Ankle monitors raise risks for U.S. abortion-seekers

A person's feet are pictured standing on paving stone with an electronic tag around one ankle

A probationer wears an ankle tracking device in Santa Ana, California July 22, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

What’s the context?

As more U.S. states crack down on abortion after the Roe v. Wade reversal, crossing state lines could be the only way for women to access the procedure. But traveling out of state is often impossible for those wearing court-ordered surveillance tags, rights campaigners warn

  • U.S. sees 'explosion' in court-ordered surveillance tags
  • Devices restrict travel, make it easier to track movement
  • Tagged abortion-seekers may take bigger risks, experts say

By Avi Asher-Schapiro

LOS ANGELES - Women who have to wear court-ordered surveillance tags that restrict their movement could struggle to access safe abortions as more U.S. states crack down on the procedure following last month's Roe v. Wade reversal, campaigners say.

The overturning of the landmark ruling leaves state governments to decide whether or not abortion is legal, and while some have reaffirmed the right, more than half of states are likely or certain to ban abortion in most or all cases.

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That means crossing state borders could be the only option for some abortion-seekers - something often impossible for the growing number of women wearing tracking tags while under house arrest, awaiting trial, or ahead of immigration proceedings.

"Wearing an electronic monitor, sometimes you can't even go outside the house, let alone to another state to seek medical care," said Susan Burton, the founder of A New Way of Life, a Los Angeles-based re-entry program for formerly incarcerated women.

"For a woman who is wearing an ankle monitor in Mississippi or Alabama with an unwanted pregnancy or one that's endangering her life ... it might be impossible for her to travel outside of the region to get an abortion," Burton added.

With some states also considering laws to restrict travel to seek abortions, reproductive rights organizations have urged women to take steps to mask their online activity and hide location information. Prosecutors have previously used search histories to bring charges against women for ending pregnancies.

Earlier this month, Google said it would automatically delete the location of users who visited abortion clinics, but retain search histories for abortion-related terms.

But for women in prison or those wearing an electronic surveillance device as part of their release from prison or jail, such privacy measures are little comfort, said Kate Weisburd, a law professor at George Washington University who studies U.S. court-ordered surveillance.

With an ankle monitor "it's so easy to track and see if they are involved in anything having to do with abortion - going to a provider, or even driving a relative there," she said.

Explosion of surveillance

An estimated 58,000 pregnant women enter prisons and jails each year, and many are unable to access abortions.

A 2021 report from the Guttmacher Institute found that only half of state prisons allowed abortion in both the first and second trimesters, with 14% of institutions banning it outright.

But due to electronic surveillance, which commonly includes ankle monitors, many more women could now struggle.

"More and more, part of the women's punishment will be not getting access to healthcare," Weisburd said.

There are no official numbers on how many women are currently wearing ankle monitors or are under other forms of court-ordered surveillance. A 2016 report by Pew said about 125,000 people were wearing ankle monitors.

That number could be as high as 1 million today, said James Kilgore, an activist who runs the Challenging e-Carceration project at the Center for Media Justice, a nonprofit.

"We've seen an explosion in recent years (of electronic monitoring)," he said, with more judges ordering such surveillance in lieu of incarceration to keep prison populations low during the COVID-19 pandemic.

People under such surveillance already struggle to access medical care, said Kilgore, as they have to request permission to travel to meet with doctors. Many fear they could be put back in prison, or pay the price in immigration proceedings, if they are caught traveling without prior approval.

Immigration authorities also increasingly rely on the technology to keep tabs on immigrants with cases pending before immigration courts.

The Biden administration plans to direct immigration authorities to allow these women to travel to access abortion services, according to a recent report.

Kirsten Rambo, the executive director of ASISTA, a non-profit legal group that works with immigrant survivors of sexual violence and other abuse, said that may be difficult to enact in practice, however.

"Are we really asking (women) to tell an immigration official, 'I need an abortion," she said. "That could come around and bite you later."

Low-hanging fruit

The Supreme Court's decision is expected to have a disproportionate impact on Black women and other women of color, who have traditionally faced overwhelming costs and logistical obstacles in obtaining reproductive healthcare, experts said.

Of the nearly 2.3 million people imprisoned in the United States, 40% are Black, according to the Prison Policy Initiative nonprofit, and more Black women live in states set to ban abortion.

Ankle monitoring and court-ordered surveillance programs vary widely. Some restrict people from leaving their home, while others allow a larger zone of travel, or require the wearer to alert authorities if they intend to travel.

But in all cases, the surveillance makes it easy for authorities to track women seeking an abortion - or assisting a family member.

"Women on ankle monitors are low-hanging fruit, it's really easy to detect when a woman has gone into a health facility, gotten into a car, crossed state lines," Weisburd said.

"Authorities don't even need a search warrant."

Anti-abortion campaigners are currently pushing legislation in several states that would criminalize the act of helping a woman cross state lines for the purpose of obtaining an abortion.

They have also proposed laws that would ban giving instructions for procuring an abortion over the phone or internet in states where it is outlawed.

But such measures would not eliminate abortion among women who are under court-ordered surveillance, instead pushing them to take bigger risks, said Kilgore.

"People will take the risk, maybe let the battery die on their monitor and travel out of state, and just hope they don't get caught and reincarcerated - that's the kind of gamble people will be taking," he said.

Some women in states restricting abortion may resort to dangerous methods to terminate their pregnancies, said Pauline Rogers, founder of the RECH Foundation, a nonprofit in Mississippi that works with formerly incarcerated women, some of whom wear electronic monitors.

Mississippi's only abortion clinic shut its doors in early July as a law went into effect banning all abortions except in cases of rapes reported to police, and when a woman's life is in danger.

"If you're talking about someone on an ankle monitor here, they will feel forced to ... have the child," Rogers said.

Or "you are going to end up with more people sticking a coat hanger inside their bodies."

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