After last year’s Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Republican states passed a wave of legislation barring access to reproductive health care. As the Dobbs v. Jackson decision nears its anniversary, red states are doubling down with a whole new round of legislation targeting women, including online censorship bills.
In Texas, legislators have introduced H.B. 2690, legislation to compel Internet providers to block abortion pill websites. This bill would force platforms to proactively censor any information about abortion access or mutual aid funds in order to avoid liability. It would also require Internet access providers to block sites that provide information about accessing abortions anywhere in the U.S., abortion funds and mutual aid funds, and how to order abortion pills through the mail–which federal law still protects.
As drafted, these prohibitions may lead to services censoring direct messages between patients and caregivers on how to obtain safe care. The bill may also force services to block or censor telemedicine counseling services in which medical professionals advise pregnant people on a variety of reproductive health services, including but not limited to legal abortions.
Restricting access to factual information about abortion access would pose harm to all women, especially communities of color and to low-income people. It is already especially difficult for underserved racial and ethnic minority people to access and use reproductive health services as needed. Pregnant people who already have challenges accessing health care may especially depend on the Internet to find and receive accurate information about reproductive care.
Online searches for information about abortion are most common in states with the strictest abortion laws. Unfortunately, those searches are also more likely to turn up dangerous misinformation – leading women to fake clinics, linking abortions to breast cancer and infertility, and promoting the use of unsafe, ineffective herbal remedies. By forcing platforms to censor doctors and other reliable sources posting factual information online, this bill would allow dangerous misinformation to spread unchecked.
Given the technical and legal burdens imposed by state abortion bans, websites and Internet access providers may be forced to block reproductive health information nationwide, rather than state-by-state.
By requiring platforms to censor a wide array of information online, this legislation is also in clear violation of the First Amendment. In 1975, the Supreme Court in Bigelow v. Virginia explicitly held that a state could not bar citizens of another state “from disseminating information about an activity that is legal in that state”.
Because access to medication abortion is still protected at the federal level, reproductive health information is protected speech, and because pregnant people have the right to travel across state lines to receive care, states cannot limit speech about accessing those legal services. By imposing liability on platforms and service providers who choose to host speech about federally protected reproductive health services and mutual aid funds, H.B. 2690 infringes on the rights of individuals to communicate freely online – and the rights of online platforms to host that speech.
In anticipation of a state supreme court decision clearing the way for new anti-choice legislation, Iowa Republicans introduced a bill this year (H.F. 510) that would ban access to all abortions and censor speech online related to reproductive care.
Similar to Texas’s legislation, Iowa’s bill compels Internet access providers to block abortion pill websites and information on reproductive care and creates a path for individuals to sue platforms for “facilitating” access to information.
In addition to reducing access to factual abortion-related information, the bill could force platforms and service providers to censor any information about reproductive health. It would be difficult for platforms and access providers to distinguish between the types of content targeted by this bill and other, allowable information about reproductive health services.
As a result, platforms might choose to block all posts related to reproductive health, and access providers might revoke access for any site that provided information to pregnant people. This, in turn, could lead to increased rates of unintended pregnancies and maternal mortality, as well as rates of sexually transmitted diseases, as Internet users would be denied access to information about reproductive and sexual health.
While Iowa’s bill did not move forward this year as state legislators waited for a state supreme court decision, the legislation provides a possible roadmap that rightwing lawmakers may pursue in the Hawkeye State should the court allow for it.