- A South Carolina bill would make helping people who get abortions online or over the phone a crime.
- Tech law scholars say laws like these violate First Amendment freedoms.
- However, other states may soon come up with measures to reduce out-of-state abortions, academics say.
As abortion restrictions tighten in some states across the United States, lawmakers are looking for ways to further prosecute abortion providers and prevent more abortions in a post-Roe world.
In South Carolina, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would restrict phone calls, emails, texts and websites that share information about getting abortions.
If SB 1373 were to become law, providing information that could help women obtain abortions by “telephone, Internet, or any other mode of communication” or hosting or maintaining websites that could help women access the abortion would be a crime, punishable by 2 to 5 years in prison and/or fines up to $5,000.
Other states may soon follow with similar laws. And even if the courts end up striking down the bill for violating the First Amendment, it could take months before they do and could affect the health of many women who seek abortions, according to scholars and advocates.
“We are very concerned to see a number of state laws emerging trying to limit people’s ability to get reliable and accurate information on how to access reproductive care,” said Alexandra Givens, president of the Center for democracy and technology. , said Insider.
Earlier this month, CDT established a task force to address access to information and user privacy in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which overturned Roe V. Wade.
Givens said the law is “patently unconstitutional” and the magnitude of the bill is “surprising”.
“This law as written could involve journalists, politicians or public interest groups trying to help people understand their rights and the resources available to them,” Givens said.
The legislation is backed by ‘religious fanatics’
The South Carolina bill resembles model legislation from the National Right to Life Committee, one of the most established anti-abortion organizations in the United States. The NRLC proposed the model legislation as a way to create an “effective enforcement regime” that would prevent health care providers from offering abortion services, according to a memo from NRLC attorney Jim Bopp.
The NRLC did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
“The abortion industry” will “exploit existing state telehealth laws and proximity to states with less protective laws to circumvent pro-life laws in a particular state,” Bopp wrote in June. Bopp did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The bill, currently in the South Carolina State Senate Medical Affairs Committee, was sponsored by three Republicans: Sen. Richard Cash, Sen. Rex Rice and Sen. Daniel Verdin. The bill’s co-sponsors did not immediately respond to questions sent by Insider.
In a statement to Insider, Democratic state Senator Mia McLeod, who sits on the South Carolina Senate Medical Affairs Committee with Cash, Rice and Verdin, said the bill would likely pass in the state. and deprive women of their “gift from God”. rights and freedoms.”
“As a woman and a survivor of sexual assault, I am deeply concerned about its impact, as well as its profound implications,” McLeod wrote. “There is nothing biblical, scriptural or constitutional about what these religious fanatics are doing.”
Bill could have a ‘chilling effect’ on people’s speech
Michele Goodwin, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy, told Insider that “far-reaching” laws intended to prevent abortion access were “unfortunate, but not surprising” in Roe’s wake.
Goodwin cited the history of laws in this country that restricted First Amendment rights and travel rights for black people under slavery and during Jim Crow. “Our mistake would be to see this as original, rather than seeing it as taken from an earlier playbook,” she said.
Goodwin pointed to Bigelow v. Virginia, an earlier Supreme Court Roe case that made it legal to share information that could help women get abortions, as precedent that would render SB 1373 unconstitutional. However, Goodwin added, the Dobbs decision means the Supreme Court may not be reliable in upholding established precedent.
Robert Corn-Revere, a First Amendment lawyer, said such laws would be “highly unlikely” to succeed and cited the precedent Bigelow v. Virginia. Corn-Revere told Insider that the Supreme Court, despite criticism, has been “very strong in protecting First Amendment rights.” He also noted that there would be “intermediate steps,” including initial litigation that would deal with the law.
Goodwin says, however, that even before the law reaches the Supreme Court, it could have deleterious effects, including preventing many women from having abortions.
Givens, who shared a similar sentiment, told Insider that although the bill is unconstitutional, she fears lawmakers might care about constitutionality. Instead, they may instead be concerned with “scaring people into shutting up,” she said.
“In the area of the First Amendment, we talk a lot about chilling effects, and laws like this – even if they’re unconstitutional – have a chilling effect on people’s willingness and courage to release information to people who need,” Givens said. “And that’s one of my biggest concerns that even discussing laws like this might have.”
SB 1373 also targets internet hosting and technology companies
Givens said that in the wake of bills that could target people’s electronic records, people should take steps to minimize their digital footprint, but also encouraged tech companies to stand up against these state laws. and to refuse to transmit user data which could implicate persons disseminating information on abortions. .
Hayley Tsukayama, senior legislative activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Insider that while her foundation was still reviewing the South Carolina bill, she was concerned about the free speech implications the bill would have. a, not only for citizens who publish information, but for Internet companies. themselves.
For example, Tsukayama pointed to the fact that Internet companies are not always able to restrict sites in certain states and may have to restrict abortion information altogether to comply with state laws.
“So what we fear is that if a bill like this had passed, it would really have a chilling effect on everyone’s speech,” Tsukayama said.