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California allocates $20M toward abortion clinics’ physical, digital security

A Planned Parenthood facility is seen in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.
Rich Pedroncelli
AP Photo
A Planned Parenthood facility is seen in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022.

Abortion care providers in the state can apply for funds to bolster the security of their physical locations and increase digital privacy. The move is in response to increasing violence against abortion clinics and their staff.

California is allocating $20 million in grant money for abortion care facilities across the state to bolster their physical and digital security. Even before Roe v. Wade was overturned last summer by the U.S. Supreme Court, statistics from the National Abortion Federation show incidents of violence against staff and disruption of clinic operations have increased over the past 10 years.

In November of last year, California voters approved an amendment enshrining the right to an abortion in the state’s constitution. However, Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for the state’s Office of Emergency Services, says increased hostility nationally has led to an uptick in online threats from violent domestic extremists.

“Some of these threats materialize, some of them don't,” he said. In the past, he says the state has made grants available for houses of worship and other sites that may be threatened, but this is the first time they’ve made them available specifically to reproductive health care facilities.

Increasing protection of the sites can include adding short vertical barriers, fences or gates to improve physical security, Ferguson said, as well as adding malware, password protectors and training to improve digital security.

“The threats we face in 2023 and beyond are no longer just physical threats,” he said. “There are cybersecurity threats, and in many cases, [abortion] providers don't have the level of sophistication in terms of some of their operations.”

The National Abortion Federation has almost 500 abortion provider members in the U.S., Canada, Colombia and Mexico City. In 2021, they tracked more than 120 assaults on clinic escorts, staff, patients and their companions, up from 54 in 2020. Stalkings, invasions (whereby someone enters the building under false pretenses and refuses to leave), and the sending of suspicious packages also increased significantly.

Data is less available for cyber attacks or digital monitoring, although Planned Parenthood and other abortion care providers say they have faced these types of security breaches for years.

Ferguson said it’s imperative to keep patients’ and doctors’ information private and, he added, this need has been expressed by providers for “some time.”

Bill Budington, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit law firm and digital rights advocacy group, argued there should be better legislation on both the state and federal levels to limit the amount of data that is being collected by third parties.

“Bad actors may be either states that are adversarial to abortion rights or they might be private actors — individuals, groups — that are trying to make it harder for those seeking abortions,” he said.

Some states, like Texas, allow for civil prosecutions of people who seek abortions, even as California says it will not aid in those prosecutions. Budington says when private data isn’t adequately protected, providers and clients are vulnerable to attacks.

“The landscape is changing,” Budington said, referring to the overturning of Roe. “There's so much of an open area. It's almost a new ground for adversarial prosecutors in states that are against abortions to look for and to gain their own political gains.”

According to California’s abortion access website, there are currently 165 clinics that provide abortion care in the state, including five that provide abortions in Sacramento county.

According to the advocacy and policy organization the Guttmacher Institute, 152,400 abortions were performed in the state in 2020.

Abortion care providers can apply to the state grants online at caloes.ca.gov.

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