Vigil for Life, a radical anti-choice group, was unsuccessful in "convincing" a woman to terminate an unintended and untenable pregnancy. So what did it do? It put out an All Points Bulletin to track her down.
“Have you seen the pregnant mom? The young pregnant woman, probably in her 20′s, had a darker complexion with dyed red hair and tattoos on her neck and right shoulder. She also had some facial piercings. The woman looked obviously pregnant….please let us know immediately if you have seen a woman with this description.”
After reading this plea you may grow worried – what could have happened to this woman? Certainly this must be a call for help from the pregnant woman’s family, desperate to locate her. You can’t be blamed for thinking that – but you would be dead wrong.
This is an All Points Bulletin – an APB! – issued by radical Wisconsin anti-choice group Vigil for Life to track down a pregnant woman seeking services at Planned Parenthood. Yes, you read that correctly.
The young woman came to Madison but by the time she arrived Planned Parenthood was closed. Unfortunately, Vigil for Life is setting up a crisis pregnancy center right across the street from the Planned Parenthood Clinic and was there to feed this young woman anti-choice propaganda. However, the young woman slipped away before the Vigil For Life volunteers got her name.
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If you are unfamiliar with Vigil for Life, these are the hardcore protesters outside Planned Parenthood clinics with their “sidewalk counselors” accosting women as they enter. Remember Ralph Lang, the man arrested in Madison who was planning an attack on Planned Parenthood to, “lay out abortionists because they are killing babies?” Mr. Lang is associated with Vigil for Life and has attended several of its “vigils.”
Vigil for Life happily trumpets its new crisis pregnancy center on their blog:
Right across the street from Planned Parenthood in Madison, good things are happening! The City of Madison has approved building permits to bring the Women’s Care Center, a successful crisis pregnancy center model, to Madison!
Pulled right from the anti-choice play book – set up shop next to an actual medical clinic to make yourself appear like an actual medical clinic and you get to harass women going into Planned Parenthood to boot.
As I mentioned above, the APB came after three volunteers – or as they say “prayer warriors” – failed to get her name. The Vigil for Life email blast details the encounter:
The women then crossed to the other side of the street to the future Women’s Care Center to read the sign by the gate.
One of the prayer warriors asked, “Do you ladies need help with anything?” One of them, a young woman said, “Yes, I’m looking for information about an abortion. The prayer warriors started to talk to the woman and her sister about abortion. By looking at her, it was obvious that the young woman was very pregnant and quite sad. The prayer warriors referred her to resources to help. When they mentioned the physical and psychological negative effects of abortion, the sister of this young woman responded, “Yeah, but isn’t the psychological trauma of having a baby and giving it away worse?”
One of the prayer warriors was able to speak to the women on the benefits of adoption versus the consequences of abortion. She shared that, even if you give your baby up for adoption, you can know that you gave some person out there the gift of life. At that point, the pregnant woman started to cry and walk away. As the pregnant woman walked back to the car she turned around and shouted, “I know. I have two children of my own already!” The interaction seemed rushed, and the prayer warriors weren’t able to get the names of the women before they left.
And then, of course the APB:
Have you seen the pregnant mom? The young pregnant woman, probably in her 20′s, had a darker complexion with dyed red hair and tattoos on her neck and right shoulder. She also had some facial piercings. The woman looked obviously pregnant. We pray that she will never decide to come back to Planned Parenthood. Please let us know immediately if you have seen a woman with this description.
So now anti-choice radicals will be tracking down women by circulating physical descriptions of them? How many more tools will they be able to use to terrorize women? At what point does the protection of Vigil for Life’s rights begin to destroy the rights of others? And when is someone going to step up and legislate against this kind of behavior on the part of anti-abortion zealots? This move by Vigil for Life is beyond the pale and must not be allowed to pass without notice.
I spoke with Lisa Subeck, Executive Director of NARAL Pro Choice Wisconsin, about this. (We were speaking about another subject but this topic came up. she is the one who shared the email blast with me.) She is considering contacting the Madison police department about the email, rightfully concerned about the legality of it. I say good on Lisa – this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated. Will keep you posted.
Women who have visited almost any abortion clinic in the United States have seen anti-choice protesters outside, wielding placards and chanting abuse. A Boston advertiser's technology, when deployed by anti-choice groups, allows those groups to send propaganda directly to a woman’s phone while she is in a clinic waiting room.
Last year, an enterprising advertising executive based in Boston, Massachusetts, had an idea: Instead of using his sophisticated mobile surveillance techniques to figure out which consumers might be interested in buying shoes, cars, or any of the other products typically advertised online, what if he used the same technology to figure out which women were potentially contemplating abortion, and send them ads on behalf of anti-choice organizations?
The executive—John Flynn, CEO of Copley Advertising—set to work. He put together PowerPoint presentations touting his capabilities, and sent them to groups he thought would be interested in reaching “abortion-minded women,” to use anti-choice parlance.
Before long, he’d been hired by RealOptions, a network of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) in Northern California, as well as by the evangelical adoption agency Bethany Christian Services.
Flynn’s endeavors quickly won him attention in the anti-choice world. He was invited to speak at the Family Research Council’s ProLifeCon Digital Action Summit in January this year, and he got a few write-ups in anti-choice press.
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In an interview with Live Action News—the website for Live Action, the group run by anti-choice activist Lila Rose that is responsible for bogus attack videos against Planned Parenthood—Flynn gave some details about his strategy. He sends advertisements for his clients to women’s smartphones while they are sitting in Planned Parenthood clinics, using a technology known as “mobile geo-fencing.” He also planned to ping women at methadone clinics and other abortion facilities. His program for Bethany covered five cities: Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri; and New York City.
“We are very excited to bring our mobile marketing capabilities to the pro-life community,” Flynn told Live Action News.
Anti-choice groups were tantalized by the ability to home in on the women they think will be most susceptible to their message.
“Marketing for pregnancy help centers has always been a needle in a haystack approach—cast a wide net and hope for the best,” said Bethany Regional Marketing Manager Jennie VanHorn, according to the report. “With geo fencing, we can reach women who we know are looking for or in need of someone to talk to.”
Flynn’s targeting of women seeking abortion presents a serious threat to the privacy and safety of women exercising their right to choose, as well as to abortion providers and their staff, a Rewire investigation has found. But due to weak and patchwork laws governing privacy and data collection in the United States, the conduct appears to be perfectly legal.
Women who have visited almost any abortion clinic in the United States have seen anti-choice protesters outside, wielding placards and chanting abuse. This technology, when deployed by anti-choice groups, allows them to send propaganda directly to a woman’s phone while she is in a clinic waiting room. It also has the capability to hand the names and addresses of women seeking abortion care, and those who provide it, over to anti-choice groups.
“It is incredibly unethical and creepy,” Brian Solis, a digital marketing expert, told Rewire, expressing a view that was unanimous among a dozen experts in digital security, privacy law, and online marketing we interviewed for this story.
Solis said this example was the inevitable application of a technology meant for one purpose—mass advertising campaigns that, while considered by many people to be unseemly and intrusive, do not generally amount to a threat—to a very different, and troubling, objective.
“You can grab an uncomfortable amount of information from someone’s device and the apps they use,” said Solis. “It’s unfortunate, but any woman who plans to visit an affected Planned Parenthood, or anyone who works for Planned Parenthood, should be afraid.”
When Ads Follow You Around
By now, most Americans have experienced the following phenomenon: You look at something online—a hotel, a flower delivery service, a course at a local college—and the next thing you know, ads for that thing follow you around the internet for the next week.
A watch you looked at now pops up next to your Facebook feed; an ad for a coffee machine you researched on Amazon now lurks on your favorite news sites. And maybe, after researching cars online, it seems that Toyota knows whenever you visit a lot, and sends ads to your phone as you walk through the dealership’s doors.
This is all part of the new landscape of digital advertising, where marketers can tailor their ads to very specific groups of consumers by compiling “personas” based on the thousands of shards of data we all create as we go about our activities online.
While theoretically anonymous, these marketing personas are surprisingly accurate. Marketers likely know your age, gender, occupation, education level, marital status, and—if you have GPS enabled on your phone and are logged into apps that track you—where you live, work, and travel.
What Flynn realized is that he could use the same technologies to infer that a woman might be seeking an abortion, and to target her for ads from anti-choice groups.
“We can reach every Planned Parenthood in the U.S.,” he wrote in a PowerPoint display sent to potential clients in February. The Powerpoint included a slide titled “Targets for Pro-Life,” in which Flynn said he could also reach abortion clinics, hospitals, doctors’ offices, colleges, and high schools in the United States and Canada, and then “[d]rill down to age and sex.”
“We can gather a tremendous amount of information from the [smartphone] ID,” he wrote. “Some of the break outs include: Gender, age, race, pet owners, Honda owners, online purchases and much more.”
Flynn explained that he would then use that data to send anti-choice ads to women “while they’re at the clinic.”
In his sales PowerPoint, Flynn said that he had already attempted to ping cellphones for RealOptions and Bethany nearly three million times, and had been able to steer thousands of women to their websites. The price tag for one of Copley’s campaigns, he said, was $8,000.
Flynn initially agreed to speak with Rewire for this story, but did not respond to multiple follow-up emails and phone calls. Much of this report is based on materials that he sent to people he believed to be potential clients. Numerous messages seeking comment from management for RealOptions went unanswered; Jennifer Gradnigo, a spokesperson for Bethany Christian Services, confirmed that they have used Copley’s services and “appreciate their ideas,” but declined to discuss specific campaigns.
Not everyone who received Flynn’s pitch emails was impressed. One recipient contacted Rewire after speaking with Flynn, and expressed horror at what Flynn told her he was able to do on behalf of anti-choice clients.
“I felt disgust, and I felt protective of these women who are going to seek sensitive medical services at a time when they’re vulnerable,” said the recipient, who is a social worker at a Northern California adoption agency. Rewire agreed to withhold her identity due to her fears of retaliation from anti-choice activists.
“They’re being spied on by this capitalist vulture who is literally trying to sell their fetuses,” she said. “To do this to women without consent is predatory and it’s an invasion of her privacy, and unethical.”
In emails and PowerPoint presentations sent in early March, Flynn claimed to have reached more than 800,000 18-to-24-year-old women on behalf of RealOptions, and to have sent more than 2,000 of those women to RealOption’s website.
Rewire obtained three examples of the ads that Flynn said he had sent to young women’s phones on RealOptions’ behalf.
The ads are typical of CPCs.
They ask, “Pregnant?” or “Abortion?” and then include statements like “It’s your choice. You have time… Be informed” and “Get the facts first.”
Like most CPCs, the claim that RealOptions provides “facts” about abortion is deceptive. While that language may lead women to believe they could obtain abortion care at RealOptions, in federal tax filings, the organization explains its mission as: “empowering and equipping women and men to choose life for their unborn children through the love of Jesus Christ in accordance with his word regarding the sanctity of human life.”
According to its website, RealOptions has received funding from the radical Christian group Focus on the Family. The organization was founded in 1981 by Marion and Tom Recine, fervent Christians who in a video posted to their website refer to the “many, many, many women who’ve come to Jesus because of the [RealOptions] centers.”
Flynn also says that he has targeted 140 abortion clinics on behalf of Bethany Christian Services over the past few months, and that 10,000 people clicked on the ads for Bethany that he sent to smartphones in those clinics, directing them to a “dedicated resource centers landing page.”
The social worker who received Flynn’s pitch deck told Rewire she was alarmed that Flynn had succeeded in reaching so many women on behalf of his anti-choice clients.
“He’s doing it and it’s working and it’s probably really impacting human trajectories,” she said. “It changes human lives to be funneled into a system like this.”
Advertising Is Now a System of Surveillance
Although it is now ubiquitous, mobile digital advertising is a relatively new phenomenon, only as old as the sophisticated smartphones on which it relies. As a result, laws and the regulators who enforce them are lagging behind when it comes to the many possible ways that bad actors can abuse smartphone advertising.
In terms of federal laws, many either don’t apply to Flynn’s conduct, or would allow it, according to Chris Hoofnagle, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law, and School of Information.
“Privacy law in the U.S. is technology- and context-dependent,” Hoofnagle said. “As an example, the medical information you relay to your physician is very highly protected, but if you go to a medical website and search for ‘HIV’ or ‘abortion,’ that information is not protected at all.”
In other words, it’s almost certain that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, would not apply.
The other limitations, such as they are, come from two sets of laws. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general can prevent advertisers from sending false and misleading ads; they can also stop advertisers from lying about what information they are tracking and what they plan to do with it once collected.
The FTC did not reply to Rewire’s questions in time for the publication of this story. However, the commission does not have jurisdiction over nonprofits, so it is highly unlikely that it could take action in this case.
The second set of laws concern user consent. Companies like Verizon and AT&T, known as carriers, are required to get affirmative consent before using “Customer Proprietary Network Information” gleaned through cellphone towers—including call records and location—for marketing. Apps don’t use network information, but rely instead on the GPS built into phones. They also need to obtain affirmative consent to collect and use information for marketing.
Obtaining that consent is easier than many consumers may think.
“The reality of this stuff is that no one’s asking what marketers will do with their information when they click, ‘I Agree,’ when an app asks if it can use their location,” Hoofnagle said. “If one consents to that tracking, and consents for it to be used for advertising purposes, that’s pretty much the end of the story.”
Certainly, most people wouldn’t imagine that by agreeing that, say, Yelp, Snapchat, Tinder, or the New York Times could use their location, that marketers could then use the same information for the very different purpose of figuring out whether they are seeking sensitive medical services.
Hoofnagle says that such use is perfectly legal, as long as companies don’t lie about what information they’re collecting—even if those disclosures are buried in fine print.
For his part, John Flynn is confident that his campaign is within legal bounds.
“I have worked with pharma, medical recruitment and many others where we mobile geo-fenced medical centers without a problem,” he wrote in an email to a potential client. “Bethany’s campaign targeted just medical centers and there was [sic] no issues. RealOptions in the San Jose area is presently targeting colleges and medical centers without issue.”
In the absence of robust legal limitations in the United States, advertisers have organized into self-regulatory bodies to police themselves, acutely conscious that examples of egregious privacy violations could spark a public backlash, and lead consumers to block ads and to opt out of targeted marketing.
Lindsay Hutter, a spokesperson from the Direct Marketing Association (DMA)—a New York-based group that represents direct marketers—said in an email statement to Rewire:
A key pillar of DMA’s work is to ensure that data-driven marketers conduct their work on an ethical basis, respecting the private information of consumers. This is particularly true for sensitive medical information about particular individuals, the use of which for marketing purposes without permission is against DMA’s Ethical Guidelines. Any location-based marketing should be opt-in, with the consumer notified that marketing offers are being presented due to their location.
Hutter did not provide a direct reply to our questions as to whether targeting women who might be seeking abortion care on behalf of anti-choice groups would be in violation of DMA’s guidelines.
It would, however, violate Facebook’s standards, according to Tom Channick, a company spokesperson.
“Our policies prohibit ads that make implications, directly or indirectly, about a user’s personal characteristics, including medical condition or pregnancy,” Channick said. “Deceptive or misleading advertisements are also prohibited.”
Flynn claims that he has a “relationship” with Facebook that allows him to “place mobile and digital ads in Facebook pages,” but Channick said the company could find no record of Flynn or his company ever using their platform.
Calling Flynn’s campaigns “really objectionable,” Hoofnagle said that these kinds of practices are toxic to the digital advertising industry, as well as the platforms—like Google and Facebook—that depend on advertising dollars.
He said this example drives home the fact that the nature of advertising has fundamentally transformed with the rise of the internet, and as smartphones have become ubiquitous.
“Advertising is a system of surveillance now,” Hoofnagle said. “It used to be billboards and television. Now it’s surveillance.”
Extremists Could Use Women’s Phones to Learn Their Names and Addresses
Surveillance has long played a central—and deadly—role in the efforts of anti-choice activists to intimidate women out of accessing abortion care, and to stop providers from making it available.
In the late 1990s, an anti-choice extremist created a website called the Nuremberg Files—in reference to Nazi Germany—which was a list of the names and addresses of doctors who provided abortions. Operation Rescue maintained a site called “Tiller Watch” that monitored the doctor’s whereabouts until he was murdered in the spring of 2009. Extremists have published “Wanted” signs with photographs of abortion providers. Activists in Texas stalk people entering local clinics, noting their physical appearance and license plates, hoping to determine which women went through with their abortion and whether anyone changed their mind, as well as to identify clinic workers. Many providers around the country report having been followed on their way to and from work.
Sasha Bruce, senior vice president of campaigns and strategy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, says that tagging the cellphones of women who go to abortion clinics falls within the pattern of intimidation.
“Intimidation frankly is the lowest threshold—that quickly turns to violence,” Bruce said. “That’s part of what’s troubling about this. There’s a real incitement that this information can contribute to.”
Bruce said she was alarmed in particular because Flynn was not just collecting information about what women looked at online, but also about their physical locations.
“If you have the smartphone ID, and then you can tie that to a location outside of the clinic, let’s say a home, that’s a real security threat,” Bruce told Rewire. “I worry about the extension of that—the desire of anti-choice activists to know who these staffers are, and who the women are.”
To be clear, there is no evidence to suggest that Flynn or his clients have or want to use geo-fencing to learn the real identities of women seeking abortion. But experts told Rewire that the potential for others to abuse the technology is a cause for alarm. In keeping with the view that transparency fosters security, Rewire has chosen to outline the ways this tracking could be misused.
In theory, when marketers gather information about individual smartphone users through methods like geo-location, that data is anonymized, meaning that it is not attached to a person’s name, but rather to a unique number known as an “advertising ID.” That is the number associated with the particular copy of the operating system that each of us has downloaded onto our smartphone. If you use a Google phone, your operating system is Android; for iPhone users, it’s your copy of iOS. Much of what you do on your phone can be associated with that advertising ID.
In most cases, marketers want to collect data from millions of potential customers, said John Deighton, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, in an interview with Rewire. The more data they have, the more ads they can send, which enhances their database.
“What your story is drawing to my attention is that these same surveillance technologies can be used at a much more micro scale,” he said. “You could imagine outright illegal use of geo-targeting: for example, geo-targeting a rich person’s house and getting an alert when they leave home.” That could, say, lead to high-tech burglary.
“Once you start realizing you can target desirable individuals, instead of being a big data function it becomes about tiny data,” Deighton said.
But if all of the data that marketers collect is supposed to be anonymized, how could bad actors—including anti-choice extremists—figure out the actual identities of the people they track?
The dirty secret of digital marketing is that it is in fact relatively easy to find out the real identities that are attached to our online IDs, according to experts who spoke with Rewire.
The most obvious way is simply to ask people for that information.
Both RealOptions and Bethany Christian Services require a person’s name and contact information in order to receive information online. Once a woman enters her name, email, home address, phone number, or ZIP code, that information is tied to her advertising ID, and Flynn could potentially marry that ID to all data associated with it and store it in what he calls his databank.
There are, however, plenty of less aboveboard methods to learn the name attached to an anonymous ID.
Any site or app that uses a profile with your name and any other information—Facebook, dating services, banking apps—can link your device, and your advertising ID, to the real you.
Legitimate services would not hand over personally identifying information willingly, but there are many instances of such information being made widely available. The cyber attack on Ashley Madison, the dating site for married people seeking extramarital partners, resulted in the release by hackers of the personal information of 32 million of the site’s users, revealing the potential for profile-based sites to be targeted.
Even without sophisticated hacks on established sites, bad actors can use techniques known as “social engineering” to learn the personal identities associated with advertising IDs.
For instance, if an anti-choice group wanted to learn the identity of women seeking abortions, instead of sending them ads for CPCs, they could send ads that seemed unrelated to abortion—for a competition to win $500, or for help with student loans—that tricked women into entering their names, email addresses, and any other information required by the form. Any woman who filled out the form would have unwittingly handed her name to anti-choice activists.
That would allow anti-choice groups to literally see women’s whereabouts in real time, said digital marketing experts who spoke with Rewire anonymously because they were not authorized to speak with the press. They described marketing software that allows them to see targeted individuals’ locations, the same way you can see yourself as a blue dot on a smartphone map. If certain people were seen at an abortion clinic regularly—say, during work hours—Flynn or his clients might even be able to infer that they work there.
“That’s what scares me about your story,” said Deighton. “Now we have an incentive to track people that isn’t the usual big data incentive.”
The question naturally arises: What can abortion providers and the women they serve do to fend off these digital affronts?
The simplest measure Planned Parenthood, or any other abortion provider, could take is to tell patients to leave their smartphones at home or in the car. If that isn’t possible or practical, the best advice is to turn off their GPS and log out of all apps before they come to a clinic.
It’s a simple step, but one that many people either won’t or don’t take, said Cooper Quintin, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to preserving fundamental rights in the age of technology.
“The way we need to fight back against this is by blocking these things that are tracking who we are and where we are and what things we’re looking at,” Quintin told Rewire. EFF considers location-based tracking to be a serious threat to privacy.
“Right now, there’s this big ideological debate about ad-blocking. What’s missing from that debate is the idea of blocking things that are tracking you. Tracking people and building up these databases of what they read online, where they go in the real world, linking their online behaviors to their offline purchases and real world behavior—these things can have real-world effects, and this is a horrific example of how this can affect people in a way that’s much more important than seeing some annoying or creepy ads that follow you around.”
Editor’s Note: Watch our video for info on how to avoid location-based tracking.
The executive directors of the National Network of Abortion Funds and the Abortion Care Network discuss the challenges and opportunities they have faced so far as leaders of abortion access organizations in the context of one of the most hostile cultural and political climates since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
In this exchange, Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, and Nikki Madsen, executive director of the Abortion Care Network, discuss the challenges and opportunities they have faced so far as leaders of abortion access organizations in the context of one of the most hostile cultural and political climates since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
The two leaders also highlight the importance of working across movements to build momentum around expanding abortion care. “In order to rise above the challenges that 2016 will surely present, we will need to continue to work with and alongside movements like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, in addition to lifting up abortion care providers and seekers across the country,” said Hernandez.
Madsen added: “Working in partnership and building bridges across movements for health, rights, and justice, and prioritizing the voices and needs of those who face the greatest injustice, will create the kind of robust and broad movement that may finally be effective in confronting the root of our collective oppression, and actually achieve the goal of true reproductive justice.”
Rewire: What brought you to a movement seeking unrestricted access to abortion?
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Yamani Hernandez: I came to the abortion-specific movement because, among other things, I was frustrated with the messaging around abortion, which I felt didn’t necessarily represent my abortion experience and was not super accessible to people in the various communities I come from. I was also frustrated with how dangerous parental involvement laws were seemingly a low priority within the broader movement. “Pro-choice” people will often shy away from advocating for young people’s unfettered access to abortion. Young people are not offered comprehensive sexuality education; birth control is hard to get; and then, if a young person becomes pregnant, they are shamed for parenting and shamed for attempting to access abortion services. I really viewed my arrival to this movement as a way to change it from the inside.
Nikki Madsen: I think a culmination of many moments in my life brought me to this movement and have kept me here for more than a decade. My parents holding open and frank conversations with me about sex; my two step-siblings becoming pregnant and parenting in their teens; volunteering for the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood as a young adult; having women’s studies and sociology professors who believed in me; taking a “history of the fetus” course in graduate school (best class ever!); volunteering as a clinic escort at a local, independent abortion care clinic; learning about my grandmother’s pre-Roe abortion; facilitating an after-abortion support group for many years and helping people access financial resources for abortion care in my prior job at Pro-Choice Resources; and planning and creating a family of my own have all shaped the person I am today and my commitment to this essential human rights work.
Rewire: What challenges do you see the movement confronting in 2016?
YH: There’s no denying that we are in a tough climate right now. While we’ve made some great strides forward in 2015, the year was also marked by attacks on abortion providers, TRAP laws, the continuation of the Hyde Amendment—which bans Medicaid coverage of abortion—and stark racism. The election is likely to set the tone for many of our health-care rights, from the Affordable Care Act to protections for or restrictions on abortion, and a lot is at stake. After five years of increased restrictions, we need more elected leaders to speak up for abortion access. Whether we’ll see that in 2016 or in the years that follow is unpredictable, and it’s hard to know whether we’re close to some much-needed victories for low-income people and people of color, or whether we’ll have to struggle more than ever to exercise our basic human rights. The safety of those seeking and providing abortions, the ability to afford health care, and the safety of communities of color are issues integral to the success of the movement. In order to rise above the challenges that 2016 will surely present, we will need to continue working with and alongside movements like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, in addition to lifting up abortion care providers and seekers across the country.
NM: It sure would be nice to think that the New Year would bring a respite from the constant challenges of 2015. We all have anxious eyes on the Supreme Court. If the Court rules in favor of Texas’ omnibus abortion law, HB 2, we will see access diminish as more clinics are forced to close their doors, and emboldened legislatures pass more and farther-reaching laws that make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to receive the care they need. We are hopeful that the Court will see the injustice and unconstitutionality in HB 2 and strike it down, but even if it does we are likely to see a continued onslaught of attacks from anti-choice extremists. The dynamics of an election year are likely to escalate already elevated rhetoric against providers and people who seek abortions, which we will see playing out not only in legislatures, but on the streets in front of clinics. I also believe we will continue to see the prosecution of pregnant people for everything from drug use to miscarriage. Attacks on pregnant people are unlikely to stop.
Rewire: What is your hope for bridging intersections between movement leaders, and in what ways do you think intersectionality brings strength to the movement?
We show up for movements that affect those seeking abortions because we don’t lead one-issue lives, and there are many ways we can make real progress in abortion accessibility by supporting economic and racial justice initiatives.
YH: My hope lies in building authentic relationships and integrating our work based on the ways that actual lives are lived. For instance, when people call abortion funds because they have to choose between paying for rent or paying for health care, there’s not only an economic issue but a housing issue. Intersectionality brings strength to the movement because advocates don’t have to sacrifice other aspects of our identity and experience in order to do this work. We know that advocates’ personal experiences actually inform the work they do, and people can bring their whole selves to work when we start connecting abortion access with other political and social needs. Activists from different movements are stronger together, and we can’t keep preaching to the choir. We need more people speaking up and rejecting the status quo, across lines of race, class, gender, geography, and issue area. We show up for movements that affect those seeking abortions because we don’t lead one-issue lives, and there are many ways we can make real progress in abortion accessibility by supporting economic and racial justice initiatives. Abortion rights activists have been showing up for Fight for $15, with national office staff members in Boston and Madison marching in solidarity with low-wage workers, demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize. We have also made efforts to lift up this issue up in our online and offline communications with supporters and constituents. Since then, we’ve been proud to see the Fight for $15 movement talk about reproductive rights in the context of economic justice. It’s been great to be able to lift one another up.
NM: After the gravity of the challenges we face, this is where I find hope. While Abortion Care Network is obviously focused on abortion care, we know that abortion occurs within the context of people’s lives, where there are many layers of concerns and injustices at play. People’s need for abortion care is wrapped up in their desire for healthy and safe families and communities. Abortion is the exercising of the basic human rights to self-determination and bodily autonomy. We must recognize that the threats to family and community, and the assaults on those basic human rights, are multifaceted and hit people—especially LGBTQ people and people of color—from many directions and in many layers. When we see the struggle for justice in its full frame, and don’t just focus on our own little piece, we can create a more powerful and unified front against our common oppressors. In fact, it’s the only way we can. Working in partnership and building bridges across movements for health, rights, and justice, and prioritizing the voices and needs of those who face the greatest injustice, will create the kind of robust and broad movement that may finally be effective in confronting the root of our collective oppression, and actually achieve the goal of true reproductive justice. It is heartening to see a new generation of activists and organizations leading us in that direction.
Rewire: How do you think the reproductive rights movement should go about investing in new leaders?
YH: I think there are two crucial ways we can invest in new leaders. First, “new” leaders can be younger leaders and sometimes “new” leaders can be people outside of the existing movement. I think that we should invest in explicit succession plans that free up space for new people to join. It would be great for new leaders to have a standard movement-wide orientation that informs them about our history, our opposition, and the unique aspects of doing our work. Second, I could envision a formal executive director support group that these new leaders are brought into. Individual coaching is great, but group coaching could also be really useful. Taking the time to listen to the unique perspectives of each individual could be an essential part of this investment and I can envision this taking place very effectively in a group setting. Drawing strength from the relationships and dialogue we have with one another, “each one reach one” will strengthen not only each individual leader but also the movement as a whole.
NM: Oh how I wish I had the answers. I do think identifying people who will serve as movement mentors for new leaders is essential. And a support group would be lovely.I do know for certain that it’s essential we think beyond our traditional pathways to leadership and structural supports that favor already privileged people. I think much like raising a child, it’s all about your support system. I’m lucky that my position at Abortion Care Network came with a built-in support system, a network comprised of experts and compassionate individuals who allowed me to ask questions and brainstorm ideas. They have lifted me up on the toughest days. For example, just a few weeks before the Colorado shootings at Planned Parenthood, Jamar Clark was shot and killed by police officers in my hometown of Minneapolis. These two tragedies happening so close to one another left me emotionally and physically exhausted as I tried to balance my work demands, commitments to my broader human rights community, and my family. Cristina Aguilar, executive director from COLOR, reached out to me in response to my public statement on the Colorado shootings and offered support—that simple gesture made all the difference in the world.
Rewire: Reflecting on Roe v. Wade, how would you describe what has been happening since it became law, and what is your vision for reclaiming any rights we have lost?
YH: Among many other things, we’ve seen anti-choice lawmakers try literally anything to obstruct access to abortion. We’ve seen waves of clinic closures, steadily increasing numbers of people forced to carry their pregnancy to term against their will, and youth-targeted anti-abortion laws that exist in states that are otherwise progressive when it comes to reproductive health and sex education. Abortion has been stigmatized, racialized, and criminalized to the point that a person can’t have a miscarriage without facing the potential for incarceration, particularly if they are a person of color. Simply put, having something legally on the books and how it actually plays out are entirely different things.
My vision is that all people not only have reclaimed rights but also the resources and recognition to thrive. That means that they can afford the families they want and that they are safe. It also means that they can afford their health care, that it’s in close geographic proximity to them, that it is compassionate health care, and that they don’t have to wait forever to get it. Though the climate is challenging, we are seeing an impressive and powerful wave of people saying, “Enough!” Across the United States, leaders are rising to the challenge, and more and more people continue to join our movement every day. That’s in no small part due to the efforts of member funds on the ground, and providers, and those seeking abortions, telling their experiences and declaring that abortion will not continue to be a health-care option for only those with economic resources. We’re refusing en masse, and people are awake and angry because abortion is a fundamental societal good. We can’t afford to keep going back, and the urgency is spreading like wildfire.
… we must be bold in our language, unafraid to speak openly, proudly, and without defensiveness about the nature of abortion and the positive role it plays in the health and well-being of people, families, and communities.
NM: There just isn’t a simple answer to this question, but there is no doubt that we have lost ground, and I believe that is owed to a movement that has been too narrow in its focus, and too afraid to speak our truth. We have focused primarily on a narrow definition of the right to privacy and to choose, and have used language that both stigmatizes (i.e., “safe, legal and rare,” “no one is pro-abortion, we are pro-choice,” etc.) and lacks the complexity of people’s feelings about abortion. The result has been a movement that has been too quick to accept narrow political victories at the expense of broader justice and access, one that has failed to speak effectively to a broad cross-section of the U.S. public, and that may have contributed to the prevailing silence that exists around the abortion experience. Meanwhile our opponents’ attacks have been broad and their rhetoric bold. When they have been unable to attack the basic isolated right we have protected, they have effectively chipped away at access, disproportionately impacting the most marginalized people and targeting providers, which has weakened our movement at its very base. Our opponents have also effectively spoken to people’s emotions and have systematically shamed and silenced the millions of people who have had abortions. I believe the route forward lies in a broad, intersectional movement that recognizes abortion not as an isolated right, but as a piece in a broader puzzle of justice, and in a unified and coordinated movement for justice. I also believe we must be bold in our language, unafraid to speak openly, proudly, and without defensiveness about the nature of abortion and the positive role it plays in the health and well-being of people, families, and communities.
Rewire: With the case challenging HB 2 (Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole) at the Supreme Court, what is most important for advocates to lift up in conversations about the case?
YH: In the Supreme Court case, Whole Woman’s Health is challenging parts of HB 2: the regulations that require abortion clinics to make massive upgrades to convert their clinics to ambulatory surgical centers, or mini-hospitals, and admitting privileges at local hospitals for abortion providers. Fighting these regulations is extremely important in maintaining access to abortion care across the country, but we must remember that if we win the case, it’s only a bandage on the broader issue. Our callers in Texas, and across the country, will still have an extremely challenging time saving money to pay for their abortion or finding a clinic that they can travel to. They will still have to take time off of work, unpaid, because their jobs don’t offer sick leave. They might risk their immigration status to travel hundreds of miles for an abortion. They’ll have a hard time finding someone to care for their children while they make the multi-day trip to an abortion clinic, or won’t even make the trip because the logistics are too challenging. This case is very important, and we must remember that politicians have put so many barriers in the way that abortion access is becoming nearly impossible for those without economic resources.
NM: It is pretty simple: HB 2 and similar laws are thinly veiled attempts to shut the doors of abortion clinics and limit abortion care. These laws, enacted under the guise of protecting women’s health through stringent regulation, actually do the exact opposite. When clinics are forced to comply with regulations that fall outside of the standards for all other medical facilities, and that are intentionally so expensive and onerous that compliance is difficult if not impossible, many of them will be forced to close their doors. This will leave great numbers of people in this country without access to abortion care, which we know from looking around the world and throughout history is a real and dire threat to people’s health and lives.
Rewire: In 45 amicus briefs sent to the Supreme Court, many people shared their personal abortion stories. Why do you think they chose to share something so personal with the Court?
YH: People want to share their abortion stories because they want to stop the undue burdens put upon us by the state. If abortion is legal, it should not be so hard to access it. People who have abortions aren’t “victims.” Folks want to share their stories because they are taking back the narrative and showing both their resilience and also that enough is enough. They’re hoping that the listener will leave the conversation with a deeper and more complex understanding of abortion. I believe this is what the storytellers are doing in their briefs. They’re asking the Court to understand why access to abortion was so profound and important in their lives, and to maintain that care across the country.
In one of the interviews for our amicus brief, a 31-year-old Texas woman named Courtney asked if the Court wanted to know why she was having an abortion. Courtney explained, speaking about her existing family and children, “Sometimes you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from or how you’re going to pay this bill or [how you’re going to save money] to make sure they eat.” She said she’d rather have an abortion “than bring another kid into the world and make them suffer.” It’s people like Courtney who want the Court to hear their stories. They are doing their best to make their voices heard and speak up about why they decided an abortion was the right decision for them; and in Courtney’s case, it’s because she wants to ensure she is able to provide for her three children. She loves them deeply and she wants the Court to know that abortion was the best decision for her and her family.
NM: Abortion is such a normal and common experience. And yes, it is personal, but the idea that it is something we don’t or shouldn’t talk about is part of the stigma that has been placed on people, not necessarily a universal instinct that abortion need be private. I think there is a growing frustration among people who have had abortions that their experience is both broadly misrepresented in the prevailing public dialogue, and that it is being used to take away from others the necessary access to care. In recent years, organizations dedicated to combating stigma and individuals aided by online communities and social media have created a groundswell of sharing of abortion stories. I feel a growing recognition of the power of those collective stories and resistance of that stigma and silence. Those briefs were powerful and have impact, hopefully with the Court, but also with the public. As a movement we must harness that power, but also effectively support those who are able and willing to share their stories and the personal contribution they have made.
Rewire: The restrictions placed on abortion providers by HB 2 pose a threat to safe and legal abortion access in the state of Texas. What are the national implications of the law?
A threat to legal abortion access in any state is a threat to legal abortion access in every state.
YH: Texas is the largest state where we’ve seen these harsh laws, but the laws are by no means isolated. Neighboring states like Louisiana all the way through the deep South also are losing clinics and creating a sparse patchwork of access. On the other side, we see New Mexico having to absorb a wave of overflow. During the period when HB 2 was being enforced, our Texas abortion funds reported callers having long wait times and many having to forgo their abortions due to time and logistical constraints. Our member funds in the South have had to expand to offer practical support like travel and lodging assistance when there was already not enough resources to pay for abortion procedures. It’s straining the safety nets we’re already struggling to hold together and leaving millions without affordable, accessible abortion care. Which is 100 percent the goal of those passing these laws. If HB 2 is allowed to stand, we can expect an almost immediate wave of copycat laws across the South and Midwest, creating a truly stark divide in the ability to get an abortion in the United States. A threat to legal abortion access in any state is a threat to legal abortion access in every state. We can’t sit by and watch that happen there. It’s unacceptable.
NM: Currently, 1.5 abortion care clinics are closing each week in the United States. And according to Abortion Care Network’s internal numbers, since 2005, almost half of independent abortion care providers, who provide the majority of abortion care in this country, have closed their doors. There is no coincidence that these closures have coincided with the repeated passing of sham laws (like those in HB 2) from state to state, which place restrictions on abortion care clinics and providers and do nothing to protect women and people in need of abortion care. If the Supreme Court accepts the lower court ruling, we will see many more abortion clinics close their doors. And although abortion will technically still be legal under Roe, with each legislative session it will slowly become even more inaccessible for people living anywhere other than the coasts.
Rewire: You both started in May, and the Planned Parenthood videos and the cyber attacks both came in July. How has it felt to be hired for one thing but have to navigate to do something totally different, like security?
YH: It is exceedingly difficult. As a new leader with an organization in transition, dealing with operational challenges like security can really compromise more mission-driven work. We’ve had insurance companies tell us they will not cover us for workers’ compensation because we work on abortion, and that covering our employees is a liability. Last week I came close to signing an office lease, only for the landlord to tell me that they will not rent to us. At such a politically hostile time, running an organization with abortion explicitly in its name has been a bit of a storm. I’m just trying to do my job and build the power of our member organizations. I wasn’t prepared for this, personally or organizationally—I think I’ve needed a different kind of support and I don’t entirely know where to get it. I received a lot of support from my staff, and we were still building our team at the time. Planned Parenthood also offered security support, and a couple of funders responded and assisted with funding so we could research solutions. We are continually strengthening our cyber security, and we’ll be working with our network to build theirs as well.
Recently a friend said to me, “It seems like the worst time in history to become an executive director of a national abortion rights group.” He must have sensed my response, because he quickly followed with, “Or maybe it’s the best?”
NM: Recently a friend said to me, “It seems like the worst time in history to become an executive director of a national abortion rights group.” He must have sensed my response, because he quickly followed with, “Or maybe it’s the best?” All of us working in the reproductive rights, health, and justice movements have felt as if we have been on a roller coaster ride over the past few six months—because we have. On days where I long to do the proactive work I was hired to do, but instead find myself responding to the new crisis, I focus on abortion care providers, clinic owners, movement allies, and people in need of abortion care and it inspires me to push forward. Well, that and red wine.
Rewire: When Planned Parenthood is under attack we are all under attack, but all of us don’t have the same resources as the national health-care organization. How do groups and leaders in the reproductive rights movement navigate this?
YH: Larger organizations really need to take smaller ones into the fold when they are dealing with a problem that impacts everyone. Some of this has happened with Planned Parenthood, but in general, there are tons of operational challenges that most of us organizations are not talking about as a group. Our victory is only possible when we are all working to our highest potential in our area of this movement, when we’re building power on a local and grassroots level. While different organizations have varying levels of resources, we’re all critical to long-term success, and we all have our own specialities and areas of expertise. In this historic moment, when we’re under constant attack, but also seeing higher levels of support than ever, we can channel so much passion into this fight. I know that we will win because we are fighting for a social good, but it will take all of us working together.
NM: Many organizations are necessary to create a healthy ecosystem of abortion care in this country. To truly reach this goal, organizations and leaders within the movement need to find better ways to share resources and support one another—especially the smallest and most under-resourced groups that are often serving the most marginalized communities. It’s essential that we create safe spaces to talk about our organizations’ vulnerabilities with our colleagues and how we can cost-share or support one another to fill the gaps. Equally important is that we encourage our own supporters to give and learn about the essential work of our colleagues. No matter how well resourced or under-resourced we are, we must at all times keep the big picture of a “healthy ecosystem” in the forefront of our mind and work toward that goal.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the timeline of the release of attack videos against Planned Parenthood.