France Bans Anti-Abortion Websites that Spread False Health Information
Lawmakers in the European country have just passed a bill criminalizing anti-abortion sites that lie about the medical procedure. But is it the answer?
Photo by Marija Mandic
It's been a year of misinformation and bullshit, propaganda and lies—and I'm just talking mainstream Western politics. If you believe we're living in a post-truth age, where conjecture passes for fact and supposition for orthodoxy, you're probably right—but there's a caveat. Anti-abortion activists will say pretty much anything to deny women their reproductive rights, and they always have done. After all, every day is a post-truth day in an anti-abortion activist's world.
In France, lawmakers attempt to counter the spread of misinformation by passing a bill banning anti-abortion websites that contain lies. The bill, passed by French senators earlier this week, extended a 1993 ordinance criminalizing "interference" with abortion access by means of spreading "false information."
While the 1993 law was originally designed to prevent anti-abortion activists from blockading the entrances to abortion clinics, the new legislation reflects the fact that the battle between anti-abortion activists and the pro-choice movement is now waged online, too. Under the new law, spreading online lies with the intention of intimidating women seeking abortions can be punished by up to two years imprisonment and a fine of 30,000 euros (around $31,700).
When introducing the legislation in a parliamentary debate, French minister for families Laurence Rossignol explained, "Freedom of expression should not be confused with manipulating minds... Thirty years ago, militants chained themselves to abortion clinics... today their successors are continuing this fight on the web."
The list of lies that anti-abortion activists peddle with the intent of deterring vulnerable women and girls from making informed decisions about their bodies is long and ignominious. They include incorrect assertions that abortion causes cancer; that it makes you infertile, and will make you love your children less. Even more malicious are anti-abortion activists who set up websites for fake abortion clinics (also known as crisis pregnancy centers)—with the intent of tricking women through their doors, and then pressuring them to keep the fetus.
In the US, anti-abortion activists have even succeeded in forcing doctors to give inaccurate and misleading information to their patients—against their wishes and best medical practice. Despite this, few efforts have been made to police online misinformation—for the simple reason that the internet so vast.
"I'm not convinced that criminalization is the answer," explains Abigail Fitzgibbon of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. "We have to be honest, anti-abortionists tell lies and spread misleading information all the time. They do it outside clinics, they do it online, and this is very much part of their strategy."
Fitzgibbon highlights the challenges inherent in policing the internet. "The amount of resource it would take to investigate who had put these websites up," she argues, "seeing what their background is, who put this information up in the first place, is enormous. And we couldn't control the kind of things they're saying on Twitter or Facebook. People tweet out lies constantly."
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While she welcomes the motives behind France's new law ("I totally understand the desire to do something about it. These lies cause women harm, and stress"), Fitzgibbon explains how these measures may actually play into the hands of the anti-abortion activists. Like petulant children or President-Elect Trump, anti-abortionists love nothing better than to pose as lonely paragons of free speech and moral virtue.
"As we've seen with the extremely graphic posters from people like Abort67, these people love to be the victims," Fitzgibbon explains. "Banning their websites or criminalizing them wouldn't deter them—if anything it would encourage them. They'd position it as a freedom of speech issue and then try and use it to bring new people into their corner."
"A danger of legislation like this would be to make anti-abortionists feel like they deserve some public sympathy," she adds, "when they absolutely do not."