- A South Carolina bill would make it a crime to help people get abortions online or over the phone.
- Technical legal scholars say laws like these violate First Amendment freedoms.
- However, other states may soon propose measures to restrict abortions abroad, researchers say.
As abortion restrictions tighten in several states across the US, 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, text messages and websites that share abortion information.
If SB 1373 were to become law, providing information that could help women obtain an abortion by “telephone, Internet or any other means of communication” or hosting or maintaining websites that could help women have access to abortions, would be a felony, punishable by 2 to 5 years in prison and/or fines of up to $5,000.
Other states may soon follow suit with similar laws. And even if courts ultimately strike down the bill for violating the First Amendment, it could be months before they do, and it could affect the health of many women who seek abortions, researchers and advocates say.
“We are very concerned that we will see a number of state laws being developed, attempting to limit people’s ability to obtain reliable and accurate information about how to access reproductive care,” Alexandra Givens, President of the Center for Democracy and Technology. , the Insider said.
Earlier this month, the CDT set up a task force to address access to information and user privacy in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe V. Wade.
Givens said the law is “simply unconstitutional” and the breadth of the bill is “staggering.”
“This law as it is written could bring in the speech of journalists or politicians or public interest groups who are trying to help people understand their rights and the resources available to them,” Givens said.
Legislation backed by ‘religious zealots’
The South Carolina bill resembles model legislation from the National Right to Life Committee, one of the most established anti-abortion organizations in the US. The NRLC proposed the model legislation as a way to create an “effective enforcement regime” that would prevent health care providers from providing abortion services, according to a memo from Jim Bopp, NRLC counsel.
The NRLC did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The abortion industry will “take advantage of existing state telehealth laws and the proximity of states with less protective laws to circumvent pro-life laws in a given 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’s Medical Affairs committee, was sponsored by three Republicans: Sen. Richard Cash, Sen. Rex Rice, and Sen. Daniel Verdin. Co-sponsors of the bill did not immediately respond to questions sent by Insider.
In a statement to Insider, Democratic state Sen. Mia McLeod, who sits on the South Carolina Senate Health Affairs Committee with Cash, Rice and Verdin, said the bill is likely to pass in the state and would remove women from “God’s gift”. rights and freedoms”.
“As a woman and survivor of sexual assault, I am deeply concerned about its impact, as well as its far-reaching implications,” McLeod wrote. “There is nothing scriptural, scriptural or constitutional about what these religious zealots are doing.”
The 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 “broad” laws aimed at preventing abortion access were “unfortunate but not surprising” in the wake of Roe.
Goodwin cited the history of laws in this country that have limited First Amendment rights and rights to travel for people of color under slavery and during Jim Crow. “Our mistake would be to see this as original, rather than as drawn from a previous book,” she said.
Goodwin pointed to Bigelow v. Virginia, a pre-Roe Supreme Court case that made it legal to share information that could help women obtain abortions, as precedent that would make 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 advocate, said such laws would be “very unlikely” to succeed and cited the Bigelow v. Virginia precedent. 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 “intervening steps,” including initial court proceedings that would address the law.
Goodwin says, however, that even before the law reaches the Supreme Court, it could have harmful effects, including turning many women away from seeking abortions.
Givens, who shared a similar sentiment, told Insider that while the bill is unconstitutional, she is concerned that lawmakers may not care about constitutionality. Instead, they may worry about “scaring people into silence,” she said.
“In the First Amendment domain, we talk a lot about chilling effects, and statutes like this — even if they’re unconstitutional — have a chilling effect on people’s willingness and courage to post information about people who need it,” Givens said. “And that’s one of my biggest concerns that even discussing laws like this can have.”
SB 1373 also targets internet hosting and technology companies
Givens said that in the wake of bills that could target people’s electronic data, people should take steps to minimize their digital footprint, but also encouraged tech companies to stand by these state laws and refuse to hand over data. of users who can implicate people spreading information about abortions. .
Hayley Tsukayama, senior legislative campaigner at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Insider that while her foundation was still considering the South Carolina bill, she was concerned about the free speech implications the law has, not just for citizens who post 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 completely restrict abortion information in accordance with state laws.
“So what we fear could happen is that if a bill like this had passed, then it would have a chilling effect on everyone’s speech,” Tsukayama said.