Iowa wants to use tax dollars to track people online who might want abortions

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A new bill would give taxpayer dollars to a government-run online effort to dissuade people from getting abortions.

The state of Iowa is proposing to use taxpayer dollars to track people looking for information about abortion online and serve them up digital ads persuading them to not get the procedure.

The bill is the latest effort of Iowa GOP state Sen. Sandy Salmon, who has previously pushed a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for abortion. She also backed a 6-week abortion ban described as the nation's most restrictive when it was passed in 2018.

Salmon's current bill would require the state's department of human services to create a "statewide alternatives to abortion program to promote childbirth[.]" In turn, the department would hire contractors to "utilize proactive targeted digital marketing using proven search engine marketing techniques to reach pregnant women in real time who are in crisis and actively seeking an abortion, and employ specific scripting strategies to create a conversation with these pregnant women to encourage them to choose an alternative to an abortion[.]" 

If that sounds a lot like the state would use taxpayer money to track down people who are at abortion clinics and bombard them with anti-abortion messages, that's because it is exactly that. 

In proposing this, Iowa legislators are merely codifying what anti-abortion groups have been doing for years now. It relies on a technique known as geofencing, where advertisers use location data, obtained via your phone's GPS or other methods, to send ads whenever someone enters a defined space. It's usually used for shopping, such as when you get near a Whole Foods, you get an ad for Whole Foods. 

Anti-abortion activists have taken this technology and used it to target women in abortion clinics. One anti-abortion ad agency, Choose Life Marketing, explained how it can work. A crisis pregnancy center — anti-abortion "clinics" that typically aren't regulated as medical centers and exist only to stop women from having abortions — sets up a physical shop near an abortion clinic. When someone walks near — or goes in — the abortion clinic, they get served ads for the crisis pregnancy center. A different anti-abortion marketing group, Copley Advertising, bragged that it could "reach every Planned Parenthood in the U.S." with this technique. 

Now, Iowa proposes to leverage this technology to track people's movements when they're seeking a sensitive medical procedure. Moreover, it isn't clear whether the data the state would collect in this process would be private data, or whether it would be available to anyone who makes an open records request

Ultimately, conservative Iowa legislators are seeking taxpayer money to do the work of anti-abortion groups, tracking down people and harassing them while they're seeking an abortion. Given that the Iowa state legislature keeps pushing extreme anti-abortion measures, Iowans may soon find themselves chased down by digital ads aimed at them when they are at their most vulnerable.