Technology can expand access to health information, services and care. This can help protect lives, especially in places where such access is otherwise impossible, including during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
But the backlash against sexual and reproductive health and rights is well organised. It has also gone digital, and right now, we’re more online than ever.
As women increasingly use online platforms to access reproductive health information and services, we must learn to defend ourselves from anti-choice activists who seek to undermine our reproductive rights using digital tools.
I work at the NGO Privacy International and here are six anti-choice tactics we’ve documented – and how you can protect yourself against them.
1. Collecting your data
Heartbeat International, a US anti-abortion group with a global network of affiliated ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ is developing a system that can create what we call ‘digital dossiers’ about people researching pregnancy options.
Without their knowledge, this system can collect and compile a shocking amount of sensitive, personal information through online chats and face-to-face meetings – about everything from a woman’s living arrangements to her medical history, pregnancy symptoms and ultrasound photos.
Women who approach crisis pregnancy centres may not know they have anti-abortion agendas or that are often staffed by activists rather than medical professionals. Such information is often obscured in their online and offline ads and women won’t know if their data is being used in this way either.
2. Geofencing clinics
A US marketing company has sold what is called geofencing technology to RealOptions, a network of crisis pregnancy centres in northern California, in order to target women with anti-abortion ads. The company said it had targeted the mobile phones of people almost 3 million times, and that this had steered thousands of women to crisis pregnancy centre websites.
According to a 2016 investigation by the US website Rewire, geofencing could be used to target women inside abortion clinics too. It could even “hand the names and addresses of women seeking abortion care, and those who provide it, over to anti-choice groups”. These women wouldn’t know why they were seeing anti-abortion ads or that they could be targeted in this way.
3. Online chats
Option Line is an online chat service developed by the aforementioned Heartbeat International, which claims it has already been used by 400,000 women. It appears as an automatic pop-up chatbox, a seemingly neutral service for women looking for pregnancy advice.
Before beginning a chat, users must enter their name, demographic details, location and whether they are considering an abortion. If they ask for information about safe, legal abortion, the chatbox operators will try to dissuade them from terminating their pregnancies.
Our team used Option Line and then applied European data protection laws to request a copy of all relevant personal data held by Heartbeat and its partners. They confirmed they held our entered name, zip code and IP address. But this hadn’t been made clear when using the chat.
4. Anti-choice apps
FEMM (Fertility Education & Medical Management) describes itself as a women’s health programme, although it advocates against contraception. It has a fertility app (available in several languages) that it says has been downloaded more than 400,000 times since its launch in 2015.
This app requests information about users’ menstrual cycles and reproductive health. In 2019, the Guardian revealed that it is funded and led by anti-choice campaigners and “sows doubt over the safety of birth control”. It is also backed by Sean Fieler, a prominent donor to conservative groups in the US.
5. Honey pot websites
Following Ireland’s 2018 referendum vote to legalise abortion, its national health service launched a website to provide people with information on pregnancy options, including abortion. Shortly afterwards, another website with a very similar URL appeared online, offering pregnancy scans.
But this second website’s real goal was to dissuade women from having abortions. The fake website was shut down in 2019 as a result of a permanent injunction. It’s not known how many people called its hotline or gave information about themselves, or what impact this had.
A recent openDemocracy investigation similarly found that anti-abortion centres across Latin America have used misleading URLs such as quieroabortarcr.com (‘iwanttogetanabortioncr.com’) to reach women looking for information about terminating pregnancies – to convince them not to.
6. Targeted social media ads
Anti-choice groups have also deployed targeted ads on social media that promote scientifically dubious health information.
We recently found three social media ads from the US that promote the controversial idea of ‘abortion reversal’, which health experts said lacks scientific evidence. It’s unclear who exactly these ads were targeted at but one at least was promoted by the anti-abortion group Heartbeat International.
Facebook said it is investigating these ads but we still need more transparency on social media. Users should be able to see why they are targeted, report specific ads as undesirable and opt-out of receiving them.
How to protect yourself
- Beware of online chats. The simplicity of online chats is attractive. However, they are important data collection tools – especially if they ask for any of your personal information prior to beginning a conversation.
- Use ad controls to minimise targeted ads. You can’t control the content companies target you with but you can control the extent to which targeted ads are delivered to you. Check out Privacy International’s guides to minimise ad targeting on social media.
- Research the affiliation of the apps you use and the health centres you attend. Often, a quick online search will reveal any reported connections to anti-choice organisations and personalities.
- Remain vigilant – this is just the beginning. As people’s access to contraception, abortion care and health information is increasingly digitised we must remain vigilant to how groups opposed to these rights are developing data exploitation technologies to further their aims.