These days, abortion clinics and associated funds are not only contending with policy challenges, but also with hackers who are trying to disrupt online fundraising. However, some abortion funds who have recently been attacked by hackers are fighting back with a first-of-its-kind lawsuit.
In a suit filed in late March, the National Network of Abortion Funds, a network of organizations that helps patients pay for abortions, and a few of their member organizations claim that 15 hackers interfered with one of their annual fundraisers in 2016. Every year, the NNAF runs a Bowl-a-Thon fundraiser to raise money for abortion access. The hackers, who are identified only as John Does one to 15, “disabled the fundraising site through a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, impersonated Plaintiffs and sent donors deeply disturbing racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic emails,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit further notes the seriousness harm the hack caused: “By ransacking the single-most important abortion fundraiser of the year, Defendant(s) took away the ability to access abortions from the persons most in need of help.”
The network and their co-plaintiffs argue in their lawsuit that the John Does’ hack and harassment violated the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which prohibits the blockading or destruction of abortion clinic entrances, and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Though the FACE Act refers specifically to “physical obstruction” or “destruction” of clinic facilities, the lawsuit argues that the NNAF and their partners are “are considered to be ‘facilities’ within the meaning of the statute because they offer access to ‘reproductive health services.'”
The lawsuit is the first to contend that digital obstruction to abortion access is as much a violation of the FACE Act as physically blockading a clinic’s entrance. And if it’s successful, it could be a positive first step in reversing the harmful effects of anti-abortion extremists who take their harassment of abortion providers, advocates, and patients online.
Beyond the 2016 hack of NNAF’s fundraiser, Planned Parenthood was hacked by anti-abortion activists in 2015 — the same year that a gunman fatally shot three people and injured nine at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The hackers then exposed personal information they obtained about abortion providers in order to harass and intimidate them online. Whole Woman’s Health, a group of abortion clinics in Texas, was hit with a barrage of hacking attempts after a man harassed the organization’s VP of Communications, Fatimah Gifford, after she testified before the Texas legislature last year.
Heather Shumaker, Senior Counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, tells Brit + Co that the NNAF’s lawsuit is “the first time we’ve seen FACE used in this manner” to fight anti-abortion intervention online.
“The law is designed to protect those who are providing care and those who are receiving care. It prohibits the use of force,” she says. “The argument from plaintiffs is that they’ve made an obstruction by targeting the fundraising. Through that avenue, they’re preventing people from receiving care.”
Because the Trump administration has been hostile regarding reproductive rights, Shumaker says that this lawsuit will be some indicator of how FACE will be enforced during the Trump era.
“Anti-abortion extremists already feel emboldened by the anonymity the internet provides,” Shumaker tells us, “So a win [for the plaintiffs] would really show that interfering with access to abortion, whether it’s online or face-to-face outside of a clinic, is unacceptable.”
Though it’s unclear how the courts will handle the argument based on the FACE Act, the NNAF and they’re partners are “keeping up with the modern times and applying [the law] to the online efforts.” As those who wish to restrict reproductive choice continue to use both online and face-to-face tactics, it’s imperative that protections for abortion apply to all attacks.
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(Images via Alex Wong/Getty Images and Getty Images; Illustration by Sarah Tate/Brit + Co)