep people safe is to cut them off completely.
But if human informants are the biggest threat to people who want to get an abortion, the best way to keep them safe is to keep them alone. For perfect security, you would have to keep the procedure and even your pregnancy a secret from everyone, including your friends and primary care providers. But for most people, a total lockdown isn’t possible and might be too painful to handle. Even when an abortion is wanted, ending a pregnancy can be a hard and emotional process. It can be really hard to handle things on your own, especially if you are using abortion pills at home and don’t have a doctor to help you.
This simple information can help you figure out who you can talk to safely and who you shouldn’t.
She says, though, that this isn’t always true. Bracey Sherman has seen people who said they were for abortion change their minds when the issue of reproductive rights comes up in their own neighborhood.
Women who need abortions will be in danger as long as it is seen as dirty and dangerous.
If you don’t want to take a chance with your friends and family, there are a number of organizations that help people through the abortion process, including giving them emotional support without putting their safety or privacy at risk. Some, like Reprocare and the Miscarriage and Abortion Hotline, were made to help people through the process of self-managed abortion. Others, like local abortion funds and doulas, might not advertise their help directly, but they can still be helpful (and private).
You don’t just have to worry about friends and family turning on you; healthcare providers are also at risk. Even though abortion is very safe, some people still have problems that need medical help, even if they do it at home by themselves with pills. Some people just want to see a doctor to make sure everything is okay. No matter why you’re going to the doctor, you must not talk about your abortion to the doctor, the receptionist, the nurse, or anyone else you might meet during your appointment. Most abortion groups suggest that you tell your doctor and other health care providers that you had a miscarriage instead, since there is no way to tell the difference between a miscarriage and an abortion with pills.
But this isn’t foolproof. If a doctor doesn’t think you’re sad enough about your miscarriage, they may still mark you as someone who had an abortion, especially if you’re a member of a group that’s often policed and criminalized, like people of colour and low-income people. So, you could also just act surprised and confused, as if you didn’t know you were pregnant to begin with. In contrast to a miscarriage after a known pregnancy, there is no “right” way to react when a pregnancy you didn’t know about ends on its own. (You should never tell a doctor that you got abortion pills without a prescription. They shouldn’t know.
Still, the only way to really protect the privacy of women who have abortions is to educate a lot of people about how to stop making abortions look bad. Over time, this work will lead to better laws about abortion. But even in the short term, letting people know that abortion is safe makes them less likely to call the police on people who want to get an abortion. Huss and Bracey Sherman both point out that many people who call the police about a self-managed abortion do so out of a misguided desire to help. People who need abortions will be in danger as long as abortion is seen as shameful and dangerous. The best way to keep abortion seekers safe and secure is to work toward a world where abortion is seen as an important part of reproductive health care and, most importantly, a private medical choice.