Antiabortion Ambush

Is putting photos of abortion-clinic patients on the Web an invasion of privacy? Or protected free speech?

Last summer, a patient at the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, was taken to a nearby hospital after complications from an abortion. Clinic staff tried to duck the half-dozen or so antiabortion activists assembled outside, but as they wheeled the patient to a waiting minivan, protester Daniel Michael called out to his wife, “They botched one!” and then rushed to take the woman’s picture. Days later, a clinic staffer was shocked to discover that the woman’s medical records and photo had been posted on a Web site called Missionaries to the Unborn.

Posting photos of women entering and exiting clinics is the radical antiabortion movement’s latest step in an increasingly sophisticated campaign to use the Internet to target abortion clinics. “For a long time, the focus was on putting up information on doctors and personnel, but now we’re seeing patient information, too,” said William Lutz, communications director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “The fringe and extremist antichoice groups and individuals are always pushing the envelope legally.”

Antiabortion activists embraced the tactic last spring after a federal appeals court ruled that Neal Horsley’s notorious Nuremberg Files Web site-which lists the names and addresses of abortion providers and shows their names crossed off after they have been killed-is protected by the First Amendment. Encouraged by the finding, last April Horsley started a site called AbortionCams that posts photos of “homicidal mothers” gathered from “photojournalists” who lurk outside clinics, taking photos of patients. Two months after AbortionCams debuted, the Missionaries to the Unborn site featured the Illinois patient’s photo and medical records.

The Hope Clinic and its patient have now filed an invasion of privacy suit against the Michaels and the Web site’s owner. But although an Illinois circuit court ordered that the site remove the photo and records until the case is decided, photos of dozens of other patients taken outside clinics in 23 states remain posted on AbortionCams.

The Illinois case is the first time these tactics have been challenged in court. Legal experts agree that posting the woman’s medical records-copies of which were leaked to the Michaels from an anonymous source-falls within the established definition of invasion of privacy. But the use of the photo will be a much tougher call; in order for a court to rule that revealing personal information is an invasion of privacy, a plaintiff has to show that someone of ordinary sensibilities would be offended by the revelation. “Unfortunately, there is no current privacy law that specifically prohibits all of this,” said Anita Allen, a visiting professor of law at Yale Law School who specializes in privacy issues.

Pro-choice groups such as the National Abortion Federation say they are watching the situation closely. Meanwhile, Horsley continues to expand AbortionCams: He has been adding photos from new clinics almost weekly and has announced a plan to create a cable television show using video footage from clinics.

He’s also looking for more volunteers to help him. “Get out there to your local butchertorium with your zoom lenses and get those cameras rolling,” he writes on his site. “Point and click.”

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

Our goal is to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We're aiming to create a reporting position dedicated to uncovering corruption, build a team, and let them investigate for a year—publishing our stories in a concerted window: a special issue of our magazine, video and podcast series, and a dedicated online portal so they don't get lost in the daily deluge of headlines and breaking news.

We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.