Senate Democrats are asking the country’s largest network of anti-abortion pregnancy centers to provide information about how the organization gathers, protects, and shares the personal data of pregnant people who seek out its services, spotlighting concerns that the data could be used in abortion-related prosecutions.
TIME first reported the letter by Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and it requested a reply from Heartbeat International.
In recent years, anti-abortion centers for pregnant women, also known as crisis pregnancy centers have been increasing in number. Before the Supreme Court overturned, there were many anti-abortion pregnancy centers. Roe V. WadeThere were more than 2500 such centers this summer in America, surpassing 3 to 1 abortion clinics. The centers look much like medical facilities but they have a faith-based mission. Their goal is to discourage people from getting abortions.
TIME recently investigated the situation at these pregnancy centers and found they had compiled a large amount of confidential personal information on their clients. Experts say this poses a serious privacy threat, particularly as more states have legalized abortion. Despite presenting themselves in ways that evoke medical clinics and asking clients to sign intake forms that look like those someone might find at a doctor’s office, these crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) are typically not licensed medical facilities. Many of their forms and websites include fine print explaining that they do not have to comply with federal privacy laws. They can also share information about clients with other organizations and partners. Now, citing TIME’s story in their letter, Warren and six other Democrats including Senators Mazie Hirono, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Ron Wyden, Ed Markey, and Richard Blumenthal, want to further examine the centers’ handling of this data.
Continue reading: Anti-Abortion Pregnancy Clinics are Collecting Troves Data Which Could Be Used against Women
“After luring pregnant people—many in desperate situations—to affiliate CPC facilities by using a variety of false and misleading tactics, Heartbeat International then collects a significant amount of their personal health care information, which in many cases does not appear to be protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA),” the Senators wrote in their letter. “We fear that, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that stripped women of their right to an abortion, this information may be used to put women’s health and freedom to choose in jeopardy, and to put them and their health care providers at risk of criminal penalties.”
Heartbeat International has over 1,800 affiliates across the U.S. It uses an automated data collection system to categorize women who seek help from its centers according to their likelihood of getting an abortion. The hotline is available 24 hours a day and the chatbot requires visitors to give their names, address, demographic information and their plans for their child’s future. The organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the Senators’ letter. It previously told TIME that it protects its clients’ privacy. “That data is secure,” Heartbeat International spokeswoman Andrea Trudden said in June. “Any information that we publish and pull is just numbers, so we’re not looking at any of that [personal] information.”
In fact, the abortion rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers both note conflicts of interest. Heartbeat International submitted an amicus brief encouraging Supreme Court to reverse the situation. Roe V. Wade and then celebrated the Court’s decision doing so, which has allowed a wave of laws criminalizing abortion to take effect. The anti-abortion group has increased its investments in crisis pregnancy centres by more than doubling over the past months. While some centers have moved to new areas, others report an increase in visits. Heartbeat International stated that it anticipates the centers will be busier over time. “Now is the time for us to step up and be ready to help more moms,” Heartbeat International President Jor-El Godsey said in a video after the Dobbs decision. “More and more women are going to need the help that pregnancy help centers and pregnancy help organizations are there to provide.”
This letter represents the latest effort by congressional Democrats to safeguard digital privacy following the scandalous death of Dr. Johnston. Dobbs ruling. Privacy experts caution that even if individuals haven’t interacted with anti-abortion centers explicitly asking for information about their plans for pregnancy, everything from location data and internet searches to texts messages and phone records can be used by anyone seeking evidence to prove the existence of abortions. Democratic lawmakers introduced numerous bills that promote digital privacy reform to address these concerns. For example, the My Body, My Data Act would establish a national privacy standard that covers reproductive data collected via apps, mobile phones, search engines, and entities such as pregnancy centers. Another bill, the Stop Anti-Abortion Disinformation (SAD) Act, aims to crack down on misleading advertising by anti-abortion pregnancy centers, and the Health and Location Data Protection Act seeks to ban data brokers from selling or transferring individuals’ medical and other sensitive personal information.
Although some of these bills received attention because more states had banned abortions, no one is likely to vote for them as Democrats still hold slim majorities. The House Democrats approved legislation codifying broader abortion rights, but it failed multiple times to pass the Senate.
These fears, according to lawmakers, are real. In Nebraska, this summer, the prosecution charged a mother with self-managed abortifacients. The case involved Facebook messages that were obtained by police through a search warrant. A Mississippi woman was charged in 2017 with the killing of her foetus. Prosecutors also used Internet searches to find abortion drugs against her. The case involved a search warrant that allowed police to access their Facebook messages. Also, in 2015, an accused of child neglect, as well as feticide, when prosecutors reviewed text messages concerning abortion pills. Advocates fear that cases such as these may become more common due to the fact that abortion has been severely restricted in some states. “There have already been alarming cases where digital trails were used as evidence by prosecutors, and we are concerned that the lack of transparency and lack of protection will allow the data Heartbeat International and its affiliates collect to ‘be used in pregnancy- and abortion-related prosecutions,’” the Senators wrote in the new letter.
Many of the Senators that signed up to the Heartbeat International letter already see results from the same efforts. Warren, along with other Democrats, wrote this spring to SafeGraph and Placer.ai asking for their cooperation in stopping the sale of location data from people who have visited abortion clinics. A second group of Senators wrote in May to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), asking about the company’s privacy measures. In August, FTC filed a lawsuit against Kochava, who allegedly sold information that could have been used to track those who had visited abortion clinics and shelters for domestic violence.
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