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Women in tech are mobilizing to improve access to abortion providers

In the face of a U.S. administration increasingly hostile to a woman’s right to choose, a number of organizations are finding new and clever ways to deliver access.

Women in tech are mobilizing to improve access to abortion providers
[Image: Daniel Salo (illustration), Chelsea Schiff (typography)]

This story is part of our Startup Resistance series that profiles the entrepreneurs and activists addressing issues that have been neglected or opposed by the Trump administration.

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In 2016, the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), a network of 70 organizations supporting access to abortion, was putting together its annual fundraising Bowl-a-Thon, a coordinated nationwide series of games that featured a night full of drinks, gutter balls, and striped shirts—all in the name of reproductive rights. Women across the country gathered together to play and pick pun-heavy team names like Kiss Our Uter-Ass, Bowl V. Wade, and The Fempire Strikes Back.

But in the weeks leading up the fundraising event, the Bowl-a-Thon suffered a devastating setback: It was hacked. Not by bored teenagers, North Korean hackers, or the Russians—but by pro-life activists.

The tech-savvy attackers set up dummy accounts, orchestrated fake pages to gather donor details, submitted faulty donations totaling $66 billion, and sent anti-abortion messages to mailing lists. Some activists went so far as to send images of fetuses alongside messages like, “I hope I grow up big enough to go bowling someday.”

Somer Loen, at the time a student at the University of California, Davis, who intended on participating in Bowl-a-Thon, saw protesters becoming more sophisticated in their orchestrated attacks. They were no longer shouting Bible verses or hoisting homemade signs out on the street. She realized that “the picket line had moved from in front of the clinic to online.”

Loen, along with fellow students Shireen Dada Whitaker and Emily Loe, decided the only real way to protect against future attacks was to fortify an area that had often proven elusive to the reproductive rights sector: tech.

Later that year, the team founded the Abortion Access Hackathon, a day-long event that connects the two sectors by bringing technologists, coders, clinics, and startups together to expand access in a country that’s increasingly become hostile for the right to choose.

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[Photo: Abortion Access Hackathon]
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization committed to reproductive health, 29 states imposed “major” restrictions on abortion access in the last few years. The situation is only expected to intensify as the Trump administration consistently threatens to withhold funds from facilities that offer abortion services—all of this despite a 2013 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that found that 70% of Americans support Roe v. Wade.

How to amplify feminist leadership in tech

The first Abortion Access Hackathon saw 30 participants with a strong showing of female tech entrepreneurs. Shortly thereafter, the 2016 election happened, “and everyone got fired up,” says Loen. “It took off from there.” A year later, the roving city event series swelled to more than 600 applications and 300 participants—80% of them women. The 501(c)3 has hosted four hackathons, including one hosted at the GitHub headquarters in San Francisco.

“Our goal was to really amplify feminist leadership in tech,” says Loen. “We’re giving feminists the opportunity to lead tech and use their skills to solve the problems that they’re experiencing . . . and shore up resources for under-resourced abortion providers.”

Interest in startups tackling reproductive issues such as birth control surged in the Trump era. As Fast Company previously reported, American women increasingly turn to telemedicine companies like Nurx and Lemonaid Health for on-demand contraception, but abortion is still a separate category that has not seen as much attention as less legally complicated services. The hackathon attempts to fill that need by addressing a number of issues that plague the abortion services industry, such as cost, access, information, legal aid, and, yes, even protesters.

INeedAnA.org, for example, combines resource information in one easy-to-decipher directory. It’s a searchable database of clinics and abortion support services that runs the gamut of practical support (transportation help, childcare, etc.) to applying for financial aid programs. You just input your zip code, along with age and stage of pregnancy, and a series of questions will follow to help provide you with the necessary support.

“It walks you through this process in a way where all of the information is in one central place, which is really important because it’s really hard to find actual information about how to get an abortion,” says Loen.

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Likewise, AbortionPolicyAPI.com serves as an up-do-date tool that centralizes all of the U.S. laws on abortion access. Someone can easily pull information about how many abortion restrictions there are, in say, Indiana.

Another participant developed an interactive map that lists the many fake clinics falsely claiming to provide abortion services. (In reality, they sit down pregnant women and try to convince them to give birth.) ExposeFakeClinics.com is a website national coalition and evergreen campaign (#ExposeFakeClinics) that protects women from the emotional abuse of these charlatans. Their volunteers comb through Yelp and Google+ reviews, and cold-call the clinics in question.

Other hackathon projects tackle seemingly small issues that in reality drastically affect both patients and providers. The Knoxville Abortion Doula Project anonymizes the telephone numbers of volunteers who text with clients seeking help, while Jane’s Due Process streamlines the volunteer shift hand-off process so that information doesn’t get lost during the process. (The latter most recently made news when it assisted an undocumented minor obtain legal access to an abortion. Brett Kavanaugh, recently appointed to the Supreme Court, sat on the panel that tried to deny her access.)

“By building this bridge to two different groups, we are creating advocates on both sides,” explains Leon. “In order to continue access to abortion, we need to make sure abortion providers have access to the latest tech tools . . . it levels the playing field a little bit more.”

Costly barriers

The National Network of Abortion Funds, which suffered the 2016 hack, works across the country to remove financial and logistical barriers to abortions. Those in need call the organization’s hotline or email through the site for help coordinating a variety services, essentially “a very elaborate safety net of community care,” says NNAF executive Yamani Hernandez.

Two years ago, NNAF fielded 100,000 calls. Last year, amid increasing restrictions, it topped 150,000. The staff was only able to fund about 22,000 of those requests. “There’s a tremendous need,” reflects Hernandez, who sees the national conversation not just affecting access, but even public perception.

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“A lot of time some people don’t even know that abortion is legal here,” she says. “There are people that still call and ask, ‘Is abortion legal? Can I get an abortion?’ because it’s such a fraught topic in the news.”

Abortions can cost between $300-$500 during the first trimester, then gets increasingly more expensive as time progresses or if special circumstances or maternal health issues complicate the pregnancy. The cost can increase to several thousand dollars and, in some cases, exceed $20,000. They are not always covered by insurance, and The Hyde Amendment, in effect since 1977, essentially bans federal dollars from going to abortion coverage for women insured by Medicaid. Meanwhile, 75% of abortion patients are poor or low-income women.

For those who live in clinic deserts, it means buying a plane ticket or finding someone to open up their home for an overnight stay. Then there are those who already have children—in fact, 60% of those who seek abortions do—which means finding childcare, among other concerns like getting time off work.

“Like many other healthcare procedures, it becomes an emergency, and something that can be really difficult to navigate,” says Hernandez. “Women shouldn’t have to choose between paying their rent and being able to get a medical procedure like an abortion, which are things that we hear all the time.”

Such accessibility concerns inspired some to focus on workarounds that circumvent the clinic model—via telemedicine. Plan C is one such organization that counters the over-regulation and over-medicalization of abortion care in the U.S. by essentially reviewing unregulated online pharmacies that sell the “abortion pill,” i.e., the medications mifepristone and misoprostol taken to terminate a pregnancy. (It is not to be confused with Plan B, which prevents pregnancy after unprotected sex.)

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Plan C does not sell these pills but offers a guide to those who do. Founded in 2015, the team researches and orders product from these sites and can recommend those who deliver the real deal. “So we are sharing that information with women because abortion is largely inaccessible in our country and women are looking for options,” explains Elisa S. Wells, co-director of Plan C. “Self-managed care is a form of resistance.”

In some countries, these medications are readily available at the local pharmacy for roughly $10. In the U.S., however, they are solely administered at clinics, which tend to charge $500-$800 for the very same pills (along with exams and checkups).

As for safety, a recent study tracked more than 1,000 women in Ireland who ordered pills from Women on Web, the famous organization that helped 75,000 women in countries where abortion is illegal. It found “the safety and effectiveness of the online service was comparable to the clinical care that women who traveled to the U.K. received.”

Plan C also serves as an information outlet regarding the legal risks one takes by venturing onto the black market, which isn’t entirely kosher. It works in part with an online legal group called SIA, which stands for self-induced abortion, that specifically fights on behalf of women criminalized for taking matters into their own hands. Women are targeted and punished far greater than Americans who do the same, though in less controversial sectors.

As Wells explains, people often head to Mexico for fertility drugs, and men buy generic Viagra all the time on the internet, and no one really questions the legality of such purchases. Yet when it comes to abortion, the authorities suddenly perk up: There are a handful of cases in the U.S. where women who use these pills have been turned into authorities and prosecuted.

“Women are inconvenienced and demonized and made to feel like what they have done—managing their own medical care—is wrong,” says Wells.

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[Photo: Abortion Access Hackathon]

A growing resistance

Plan C, like others, has seen interest swell in the last year and a half. The independent organization averages 30,000 hits a month, many of its users referred by Women on the Web, which did not offer services for those residing in U.S. On Thursday, however, Women on Web founder Dr. Rebecca Gomperts finally announced a U.S. version called Aid Access, which serves as an e-commerce site and medical resource. For just $95, women can get pills, counseling, and physician-supported medical care.

“It was in response to the urgent medical need,” Gomperts told ThinkProgress.

A week earlier, Planned Parenthood announced further investment in a Regional Access Network to expand telemedicine, as well as committing to “leveraging technology and innovation to help connect people to services.”

As Wells notes, it really is the technology making it possible to achieve access in this new era of restricted care. “We see that a real opportunity both for resistance and also for shaping the future of abortion care here in the United States based on these technologies,” she says. And the more Silicon Valley embraces women’s healthcare, the more it destigmatizes an industry that some women remarkably don’t even know is legal.

Chipping away away at the outdated idea that abortion is a taboo topic is essential, stresses Loen. The cofounder believes that just by having the term abortion in her organization’s name proves a powerful step forward. “When GitHub hosted the Abortion Access Hackathon, everyone knew they were hosting [an abortion event] . . . even saying the word out loud is powerful.”

Ultimately, the more support Wells—along with all these organizations—receives from more established industries, the more reproductive rights can piece together the care so many American women struggle to receive. Ninety percent of all U.S. counties still lack a clinic.

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“Ultimately our goal is to provide clinics and providers the same level of tech service that any major business has access to,” says Loen, “ensuring that every abortion clinic has to have the look and feel of a relevant and easily accessible organization.”

And while abortion providers and services have been historically slow to adopt the latest tech advances, Wells sees the tide radically shifting in women’s favor. She says that in 2013, when she was first discussing Plan C and “pushing the envelope,” she sensed the hesitation and uncertainty of the greater reproductive health community. Today, it’s a different story.

“Now it’s like everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon and move forward with this,” says Wells. “And what’s really pushing it though are the women themselves who are going online and ordering this and sharing information with each other. It’s a great form of resistance . . . something that women can do to take control of their choices.”

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