March 6, 1996 12:00 PM PST

Abortion provision of CDA under attack

Three senators are drafting a bill that would repeal the provision of the Communications Decency Act that would make it a crime to distribute information about abortion over the Internet.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Massachusetts), and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) announced their intent to introduce the bill in a real-time press conference held on the Internet--a first for federal officials. Congresswomen Patricia Schroeder and Jan Myers are working to introduce a similar bill in the House of Representatives.

Section 507 of the recently passed Telecommunications Act, known as the Communications Decency Act, criminalizes any discussion of abortion or distribution of information about abortion on the Net. Violators of the provision will have to pay up to $250,000 in fines and/or spend five years in prison.

"Section 507 was intended to criminalize obscenity on the Internet, not speech about abortion," wrote Schroeder in a memo sent to members of the House. "Regrettably, Section 507 extends to the Internet...a much broader law from one of the most censorious times in our history--a time when government power was used to fine and imprison people who gave out accurate birth control information."

The Communications Decency Act is being challenged in court by both the American Civil Liberties Union and a consortium of software vendors and online service providers--suits that legal experts expect to end up in the Supreme Court. But if the Act survives legal scrutiny, the senators said it would effectively outlaw:
--posting the referral directory of your local medical society or the doctor's listings from the Yellow Pages to the Net or online services;
--online consultations between doctors about any patient who wants an abortion, even if the abortion is needed to to save the patient's life;
--uploading or downloading medical journal articles about RU-486, or about other abortion techniques.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming court fight over the Communications Decency Act, the Justice Department has already stated that it would not prosecute anyone under the abortion provision of the law. But Lautenberg said the government must actually repeal the provision to prevent a change of policy under future administrations.

"Bill Clinton is a pro-choice president. But what if Pat Buchanan wins the presidency? Or Bob Dole? Zealous prosecutors in their administration might well use the new law to harass people who are pro-choice and to chill speech about abortion over the Internet," he said. "In other words, if you distribute information about abortion over the Internet today, there's no assurance that you won't be prosecuted next year."


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