Access to online information about abortion services and medications would be blocked under Republican-backed legislation in Iowa and Texas, drawing concern from the tech industry.
The move to restrict online content is part of an emerging front, with red states clamping down on abortion access following the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year overturning Roe v. Wade.
The GOP-sponsored measures, which echo a proposal last year in South Carolina, seek to wall off portions of the internet that could facilitate someone obtaining abortion services or medication. The effort stands in contrast to Democratic-sponsored bills in states such as Washington and California that are designed to protect the online privacy of abortion-seekers.
“Tech companies would probably prefer not to get dragged into abortion war battles, but the reality is the battle is coming for them,” said Adam Kovacevich, CEO of Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech industry group that opposes the Iowa and Texas bills.
The proposed restrictions in Iowa are contained in a sweeping anti-abortion bill known as the Iowa Human Life Protection Act, which nearly one-third of the House Republican Caucus signed onto but has since stalled.
Among the bill’s many provisions is a requirement that internet service providers and platforms block access to information that could help an Iowa citizen “obtain an elective abortion or abortion-inducing drugs.”
The restrictions would also apply to internet service offered in publicly owned buildings including schools, colleges, universities and libraries.
“It’s a censorship provision that’s within a broader anti-abortion bill,” Kovacevich said.
Individual citizens would be allowed to enforce key elements of the proposed law on behalf of the government by bringing what is known as a qui tam lawsuit against alleged violators.
The prime sponsor of the measure, state Rep. Jon Dunwell (R), was not available for an interview. But last month legislative leaders told the Des Moines Register the bill was unlikely to be taken up this year while the Iowa Supreme Court decides the fate of a previously passed law to restrict abortions.
“Let’s see what the court decides, and then at that point we’ll obviously work to do something to protect life,” House Speaker Pat Grassley (R) told the newspaper. The bill subsequently failed to advance before a key cutoff deadline.
The Texas bill, known as the Women and Child Safety Act, is narrower than the Iowa measure and focuses primarily on restricting the distribution of abortion drugs, as well as regulating internet content.
Among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that internet service providers and online platforms block access to information about obtaining an abortion or abortion drugs, including from six specific websites: aidaccess.org, justthepill.com, heyjane.com, planpills.org, mychoix.com and carafem.org.
In a Twitter thread earlier this month, HeyJane, an abortion pill provider which says it does not operate in Texas, called the bill a “blatant attack on freedom of speech and commerce.”
“HB 2690 is the first bill of its kind, and reflects the extreme lengths that anti-abortion politicians will go to prevent even the knowledge of this safe, effective abortion treatment,” the company stated in one of the tweets.
The Texas bill would also ban people from creating or hosting websites or other online services designed to facilitate someone accessing abortion medication.
Similar to Texas’s existing abortion ban, the bill would deputize individual citizens to enforce the law by allowing them to sue alleged violators and win up to $10,000 in statutory damages for each violation.
The sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Steve Toth (R), did not respond to a request for an interview sent to his media representative.
Asked about the online restrictions contained in the Texas and Iowa bills, Kelsey Pritchard with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America pointed instead to Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming, which she said are advancing “pro-life safety net legislation to support pregnancy centers and moms.”
“As the Biden administration encourages pharmacies to violate federal law and send dangerous abortion pills by mail, the abortion industry is targeting young women with ads to increase their profits and isolate those women from friends, relatives and pregnancy resource centers that can offer support,” Pritchard wrote in an email.
While the Iowa bill appears to have died, the fate of the Texas bill remains uncertain. Even if no bill passes this year, opponents are concerned about a proliferation of state-level efforts to regulate online content related to abortion.
“Our view is that if you don’t raise the concern, then these bills spread,” Kovacevich said.
Last year, Chamber of Progress organized a letter of opposition from several organizations to the South Carolina bill, which would have made it illegal to provide online information on how to obtain an abortion.
The letter warned that the proposed law was unconstitutional and unworkable. It also said that online services and broadband providers would not be able to distinguish between allowed and disallowed information, which could lead to the censorship of any information about reproductive health.
“This, in turn, could lead to greater rates of unintended pregnancies and maternal mortality, as well as rates of sexually transmitted diseases as people can’t access information about reproductive and sexual health,” the letter stated.
While the bill did not pass, the Washington Post described it as “modeled off a blueprint created by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) … and designed to be replicated by lawmakers across the country.”
An NRLC spokesperson was not available for comment Tuesday. Last year, James Bopp, NRLC’s longtime general counsel, told the newspaper that the model legislation was still being refined “so it doesn’t impinge on First Amendment rights.”
Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who specializes in privacy and content moderation, described both the Texas and Iowa bills as “very broadly written” and said she would be surprised if they could withstand constitutional challenges.
“I think it’s very unlikely that a state can just ban access to online information,” Chin said. But, she added, the mere introduction of the bills “definitely sends a message.”