Too Much Information, Not Enough Common Sense

A new Oklahoma law will require the details of every abortion to be posted on a public website.
Mothers -- or would-be mothers, rather -- will be prompted to answer 37 questions that range from her marital status and race to how many times she's ever been pregnant. One question asks for the woman's reason to abort, offering "relationship problems" as a possible check-off box, and it's difficult to ignore the judgmental and disapproving tone.

The website, which will cost $200,000 per year to implement, is intended to prevent or decrease the number of abortions in Oklahoma, but the bill has already raised considerable debate, attracting opposition from the Center For Reproductive Rights and former Oklahoma Representative Wanda Jo Stapleton, among others. This questionnaire not only forces doctors into an uncomfortable predicament -- failure to disclose this information would result in "criminal sanctions and loss of medical license," as Salon's Lynn Harris reports -- but, put simply, it shames women. "They're really just trying to frighten women out of having abortions," Kery Parks, director of external affairs at Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma, told Harris. Indeed, in a small town, probing details would easily identify the woman with a proverbial scarlet A.

Sensitivity issues aside, this possible law poses a question about the extent to which transparency works in today's information-saturated society, where the line between reasonable alerts and public shaming has increasingly blurred. The latter is nothing new, with historical roots in the mark of Cain, Jesus's crucifixion, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and the Nazis' yellow stars during the Holocaust -- quite the range right there.

More contemporary examples include a theft defendant in Michigan who was ordered by
a judge to bear the words "Daddy, don't steal" on his arm, and convicted shoplifters who were sentenced to wear neon green t-shirt with the phrase "I'm a thief" while performing community service in Ohio.

Sometimes, transparency makes complete sense, like when a medical professor promotes a specific drug and simultaneously sits on the board of its distributor. Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig discusses transparency's merits in The New Republic:

In particular, management transparency, which is designed to make the performance of government agencies more measurable, will radically improve how government works. And making government data available for others to build upon has historically produced enormous value -- from weather data, which produces more than $800 billion in economic value to the United States, to GPS data, liberated originally by Ronald Reagan, which now allows cell phones to instantly report (among other essential facts) whether Peets or Starbucks is closer.

But Lessig's piece focuses more on the questionable uses of transparency, arguing that the good intentions do not always yield good results. Consider an editorial recently published in the New York Times about sex offender registries:

Meanwhile, an attempt to create a national registry -- part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act passed in 2006 -- has faltered badly. States fretting about the costs and legal complications all missed the deadline to comply, which was then extended to July 2010. They worry that the registry would create an overwhelming monitoring burden and that it uses crude means of assessing the likelihood that offenders might repeat their crimes. The list of offenders is so large as to be almost useless. It is supposed to include not only rapists and kidnappers but also flashers and teenagers who had consensual sex.

The Offender Locator iPhone application is among Apple's top-selling features, but is it creating more harm than protection? In many ways, as these sorts of disclosures, literally available at our fingertips, spiral out of control, and everyone can find out everyone else's business in the virtual community created by the Internet, we seem to be returning to the dangerous age that Hawthrone described. Oklahoma legislators, take note: "Sunlight may well be a great disinfectant," Lessig says, "But as anyone who has ever waded through a swamp knows, it has other effects as well."