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Losing Net Neutrality Could Cripple Abortion Rights

In the past, telecom companies have tried to censor abortion rights campaigns.
Image: Jordan Uhl/Flickr

There are lots of reasons why open internet activists are fighting to preserve net neutrality, from preserving free speech to protecting personal data. Now pro-choice activists say that losing an open internet would also be an attack on women's abortion rights.

"The fundamentals of our organizing, these days, happens online," said Kaylie Hanson-Long, national communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, a nonprofit that fights for access to abortion, in an interview. "It's essential to the work that progressive organizations do and without a free internet, perspectives of our members could be muzzled because of the whims of an internet service provider."


The internet is a critical tool for keeping women informed of their rights, the laws, and how to get the care they need. But if that is compromised or limited in any way, it could further limit women's access to abortion in the US. The idea that losing net neutrality could harm access to health care isn't totally new, several activists and nonprofits have argued that an internet without net neutrality would disproportionately affect minorities and low-income families.

And Hanson-Long told me we don't have to think that far back to see how real this threat is. In 2007, NARAL began a text-messaging campaign to spread information about state and federal bills that would damage abortion access. Interested supporters could sign up to receive messages from NARAL, but Verizon blocked the message on its network. Verizon stated that it doesn't participate in campaigns from any group "that seeks to promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users."

Eventually, after much public pressure, Verizon reversed its decision, but Hanson-Long told me it's an example of how corporate interests could stifle free speech if net neutrality isn't protected.

For the past few months, the Federal Communications Commission has been collecting feedback on a plan to dismantle US net neutrality protections—regulations that prevent internet service providers from determining what content their users can and can't see online. Open internet evangelists have been raising alarm bells about the consequences of losing these protections, staging a "Day of Action" Wednesday that included websites purposely limiting user access as a way to highlight the importance of an open internet.


Read more: After Net Neutrality 'Day of Action,' Internet Activists Face a Tough Fight Ahead

If the FCC goes through with the plan, it could also hinder women's abilities to look up free, open, and accurate information on abortion online—a crucial step in not only accessing reproductive health care, but also organizing political action. I pulled up Google search data on the term "abortion pill," and found more people were looking it up in states where access to abortion is partially or severely limited, such as Mississippi and Louisiana, which may suggest a lack of access to information about abortion options.

Image: Screengrab/Google Trends

"We know that these days so many corporations have their own perspectives that can really be damaging to women, to our movement," Hanson-Long said, citing Hobby Lobby's fight to deny employees birth control, which the supreme court upheld.

"Putting corporations in charge of the information that a person can receive is wrong."

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