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The anti-abortion zealots using ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as an instruction manual

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel gets less fictional by the day

An abortion rights protester dressed as a character from "The Handmaid's Tale," Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel.JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Dystopian doesn’t begin to describe it.

Having banned abortion or imposed restrictions on the procedure in 22 states in the country, conservatives want to end it everywhere else. In the meantime, they want to prevent those with the misfortune to live in states they control from traveling to states like ours, where abortion is still available and safe.

These throwbacks are losing that battle, at least for now. Two studies released last week showed that, since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade last year, clearing the way for bans across the country, more people have traveled from abortion-ban states like Idaho, Missouri, and Wisconsin, to get the care they need in places that have refused to go back to 1950, like Illinois, Colorado, and New Mexico.


And Massachusetts: A study by a group of health providers released Wednesday showed the number of out-of-state residents seeking abortions at Planned Parenthood clinics here grew by about 37 percent in the first four months of this year. The trend is unmistakable, and sure to grow.

The folks using “The Handmaid’s Tale” as an instruction manual can’t have that. These self-styled states’ rights devotees want to control what happens outside their borders, too, to punish those who dare exercise bodily autonomy elsewhere. Alabama’s attorney general is arguing a case which, if he wins, will allow him to prosecute anyone in his state who helps a resident get an abortion elsewhere. Idaho this year created the new crime of “abortion trafficking,” making it a felony to help a minor travel inside Idaho on their way out of the state to get an abortion without consent from a parent or guardian. Even more disturbing, some local governments in Texas have recently passed ordinances that make it illegal to transport anyone on local roads to get an abortion.


Why don’t they just save time and set up the checkpoints now?

In ordinary times the US Supreme Court would strike down such baldly unconstitutional laws, but with anti-abortion radicals now dominating that bench, these are no ordinary times.

And even if the laws are eventually nixed, they can still be effective.

“They purposefully have a chilling effect,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, head of Reproductive Equity Now. “The point is ... to scare people so they don’t try to access care.”

To assist in that enterprise, they have technology Margaret Atwood’s Guardians of the Faith could only dream of: cellphone location data. Our cellphones track most of us all day, every day. Anyone with the means can legally buy and mine that data to determine who is traveling out of state for abortions — whose phone has traveled from, say, Tuscaloosa, Ala., to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline.

People have already been using location data in this way for years, Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts said. In 2019, The New York Times reported it had obtained a trove of location data, and used it to track every movement of individual visitors to the Pentagon, the White House, Mar-a-Lago, and more. Earlier this year, The Washington Post reported that a conservative Catholic group in Colorado had bought and used location data to out gay priests. And Texas has bought location tracking software as part of its immigration crackdown, The Intercept reported.


It’s terrifying stuff. But there’s a way to better protect people who come to Massachusetts for abortions: The Location Shield Act, sponsored by Representative Kate Lipper-Garabedian and Senator Cynthia Creem, would prohibit companies from selling location data collected in Massachusetts, putting a Bay State-size hole in the massive mountains of information that can now be legally traded.

“That would unplug a massive corporate surveillance database,” Crockford said.

The measure is popular, and a no-brainer. Beacon Hill should act quickly. Without the law, tyrants like the governor of Texas or the attorney general of Alabama, or any other anti-abortion zealot, can reach into this state and pinpoint people to persecute.

We cannot let that happen.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her @GlobeAbraham.