In a post-Roe world, we need a new emergency number
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Roe v. Wade – the 1973 landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that protected the right to abortion – was overturned by the current Supreme Court on June 24, 2022. This ruling places access to safe reproductive healthcare in jeopardy for millions of Americans throughout the U.S. But also at risk is our trust that calling 911 will bring us help in an emergency, rather than harm. Now, more than ever, we need a number – one unlinked to police or state surveillance – that we can call in case of emergency.
Can calling 911 for help after a miscarriage result in arrest? This may sound extreme, but is not an unfounded fear. People in the U.S. have been arrested after miscarrying. In El Salvador, where abortion is illegal in all cases, more than 140 people are incarcerated for having abortions, even though many insist they simply miscarried.
If pregnant people self-induce an abortion, but have serious complications, they may fear that seeking the emergency medical treatment they desperately need could result in arrest.
One way to improve the chances that pregnant people can get the help they need is to offer an alternative emergency number, other than 911, that is not connected to the police or state surveillance.
Data show that such alternative phone numbers can save taxpayer money, be financially stable, and are utilized by those in the community with legitimate reasons to fear law enforcement, such as deportation or fear of race-based police violence. Many communities already utilize alternative emergency numbers. Sometimes these are community based organizations with track records of community support, such as when immigrant communities call support numbers in which social workers, advocates, translators and community members will respond instead of police. Other times, these numbers are simply the pastors, counselors, or community advocates we trust to get us through the kind of crisis that we believe law enforcement could escalate.
Police collect or have access to unprecedented amounts of individualized data about people. Dystopian nightmares about how law enforcement might use 911 call information alongside other kinds of personal data to arrest and prosecute people they suspect of having abortions are entirely plausible. Police could run keyword warrants on the names of common abortion drugs, and regularly cross check them against a list of everyone who calls 911. They could use data from license plate readers to keep track of everyone who travels to a state where abortion is legal, and check the travel history of everyone who makes a pregnancy-related 911 call. Post-Roe, the category of people with reasonable fear of calling 911 becomes “anyone who is or might be pregnant.”
The best way to improve access to emergency medical care and keep people out of the criminal legal system is to prevent them from being swept up into it in the first place. That means providing a way to get help that will not end up in a police database, such as a separate emergency number operated outside of law enforcement departments.
Here in Michigan – where abortion access remains legal – the Washtenaw County Prosecutor has vowed not to prosecute anyone involved in the pursuit of abortions in Washtenaw County, whether they’re a patient, doctor, or provider. However, in the next county over, the Jackson County prosecutor says he’s ready to file criminal charges for abortion providers. And while Governor Whitmer has vowed to defend abortion access, individual hospitals are still re-negging on their provision of abortion care. An emergency response number – similar to that developing in Ann Arbor by the Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety – is needed now more than ever.
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