Anti-abortion activists collect data they’ll need for post-Roe lawsuits
Although news reports at the time presented this tracking as a new tactic, it dates back decades. A 1993 Buffalo News article mentions several accounts by clinic workers and clients of harassing phone calls from anti-abortion activists that appear to be the result of license plate tracking. That same year, a training session in Florida for activists organized by the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue offered instructions on using people’s license plates to identify clients’ names, addresses and phone numbers and clinic employees. A volunteer trained with Operation Rescue, who stood outside a clinic in Melbourne, Florida that year, told ABC News the group used the database to “track [clients and] to send literature home” to make them “fully aware of what…the main purpose and focus of this place”.
There are other examples: In 1996, a police officer in Canada was charged after using police computers to track the license plates of clinic clients. In 1999, the abortion clinic targeted by Operation Rescue in Florida sued anti-abortion activists, accusing them of using license plate tracking to harass clients and doctors. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed after the clinic’s lawyers failed to stack the necessary documents to pursue the case. And Derenda Hancock, a clinic advocate who works out of Jackson Women’s Health’s “Pink House” clinic in Jackson, Mississippi (the clinic at the center of the ongoing Supreme Court case and the latest operating in state), says cameras are common there. – there used to be a regular livestreamer – and these images taken outside the clinic may appear on a website dedicated to tracking doctors who perform abortions.
Anti-abortion activists have long denied that such data is used to harass or contact people seeking abortions; they say it is used to track doctors and assess whether activism is keeping people from returning to the clinic for abortions. Neither Texas Right to Life nor Operation Rescue — which has been renamed Operation Save America — responded to requests for comment.
But it could certainly be used that way, and the ACLU’s Wessler says the potential for these images to target and harm people having abortions is exacerbated by the use of facial recognition technology. There are two possible scenarios on this front, he says: Law enforcement in abortion-banning states could use facial recognition databases to scan images of clinics for residents, or groups and private organizations could use the technology themselves.
The ACLU recently settled a case against facial recognition company ClearviewAI, barring it from selling its services to many companies. But recently, The New York Times reported on PimEyes, an accurate and affordable facial recognition service that almost anyone can pay to use.
Texas and Oklahoma now have laws that allow private citizens to sue anyone who performs or assists in an abortion. Wessler says that in a world where federal laws offer no protection against such lawsuits, it’s easy to see how, with a post-deer change the laws, people seeking abortions could also be prosecuted. That possibility, coupled with clinical oversight, could produce a huge chilling effect “where you have this nightmare of huge damage lawsuits being filed against people who can barely afford gas to get to a state where they can legally have an abortion,” he says.
Mobley fears that if states are able to criminalize abortion, clinics like his will face even greater scrutiny, as activists who now live in states without operating abortion clinics seek to target the next closest locations. She recently visited the Jackson Clinic. What she saw there worried her. Would Mississippi activists bring him their body cameras and megaphones?
It’s not an “if,” says Hancock; it is a “when”. A protester told him clearly outside the clinic recently: “I said, you know, so what do you do when it’s done? When are we done here? And he literally said, ‘Well, we’ll go to other states and shut them down.’ Without Roe, she says, there are no completely “safe” states for abortion access. “It’s just a matter of how long they last.”