TEXAS — When Texas Right to Life launched a new website last month asking “pro-life whistleblowers” to help enforce the state’s new, restrictive abortion law, set to take effect on Wednesday, opponents of the measure were ready online to counter their efforts.
Texas’ newest abortion law, known as the Heartbeat Act, would make the vast majority of abortions illegal. The law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May, would ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected, which is usually around the sixth week of a pregnancy before most women know they are pregnant.
While other states have tried to pass such “heartbeat acts” only to be blocked in federal courts, Texas’ law is unique in that it allows the general public to sue Texans who help a woman access an abortion, from the friend who drove the patient to the clinic to the doctor who did the procedure.
The website, called Pro-life Whistleblower, asks for anonymous tips on how the bill has been violated and to name the doctor or clinic that may have violated the law.
Within days of the website going up, online activists took to social media to encourage opponents of the law to flood the website’s tip sheet with “tips” of their own.
“What a shame it would be if people abused this tip line…” an Alabama-based non-profit called Yellowhammer Fund, which calls itself a “reproductive justice organization” serving Alabama and the Deep South, posted to its Facebook page and Twitter account.
With just a couple of days until the law is set to go into effect, legal challenges continue to mount against it.
On Aug. 27, a federal appellate court canceled a hearing scheduled in a lawsuit filed by more than 20 abortion providers seeking to block the law. The providers claimed the enactment of the law would amount to a “bounty hunting scheme” because of its provisions to allow any member of the public to sue those who might have violated the law.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals canceled a hearing scheduled for Monday. The group of providers then filed a request to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, asking the court to block the Texas law.
“Nearly fifty years ago, this Court held that Texas could not ban abortion prior to viability,” the group wrote in a court brief, according to a report by The Hill publication in Washington, D.C. The group was referring to the 1973 landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the U.S. “Yet, absent intervention from this Court, in less than two days, on Wednesday, September 1, Texas will do precisely that.”
If the law takes effect on Wednesday, it would become one of the nation’s strictest abortion measures and could pose a direct threat to Roe vs. Wade. Federal courts have overturned similar laws in North Dakota, Iowa, Kentucky and Mississippi, making the Lone Star State the latest—and some would argue most critical—battleground for abortion rights.
That sense of urgency was not lost on online activists when they took to social media to gather support for making anonymous posts and pranks to the Pro-Life Whistleblowers website last week.
On the website’s form, submitters are asked several questions such as “how do you think the law has been violated” and which clinic or doctor violated the law. The site says it “will not follow up with or contact you” after entering an anonymous tip.
Since it went up in July, the site has been attacked in two ways, neither of which has been successful, said Kimberlyn Schwartz, the director of media and communication at Texas Right to Life.
First, the website has been hit by what is known as a distributed denial of service, or DDOS, attack in which bots will send multiple requests to the site in an attempt to exceed the website's capacity to handle the incoming traffic, Schwarts said. That failed, and many of the bots caught by the website have been reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, she said.
Simultaneously, online activists have flooded the website’s forms with fake reports, many of them shared on social media, where the answers ranged from simply nonsensical to humorous.
“Governor Abbott is preventing unvaccinated children from wearing life-saving masks,” wrote one poster.
Answering the form’s question asking for whom the clinic or doctor referred to in the tip, another poster said, “I reported Dr. Nick Riviera (the quack doctor from the Simpsons) from Springfield, Texas (which exists!)!
The number of fake reports has been far lower compared to the bots trying to flood the site, Schwartz sad. For fake reports, the Texas Right to Life has blocked the submitter from further abuse, she said.
“We’d like to thank all the folks on social media who posted about the site and brought attention to the site, including those who were encouraging the fake reports,” Schwartz said. The more attention brought to the fight to prevent the killing of unborn children, the better, she said.
Schwartz declined to say how many visitors the site had received since its launch. If the law clears all the legal challenges facing it this week, the Texas Right to Life intends to keep the website up. Once the law goes into effect, the organization would use any of the anonymous tips to help other Texans bring about any new lawsuits under the provision of the law.
“We hope that there will not be any abortions taking place in Texas and then we wouldn’t have to file any lawsuits,” she said.