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Abortion and Section 230

July 13, 2022

On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, revoking the constitutional right to abortion. We’ve entered a world in which millions of people won’t be able to access abortion. (Not to mention that many folks already couldn’t access abortion under Roe, because of barriers ranging from the Hyde Amendment to increasingly restrictive state laws.)

As Jia Tolentino wrote, this future world might be worse than our pre-Roe past. Thankfully, there are safer underground ways to find abortion than there were before Roe, but there will be unsafe abortions, there will be injuries and deaths of people who are pregnant and don’t wish to be. And now, we’re newly concerned about the widespread criminalization of pregnancy and miscarriage.

We need to find a way forward. That way might be underground, or online. The Internet provides a space to grieve and to care for one another. It also provides space for information-seeking, organizing, and taking action. But can it remain this way?

Adi Robertson notes that the Dobbs decision has significant consequences for digital privacy. Just weeks before the decision, clinics were reevaluating their digital privacy. People are debating whether or not to delete period-tracking apps. States could use online records to criminally prosecute people, and those prosecutions could involve those platforms and activists who “enable” abortions.

Currently, Internet platforms have a clear defense to those prosecutions: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which “shields apps and websites from being considered the ‘publisher or speaker’ of user-generated content.” Though there’s an exception to Section 230 protections for conduct that violates federal criminal law, there isn’t an exception for violations of state laws, like abortion bans. Section 230 protections are far from guaranteed: they’ve been under attack through laws like SESTA-FOSTA. If attacks to Section 230 succeed, sites fearing liability may act in their self-interest and eliminate abortion information altogether.

We at Woodhull Freedom Foundation enthusiastically support all fundamental human rights to bodily autonomy, including the right to abortion. We know that Section 230 is responsible for keeping much of the information about abortion online, and we know that its continued existence is key to navigating our way forward.

Photo of Abortion Rights Protesters

A group of people wearing yellow t-shirts marches in protest holding a sign that says "We demand abortion justice." (By Andrew Lichenstein)

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