Guerrilla hacktics: As abortion rights weaken nationally, local pro-choice activists switch to a grassroots offensive in Sacramento

Teen abortions and births rose in Texas after state defunded Planned Parenthood

A Planned Parenthood street party in downtown Sacramento rallies support amid fears of federal funding cuts.

A Planned Parenthood street party in downtown Sacramento rallies support amid fears of federal funding cuts.

Photo courtesy of Chantel Elder

This is an extended version of a story that ran August 3, 2017.

Two nights before the Affordable Care Act survived a watered-down repeal, about 100 Sacramentans, including Mayor Darrell Steinberg, partied with Planned Parenthood on a blocked-off street downtown. Huddled between 10th and K streets, the glow-in-the-dark, pinked-out fest saw testimony from a Planned Parenthood patient, spoken-word poetry and soulful sounds by The Philharmonik and beatbox queen Butterscotch.

Despite the unforeseen victory two days later, the night was meant to energize a teetering resistance movement that is supported by a majority of Americans and yet is losing massive legislative, executive and judicial ground.

Northern California hasn’t been spared when it comes to publicly subsidized health care organizations that provide abortions among many other services. Planned Parenthood closed three Bay Area facilities in June. In Sacramento, the local branch of the grassroots clinic Women’s Health Specialists shuttered in April. Both organizations cited challenges with reimbursements under the state’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal.

On the national front, seven years of Republican gerrymandering have stolen political ground in midterm elections. A spike in anti-choice bills, particularly in the South and Midwest, has made it more difficult for women to access abortions or other contraceptive care.

As the anti-abortion movement finds a powerful friend in President Donald Trump, reproductive rights activists are mixing up their game plan, implementing scrappy guerrilla tactics to spread their message, combat misinformation and circumvent the legislative barriers keeping women from their right to choose.

Last April, Shireen Whitaker and Emily Loen first got wind that, when it comes to their fight for reproductive rights, “the picket line is moving online,” Loen said.

Anti-abortion hacktivists targeted the National Network of Abortion Funds, breaching its email server and using it to send propaganda to donors in NNAF’s Bowl-A-Thon, one of its biggest annual fundraisers. The cyberattack forced the network to shut down its website temporarily, disrupting its attempt to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help women who can’t afford abortions. The fundraiser went ahead, but the two pro-choice activists were now convinced that anti-abortion interests weren’t resting on their laurels.

“It proved that the anti-abortion movement was going after access in any way it could,” Loen said. “We needed to be more creative in our solutions. And we wanted to protect people who were doing this work in the first place.”

Loen and Whitaker are gaining traction as pro-choice activists who focus their work in the online space. Former employees at Women’s Health Specialists, the two garnered some national press for their Abortion Access Hackathon, which drew some 200 people from the tech, legal and social media fields to create web apps and digital tools to support organizations, further access for patients and disrupt the disrupters.

“I really think we can help channel tech into combating the anti-abortion movement, even if I don’t exactly know how we’re going to do that yet,” Whitaker said.

The first hackathon gathered around 20 people last October. Its March sequel benefited from the “Trump bump,” Loen said, referring to the sudden interest in reproductive rights activism since the president’s election, attracting around 600 applications.

Though most of the apps and ideas are still in the development stages, the fruits of both hackathons are intriguing.

One web app, called Vetit, would make it easier to screen potential volunteers for undercover anti-abortion activists who want to infiltrate clinics and events like the hackathon. Other ideas involved creating tools to help NNAF field access requests. Another idea applied the GoFundMe model to raising money for abortions. Rhetorical Uterus is an app idea that would help pro-choicers get their talking points straight when arguing with a anti-abortion family member. “See It. Share It. Shut It down.” is a Facebook page that crowdsources online harassment reporting.

Whitaker says she experienced some of that herself as a clinic escort for Women’s Health Specialists. “I always joked that it was like Mean Girls because they would pick on me quite a bit,” Whitaker said. “I would be out there by myself a lot and they would post pictures saying that I was a loner. And these women are grandma age, so it was a little weird.”

In 2015, The National Abortion Federation reported 25,000 instances of online threats and hate speech over the course of six weeks, speculating that the number could be as high as 100,000 with enhanced tracking.

Violent threats and cyberbullying are one thing, but what about polite-yet-dangerous misinformation? The second focus of the pair’s activism is in calling out “crisis pregnancy” centers, which have been known to lure pregnant women and lobby them against having an abortion. The centers greatly outnumber independent clinics that provide abortions in the country.

Partnered with more than 40 pro-choice organizations nationally, Loen and Whitaker’s online campaign #ExposeFakeClinics, which launched last month, encourages people to find a center on the site’s map, call it to inquire about services, write a review on Yelp, Google+ or Facebook, and share the reviews on social media.

“We’re hoping that by crowdsourcing truth, we’ll cut through the bullshit of these CPCs and put it out to the general public,” Loen said of crisis pregnancy centers.

One of those CPCs is the Sac Valley Pregnancy Clinic, which did not respond to an SN&R request for comment before deadline.

Loen and Whitaker are planning a third hackathon. Registration is open for the event, which will be held September 15-17 in New York City.

Whitaker says the pro-choice movement, when compared to other progressive movements, has stagnated because of mass abortion stigma. Polls show that most of the country supports choice, and approximately one in three American women obtain an abortion before the age of 45, according to a 2011 report from the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research and policy organization in favor of advancing reproductive health rights.

Whitaker says she is concerned that public opinion could be swayed in the Wild West of online propaganda.

“This presidency was won over Twitter,” Whitaker said. “We’re seeing that social media has a huge effect on culture. I’m definitely worried about regressing to more archaic beliefs on abortion. It’s really hard enough just to maintain the ground we’ve made, and now we have to worry about regression.”

But not if Lady Parts Justice League, a partner in #ExposeFakeClinics, can do something about it.

Lizz Winstead, a feminist comedian and co-creator of The Daily Show, formed the coalition of comics two years ago in response to the spike in state anti-abortion laws. Imagine the online comedy skit site Funny Or Die, but for issues that affect women and nonbinary people.

“For us, if you are trying to put your message into conversations that are happening in other spaces, especially pop culture spaces, you can reach people who maybe didn’t know,” Winstead said.

This summer, the video series expanded into a comedy-activism road show called The Vagical Mystery Tour. The national tour mixes stand-up, live music, community forums and volunteer work at abortion clinics.

“Once we realized we were getting people aware and getting people activated, activists from around the country were writing us and saying, ‘can you help do a video for us? We need more help,’” Winstead said. “And they were doing great work. But when you have 20 or 30 [activists] in red states who are also fighting fracking, police brutality, racial issues and LGBTQ issues, they just need more folks. What if we took our comedy on the road?”

While Lady Parts Justice arms viewers with facts, the National Network of Abortions is trying to end the enduring stigma over abortion by sharing true stories. Last year, the umbrella network of nonprofits formed “We Testify,” a campaign to reshape perceptions about abortion through personal stories from people ranging in a variety of racial, socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds. A recent study found just as much is possible. Researchers at UC San Francisco concluded that “coming out” about an abortion experience can improve attitudes toward it.

“We know that if people hear more diverse stories about people who have abortions, they start to understand the challenges that people face and understanding that not every state is the same with anti-choice restrictions and funding barriers,” said NNAF spokeswoman Renee Bracey Sherman.

But there are more barriers than there used to be.

Anti-choice operatives have been quietly successful at whittling down access to both abortions and contraceptive care at the state level for years, with counter-intuitive results. Case in point: In Texas, where state lawmakers defunded Planned Parenthood, teen abortions and teen births rose over four years by more than 3 percent, according to a Texas A&M University study. Something similar happened there in 2014, after Texas legislators regulated reproductive health clinics into near-extinction and more women began attempting self-induced abortions using medications they bought online.

In other words, the conservative campaign to banish abortions is actually making them more common and dangerous. But that doesn’t mean the right is stopping.

Following the Senate vote last week, Trump pressured Congress via Twitter to continue Obamacare repeal efforts. There are talks of a new bill that could tempt moderate senators like Lindsay Graham, potentially getting Republicans past the 50-vote threshold to repeal. Prior efforts, including the “skinny” repeal, have included language to defund Planned Parenthood and other federally subsidized organizations that perform abortions, which would bar access to Medicaid patients.

Whitaker is both hopeful and unsure of the future for reproductive autonomy.

“I used to think that we were making progress,” Whitaker said. “It’s not even just that Trump was elected and that Republicans have control of both houses. There’s something about what that does in the mindset of everyone, in the culture, that’s making it really hard to fight this battle.”