New California Law Protects Digital Privacy of Abortion Seekers Nationwide

In the wake of the overturn of Roe v. Wade, abortion rights advocates are warning of a massive increase in digital surveillance of abortion seekers. (Ivan Radic / Flickr)

On August 31, the California legislature passed a bill providing groundbreaking digital privacy protections for abortion-related communications sent through California tech companies. Assembly Bill 1242, introduced by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda), bars telecommunications companies incorporated or headquartered in California from providing records of digital communications related to abortion to law enforcement officials seeking to use them in an investigation or prosecution for abortion that is legal under California law.

“This is an unprecedented step to protect abortion privacy across the country,” said Assemblymember Bauer-Kahan. “We have no obligation to be complicit in enforcing laws that are antithetical to our own values and legal system in California.”

The bill could prevent the kind of situation that recently happened in Nebraska, where the state is criminally prosecuting a mother and her 17-year-old daughter for an abortion based in part on Facebook messages where they discussed abortion pills, which Nebraska law enforcement officials subpoenaed from Meta.

We have no obligation to be complicit in enforcing laws that are antithetical to our own values and legal system in California.

Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan

“California’s AB 1242 could be a huge step forward in protecting people’s digital privacy as they navigate abortion access in this post-Roe world, especially as people increasingly turn to self-managed abortion,” said Elisa Wells, co-founder and co-director of Plan C, which provides up-to-date information on how people in the U.S. are accessing at-home abortion pill options online. “While self-managed abortion using pills is extremely safe and effective from a medical perspective, we know that people have been unjustly criminalized for managing their own abortions and that digital footprints have been used by prosecutors to build cases against people. Plan C welcomes this effort to strengthen digital privacy. Abortion is normal healthcare and no one should be investigated or criminalized for it.”

The bill would authorize the California Attorney General to sue California corporations to compel their compliance with the law, and would impose civil liability if the corporation knew or should have known that the warrant, subpoena or other legal process related to an investigation into or enforcement of a criminal abortion law. The bill is now on California Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk awaiting his signature.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta co-sponsored the legislation. “California will not stand idly by as anti-choice states across the nation take radical action to criminalize reproductive rights,” said Bonta. “I’m proud to sponsor AB 1242, first-in-the-nation legislation that will help shield those seeking or providing reproductive healthcare against wrongful prosecution. AB 1242’s groundbreaking data privacy provisions are crucial—they prohibit tech companies served with search warrants in California from providing digital information to out-of-state law enforcement agencies seeking to enforce anti-abortion laws.”

Many large tech companies are based in California, including Google, Apple and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram. The bill could have a nationwide impact because it protects communications occurring between people located outside of California.

California will not stand idly by as anti-choice states across the nation take radical action to criminalize reproductive rights.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta

In May, the New York-based privacy group Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) released a chilling report explaining how anti-abortion governments were already using cutting-edge digital technologies to surveil women’s search history, location data, messages, online purchases and social media activities by using geofencing, keyword warrants, big data and more. The report explained how police could use digital keyword warrants to “cast digital dragnets” and identify people seeking abortion information online. The California law could block this practice.

Assembly Bill 1242 was one of 13 bills that passed the California legislature at the end of the session last week, including AB 2019 protecting abortion-related medical information from disclosure. The bills were part of a legislative package introduced by the California Legislative Women’s Caucus and backed by the California Future of Abortion Council, a coalition that includes abortion rights advocacy groups.

The Council released a statement celebrating the passage of the legislation: “As more states enact total or extreme bans on abortion care—leaving millions of people without the ability to access legal abortion care in their home state—California continues to provide a blueprint for what is possible when policy centers people, equity, science and medicine; and trusts each person to make the best decisions for themselves and their family about their healthcare options.”


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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.