Anti-Abortion Activists Are Exploiting Public Record Laws To Target Doctors

Experts say the tactic is being used to bully providers out of practice.
Anti-abortion protesters rally near a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia in May.  
Anti-abortion protesters rally near a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia in May.  

A registered nurse is attempting to use an open records law in Pennsylvania to uncover the name and license number of every physician, administrator, medical director, owner, trustee and board member affiliated with abortion clinics in the state.

Jean Crocco, 66, who lives in Illinois and works for the anti-abortion organization Pro-Life Action League, says she is seeking the information to protect women from subpar medical care, though experts say abortion is an extremely safe procedure and complications are rare.

“I research the physicians to verify they are licensed and also look at other states where they may practice to see if their licenses are current and if they have been disciplined,” she told HuffPost in an email. “Only when there is a real threat to patient safety do we make public my findings.”

But supporters of abortion rights say the true intention of these requests is to bully and pressure providers out of practice, with the ultimate goal of eroding abortion access.

A number of groups in the anti-abortion movement, including the Pro-Life Action League, use personal information to harass, stalk, intimidate and even physically harm abortion providers, said Melissa Fowler, vice president of external relations at the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers in the U.S.

“We can’t buy into the lie that their intentions here are innocent,” Fowler said. “This is not what the history of their past actions show us.”

Crocco’s request was denied under the personal safety exemption of the state’s open records law, which protects records that, if disclosed, could result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to an individual.

Now Crocco is appealing to the courts, pitting her right to know against the safety of abortion providers. Last week, Commonwealth Court judges heard arguments in the case. A three-judge panel will decide if the contested information should be released or not in the coming months.

Crocco’s lawsuit comes at a time when the U.S. is seeing an unprecedented wave of anti-abortion legislation. So far in 2019, six states have passed bills to ban abortion at six to eight weeks, long before many women know they are pregnant. Alabama has gone even further, banning abortion in almost all cases. None of the new laws are currently in effect.

The heavier the regulation, the more information flows to state regulatory agencies, and the broader the net becomes for what anti-abortion activists can gather. Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney at Women’s Law Project

In the current political climate, the risk of harm to abortion providers who are “outed” by activists is even greater than usual, Fowler said. She pointed to a report her organization recently authored showing a rise in harassment and threats at clinics.

Using public records to dig up information on abortion clinics is not a new tactic for the pro-life movement, although efforts have gotten more sophisticated.

Over the past 10 years, activists have turned to open records laws to try to obtain 911 calls from abortion facilities, the names of researchers working with fetal tissue, the names of people who participated in a study evaluating the safety of nurses providing first-trimester abortions, and the identities of individuals involved in the FDA approval of mifepristone, a drug used in medication abortion.

Pro-Life Action League, where Crocco works, even offers trainings on how to file freedom of information requests so activists can investigate abortion clinics in their states.

Fowler said anti-abortion activists were weaponizing public records to push the narrative that abortion is dangerous and needs to be treated differently than other types of health care.

“They are using it to demonize providers and abortion care in this country and act like it needs to be investigated,” she said.

Eric Scheidler, executive director of Pro-Life Action League, does not believe his organization is putting lives in danger. In an email sent to HuffPost, he downplayed the safety concerns of abortion workers in Pennsylvania if their names are released to his group.

“This is really nothing more than a cynical attempt to avoid public scrutiny of Pennsylvania abortion facilities,” he said.

But the clinics in the state say the fishing expedition will likely endanger them.

Anti-abortion activists often try to find out personal details about abortion clinic staff so they can use it to intimidate and threaten them, said Susan Frietsche, a senior staff attorney at Women’s Law Project, who is representing the clinics.

“Even very inconsequential, innocent information can be used against providers,” she said. “This is not in any way speculative because many of them have already experienced what happens when their names get revealed.”

In legal briefs, a handful of individuals who operate abortion clinics in Pennsylvania wrote anonymously about their concerns for themselves and their staff.

Some said their names were already known to anti-abortion activists, which had led to rowdy protests outside their homes and threatening phone calls. Others said their names and photos had been posted on websites that approve of violence against abortion providers.

Many described the lengths that protesters go to learn personal information about employees, which include following them to their cars to write down license plate numbers, and hiding in the bushes so they can jump out and snap close-up photos of their faces.

The anti-abortion movement has always tried to dig up information on providers to use against them, Frietsche said. What’s different now is that as states adopt more and more onerous regulations on abortion clinics, it has opened up new avenues of investigation for abortion opponents.

“The heavier the regulation, the more information flows to state regulatory agencies, and the broader the net becomes for what anti-abortion activists can gather,” she said.

Her biggest concern is that the records request in Pennsylvania targets private citizens, not public employees.

“The concept behind an open records law or a FOIA, is to open up to public scrutiny the operation of your government,” she said. “This would seem to be a distortion and misuse of that tool.”