In the years before Roe v. Wade, an anonymous group of Chicago-area women known only as The Janes came together to provide safe, clandestine abortions to pregnant people in need. Over the course of several years, the group provided over 11,000 abortions. When they were finally busted by the police in 1972, it wasn’t because of police surveillance or the group’s anti-war activism or even their willingness to provide abortions to the pregnant family members of police officers. It was a family member of a Jane patient who tipped off the police.
“Some nosey bitch tried to snitch on someone who needed an abortion,” says Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the abortion storytelling organization We Testify.
Fifty years later, the threat that took down The Janes still looms large for people seeking abortion under criminalization. While activists rightly warn about text messages, browser histories, and other digital evidence trails, it’s low-tech — and human — security breaches that often pose the greatest risk.
It’s low-tech — and human — security breaches that often pose the greatest risk
“The biggest threat to the privacy of abortion seekers is other people,” says Laura Huss, a senior researcher at If/When/How, a legal organization dedicated to protecting the rights of abortion patients. “People’s private information — like what they search for on the internet or text messages that they’ve sent to others — have come into evidence in cases where people have been charged with a crime for self-managing an abortion. But again, the precipitating factor has most often been someone else reporting them to law enforcement, who then have the power to seize people’s devices.”
In their research on adults who’ve been criminally investigated or arrested for allegedly self-managing or assisting an abortion, If/When/How discovered that a full 45 percent of cases were brought to the attention of the police via a healthcare professional like a doctor, nurse, or social worker. Another 26 percent of people were reported by friends or family members. (Eighteen percent came to the attention of police in other ways, like police recovery of fetal remains, anonymous tips to police, or a 911 call. In the remaining 11 percent of cases, If/When/How could not identify how police were initially alerted.) These findings are consistent with cybersecurity generally: more often than not, it’s other people who are the weakest link in the chain.
The most effective security solution is also an incredibly isolating one
But if human informants are the biggest threat to abortion seekers, that means the most effective security solution is also an incredibly isolating one. Perfect security would mean keeping the procedure and even your pregnancy a complete secret, shutting out friends and even primary care providers. But for most people, that kind of complete lockdown isn’t practical — and might be too painful to bear. Terminating a pregnancy can be a fraught, emotional experience, even when the abortion is a wanted one. Going it alone can be really tough, particularly for people who are self-managing at home with abortion pills and without the assistance of a medical professional.
“I’m not a total ‘don’t tell anybody’ sort of a person,” says Bracey Sherman, noting that her stance is closer to “be careful of who to trust.” In her experience, “it’s not a surprise for people — usually — where their family members stand on abortion.” That basic information can be a pretty reliable guide for who is, or isn’t, safe to open up to.
But, she notes, this isn’t always foolproof. In her own life, Bracey Sherman has seen multiple instances of an avowed abortion supporter changing their tune once the reproductive rights battle pops up in their own backyard. “Somebody’s super, super pro-choice until they realize someone in their family needs an abortion,” she says. “Then all of the assumptions they have about who has abortions and why come to the surface” — and things can get ugly fast.
As long as abortion is viewed as shameful and dangerous, the people who need abortions will be unsafe
If you don’t want to chance it with friends and family, a number of abortion rights organizations are committed to helping people navigate the abortion process — including providing emotional support — without compromising their safety or privacy. Some, like Reprocare and the Miscarriage and Abortion Hotline, have been explicitly set up to help people through the process of self-managed abortion. Others, like local abortion funds and doulas, might not explicitly advertise their support services but can be useful (and confidential) all the same. “I’m somebody that you would call,” Bracey Sherman adds. “A lot of us [in the abortion space] are just there for you. It feels weird to trust a complete stranger and not your best friend. But that’s the life that we live right now.”
Friends and family aren’t the only people you have to worry about reporting you; healthcare providers are also a risk. Although abortion is incredibly safe, even when it’s done at home alone with pills, some people still experience complications that require medical attention. And others simply want to get checked out by a doctor for their own peace of mind. Whatever your reason for seeking medical assistance, it’s crucial that you don’t mention your abortion to the doctor, receptionist, nurse, or anyone else you might encounter during your appointment. Instead, most abortion organizations recommend telling doctors and other care professionals that you had a miscarriage since there’s no medical way to distinguish between miscarriage and abortion with pills.
But this is hardly foolproof: if a doctor doesn’t think you’re sad enough about your miscarriage, they may flag you as someone who had an abortion anyway, particularly if you’re a member of a group that’s routinely policed and criminalized, like people of color and low-income folks. So another option is to simply act surprised and confused, as though you had no idea you were pregnant in the first place. Unlike a miscarriage after a known pregnancy, there’s no “correct” way to respond to the spontaneous end of a pregnancy you weren’t even aware of. (Under no circumstances should you ever mention illicitly acquired abortion pills to doctors. They do not need to know!)
Yet fundamentally, the only way to truly protect the privacy of abortion patients is through widespread education focused on destigmatizing abortion. In the long run, that work will lead to better abortion laws. But even in the short term, teaching people that abortion is safe reduces the incentive to report abortion seekers to the police. As Huss and Bracey Sherman both note, many people who report a self-managed abortion to the police aren’t acting out of malice but, rather, a misguided desire to help. As long as abortion is viewed as shameful and dangerous, the people who need abortions will be unsafe. Building a world where abortion is recognized as a fundamental part of reproductive healthcare — and, most importantly, a private medical decision — is the best way to protect the security and safety of abortion seekers.
“We Testify started with the slogan ‘Everyone loves someone who had an abortion’ because we’ve always known that it’s the people closest to you that are the ones who hurt people the most,” says Bracey Sherman. Working to get those people on board with abortion rights isn’t just politically savvy; it could literally save your life if you ever need an abortion yourself.