Iowa Republican Wants to Track Down Pregnant People With ‘Targeted Digital Marketing’

Pro-choice activists supporting legal access to abortion protest during a demonstration outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, March 4, 2020.

Pro-choice activists supporting legal access to abortion protest during a demonstration outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, March 4, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

An Iowa lawmaker wants the state government to use “proactive targeted digital marketing” to track down pregnant people and talk them out of abortions.

On Wednesday, an Iowa state legislature subcommittee recommended that the Republican-dominated legislature pass a measure, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Sandy Salmon, that would create and fund a statewide “alternatives to abortion program.” Although such programs aren’t uncommon in red states, the digital marketing provision in Iowa’s bill is setting off alarm bells among supporters of abortion rights. 

“It’s just some massive government tracking system of women,” said Veronica Fowler, the ACLU of Iowa’s communications director. “It does sound like something out of a Handmaid’s Tale.”

The bill calls for the program to be administered by “pregnancy resource centers”—a vague term that likely refers to anti-abortion groups that sometimes operate as crisis pregnancy centers. These groups typically offer services like pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and supplies for caring for a baby, but refuse to perform abortions or refer people to them. Some won’t offer hormonal birth control. Many are religious.

These groups would be expected to use digital marketing and “proven search engine marketing techniques” to find people who might want an abortion, then “employ specific scripting strategies” to convince them that they shouldn’t get one, according to the bill. It’s unclear what this would all look like, because the bill gives few specifics. But it does say that pregnant people should be told to get an ultrasound at a pregnancy resource center, as well as given information about adoption agencies and job training.

Iowa would also collect demographic and socioeconomic information on these pregnant people. It’s not clear how this information would be stored or who would have access to it.

The bill sets aside about $880,000 for the program, which it says would give pregnant people “personalized support” and create a “holistic approach” to stabilizing families and reducing abortion.

Fowler, however, says that the bill doesn’t address the real problems facing expectant parents in Iowa.  She pointed out that Iowa has sky-high maternal mortality rates among Black women: Compared to white women, they’re six times more likely to die during or shortly after giving birth.

“Certainly, we are on board in providing support to pregnant women,” Fowler said. “Where this bill goes totally off the rails is by making this somehow tracking down women who are or might be considering abortion, and then throwing a propaganda and harassment campaign at them.”

Fowler declined to say whether the ACLU of Iowa would sue over the bill, which is now set to go before a committee, if it becomes law. 

This isn’t the only abortion restriction that’s moving forward in Iowa: The state House has already passed a measure that seeks to rewrite the state’s constitution to make it clear that Iowa does not “recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion.” The proposed amendment—similar versions of which have already passed in other states—is now in the state Senate and is expected to pass given it already voted for it last year

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