How anti-choice advocates and 'Comstockian mail control' could derail COVID's strangely positive impact on abortion rights

Photo via Shutterstock.

In a strange turn, the pandemic actually expanded abortion access. In July 2020, a US District Judge in Maryland ruled that in-person requirements for people seeking a medication abortion were a "substantial obstacle" to abortion access during the pandemic and, therefore, likely unconstitutional. The fact that medication abortion must be administered within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy added to the difficulties with meeting the in-person requirements. The decision was backed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which argued that FDA restrictions on prescribing medication abortion through telemedicine are not medically necessary.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration challenged the ruling and the United States Supreme Court reinstated the restrictions on medication abortion being mailed in January. Joined by the other two liberals, Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent that, "This country's laws have long singled out abortions for more onerous treatment than other medical procedures," adding that the FDA's rule imposes an "unjustifiable, irrational, and undue burden on women seeking an abortion during the current pandemic." The Biden-Harris administration opposed the Supreme Court's ruling in April lowing people to be prescribed the abortion pill by mail for the remainder of the pandemic. Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting F.D.A. commissioner, wrote in a letter explaining the policy change, that studies of the pandemic experience "do not appear to show increases in serious safety concerns," like bleeding, ectopic pregnancy or the need for surgical interventions "occurring with medical abortion as a result of modifying the in-person dispensing requirement during the Covid-19 pandemic."

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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