In the weeks following the historic Dobbs decision, a good bit of misinformation has been propagated concerning what many pro-life laws across the nation actually do in protecting the life of the preborn and caring for vulnerable women in crisis. Along with this misinformation about the devastation of ectopic pregnancies and lamentable instances where the physical life of the mother is at risk, there has also been a torrent of speculative musings about the dystopian society we will now inhabit in a post-Roe context. As the ripple effects of this life-saving court decision continue to be felt throughout our society and as many states are enacting new laws concerning the practice of abortion, one aspect of the debate might surprise some who have followed the pro-life movement over the last 49 years.
Since the Dobbs ruling, opinion pieces, Twitter threads, and a host of comments from privacy scholars have raised the alarm and generated wildly speculative notions about the dangers to personal data privacy in a country without Roe. Even the White House Director of Gender Policy Jen Klein has urged caution on the grounds of data privacy for millions of Americans, though the actual details of her comments and other reporting on the matter often do not coincide with the clickbait headlines.
From alarmist calls for women to delete their menstrual cycle tracking apps to demands that technology and social media companies like Google delete and/or stop tracking sensitive location data like abortion clinic visits, there has been a deluge of fear-inducing information. This speculation is primarily about how troves of data collected in a digital society might be used by some in potential lawsuits or criminal filings against women seeking an abortion depending on their state. While much of this is uncharted territory and there are some legitimate questions that need to be asked by all citizens including state lawmakers, it must be noted that many if not all of the calls to immediate action are built on hypothetical situations and strained correlations to prior cases. Many if not all of the states enacting pro-life laws are rightfully seeking to prosecute those who prescribe the abortion medications or who perform abortions, not women in crisis who have long been preyed upon by the abortion industry and been led astray by the lies of the sexual revolution.
Personal privacy and moral autonomy
The connections between personal privacy and abortion are deeply intertwined in our modern moral order, given how our abortion-on-demand culture was built upon the discovered “right to privacy” in the “penumbras” of the Bill of Rights, infamously articulated by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in the Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision.
In this 1965 decision, the right to privacy was applied specifically to the right of married couples to obtain contraceptives. However, this “implied constitutional right to privacy” soon became the foundation for a number of subsequent Supreme Court decisions such as Roe and later Lawrence v. Texas, where the court established the right to privacy as an inherent element of self-determination and complete moral autonomy, devoid of any reference to religion or faith lived under God.
In delivering the Lawrence opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated “liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places.” He went further to argue that liberty presumes that the state should not have a dominant presence in the homes of Americans, as well as an “autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” While many Christians may agree with Justice Kennedy on the concept of liberty where the state does not have unlimited authority, we must recognize that the modern notions of autonomy and self-determination are directly contrary to the biblical ethic rooted in the dignity of all, including the preborn. This supposed right to self-determination is deeply woven into the modern right to privacy, abortion culture, and throughout contemporary culture.
But by design of the Founders, the Bill of Rights established a framework that recognizes certain pre-political rights which the state is bound to recognize and uphold, including the right to life. This runs contrary to many of the current debates over abortion and privacy—debates that are often framed in light of our society’s ideas of moral autonomy and self-determination. This shift in the nature and foundation of rights represents a stark break from the transcendent framework they were originally rooted in so that now the individual has the right to define their own realities, no matter the cost to the moral order including our neighbors or even the life of a child in the womb.
Misleading hypotheticals and the right to privacy
In light of this modern notion of a right to privacy, the continued calls for state and federal privacy legislation in our post-Roe world, and the growing concerns over data privacy, how should Christians think about these issues—especially in light of the pressing questions of digital privacy and our concern for upholding the dignity of both the preborn and their mothers?
First, we must seek to deal in facts, not simple hypotheticals designed to instill fear. Not only did the Dobbs decision rightfully return the question of abortion to the states (where it resided prior to Roe) and rule that states have a compelling interest in protecting their citizens, including the youngest among us, it is clear that much of what we already know about these state laws is that they seek the criminalization of abortion providers, not women. While it is incumbent on lawmakers to think through the myriad ramifications of these laws on questions regarding digital privacy and data collection, it should be noted that the use of this type of data in criminal cases against women is exceedingly rare.
In recent years, there have been at least two known cases of personal data being used under a court order in an abortion-related cases. In 2013, an Indiana woman was arrested on grounds of feticide after seeking medical attention at a local hospital for “profuse bleeding after delivering a 1½-pound baby boy in a bathroom and putting his body in a dumpster behind her family’s restaurant.” In this case, text messages to a friend about abortion pills were used by prosecutors in the conviction of the woman even though the 2015 conviction was later overturned by the Indiana Court of Appeals.
A second case involved a Mississippi woman indicted on a second-degree murder charge in January 2018 after giving birth at home to a baby boy who was later transported to a local hospital with cardiac arrest. He subsequently died at the hospital. The defendant confessed to medical professionals that she learned she was pregnant the month before at an annual OB-GYN appointment but failed to make any follow-up appointments for prenatal care or an ultrasound.
She told investigators that she didn’t want any more children, couldn’t afford any more, and that she “simply couldn’t deal with being pregnant again.” She was at least 35 weeks pregnant when it was revealed that she illegally procured the abortion medication misoprostol through online searches. After taking the medication without the approval of doctors and well past the approved usage, her husband called for paramedics after finding her and their son in the bathroom. Medical examiners determined through an autopsy that the baby boy was born alive and died due to asphyxiation.
Both of these cases indicate that online data was used by prosecutors in what would more rightly be called disturbing instances of infanticide. These particular cases and criminal proceedings should remind us of the vital advocacy of pro-life organizations for the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection legislation. The proposed protections would see those who are born after a failed abortion receive all the medical care necessary for them to survive.
The vast majority of states enacting pro-life legislation post-Roe are seeking to outlaw abortion or tighten the window in which abortions are legal. Most of the legislation that has been proposed does not seek to criminalize abortion-vulnerable women but rather those who perform abortions or prescribe these medications which are increasingly dangerous to the life of the mother as well as to the life of the innocent child being aborted.
Second, we must understand that the right to privacy, which should be a central concern for the Christian church in a digital society, must not be framed as at odds with a rich conception of human dignity that values all human life, including the most vulnerable among us. A central facet of the pro-life movement and its 49+ years of advocacy is that vulnerable mothers should not be criminalized. Instead, those who provide abortions—whether through medical procedures or prescription drugs—should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has repeatedly affirmed the value of preborn life and the priority of caring for vulnerable women in crisis through over 20 resolutions over the course of 40 years, including this past summer during the anticipation of the Dobbs decision.
A Christian understanding of privacy is that of a penultimate right that supports other pre-political rights, including the fundamental right to life rooted in how God has made us as human beings in his very image (Gen. 1:26-28). The imago Dei is the backbone of a robust Christian ethic which recognizes the dignity of all people including the preborn, their mothers, and their families. Human dignity is central to our conception of the moral order and our social ethic. While Christians should rightfully stand against the manipulative and abusive use and collection of personal data in our digital society, we need to remember that a biblical vision of privacy runs contrary to modern notions of privacy built upon moral autonomy and self-determination rather than a full conception of human dignity rooted in God’s design.
Privacy is an instrumental good that should serve the overall common good of both individuals and communities. In order for this to happen, it must be framed in light of our true nature as created beings who are under the authority of an omniscient and omnipotent God. Now more than ever we must not shrink back in fear but seek to retrieve a biblical understanding of personal privacy, which accords with the dignity of every individual and cares for the most vulnerable among us.