Privacy must come first when it comes to abortion data

Data collection tied to abortion has made many women and abortion-rights advocates especially uneasy in this current climate, where the highly personal matter has been hyper politicized once again.

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Abortion-rights advocate Tessa Anderson, 35, poses with a sign during Rally for Abortion Justice, which is part of the Bans off Our Body nationwide day of action, in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, Saturday morning, May 14, 2022. Thousands attended the rally, which was organized in response to a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, who supported overturning Roe v. Wade. If overturned, abortion would become illegal in 26 states.

Abortion-rights advocate Tessa Anderson, 35, poses with a sign during Rally for Abortion Justice, which is part of the Bans off Our Body nationwide day of action, in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, Saturday morning, May 14, 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Data is crucial in identifying problems and needs in the business sector and in the larger community.

Health care data is particularly important because it can help save lives and improve the quality of patient care.

Data collection tied to abortion, however, makes many women and abortion-rights advocates uneasy in our current climate, where a highly personal matter has been hyper-politicized once again.

Who can blame them? Up until last month, a week’s worth of information on where clients who visited a Planned Parenthood site came from, how long they stayed and where they went afterwards could be purchased by anyone for as little over $160 through the online data-location broker SafeGraph, a recent investigation by Vice revealed.

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SafeGraph said it stopped selling the data following the publication of the Vice article, which raised red flags about such information potentially ending up in the wrong hands.

No woman wants to risk that.

Meanwhile, the vitriol of anti-abortion activists and many Republicans lawmakers keeps growing louder since the leak of the U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion showing the court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.

With that in mind, we are encouraged that the Illinois Department of Public Health is proceeding with caution as it weighs whether to add race and ethnicity data to its publicly available abortion statistics.

IDPH should listen to wary reproductive rights experts and activists who aren’t convinced this is the right move.

The additional data could help pinpoint disparities and shed light on who needs more resources and how to prevent unwanted pregnancies, as WBEZ’s Kristen Schorsch reported last week.

But as a female doctor of color, torn on the matter, said to Schorsch, “Could that data be misused ... and target groups of people?”

Merely considering adding race and ethnicity to abortion data in Illinois makes Marcela Howell “very nervous.”

While IDPH has “good intentions,” politicians who want to enact “draconian” laws do not, said Howell, president and CEO of the Washington D.C.-based In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda.

Besides, countless studies have already shown that Black women, as well Hispanic women, are disproportionately on the receiving end of poor medical care. It is common knowledge among experts and health care providers where the disparities exist.

Strong safeguards?

IDPH should also reassess whether the abortion data the agency already makes public is necessary, and if any public data would need to be altered if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

A pie chart of the marital status of women getting abortions, for example, strikes us as judgmental and unnecessary.

No one is identified in the current IDPH data, and no one can access that information.

IDPH is also prohibited from releasing any reports submitted by abortion providers, and cannot ask or require them to name their patients under the Illinois Reproductive Health Act.

The state also does not share how much education patients have, their ZIP codes or the facility where they had an abortion.

Should Roe v. Wade be repealed, 13 states that have so-called “trigger laws” would immediately ban abortions. That means more out-of-town girls and women will likely head to Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker has vowed “abortion will always be safe and legal.”

IDPH currently tracks online which counties Illinois abortion patients live in and the states where other women come from.

If Roe is overturned, we wouldn’t put it past anti-abortion politicians elsewhere to look at that data and try to restrict women from traveling to Illinois from states where abortion is outlawed. And if they saw more Black and Brown women getting abortions here, who is to say they wouldn’t clamp down harder on communities of color?

“The high court’s ruling will declare open season on women’s rights and lives,” as Howell summed it up in a statement in early May.

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Except for her health care provider, a woman doesn’t have to tell anyone if she has had an abortion. That’s how it should be, unless a woman chooses to openly talk about her experience.

Nine of these women spoke to the Sun-Times’ Elvia Malagón about the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. “Terrifying,” is how one woman put it.

No other medical procedure carries such stigma. In this treacherous environment where many are hellbent on stripping away the right to choose, IDPH cannot be vigilant enough about protecting women’s safety and security.

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