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Analysis Abortion

Is Technology Really an Answer to Anti-Choice Restrictions?

Emma McGowan

Planned Parenthood's new app is just one of many tools and technologies available to connect users to abortion care providers.

It’s increasingly clear that technology will play a key role in blunting the non-stop attacks on reproductive health-care across the United States.

In mid-November, Planned Parenthood released a new web-based application designed to help people find a nearby health clinic offering abortion services. A user seeking care can enter their age, zip code, and the first day of their last period to be directed to one of the provider’s 650 affiliate health centers. If a Planned Parenthood location isn’t within 60 miles, the online app suggests using a map provided by the National Abortion Federation.

The Abortion Care Finder was announced by Planned Parenthood in direct response to the surge of state-level anti-abortion bills that lawmakers, emboldened by a conservative-majority Supreme Court, passed in early 2019. Such policies—such as  the six-week abortion bans passed by lawmakers in five states in the first half of 2019—are intended to work their way up the courts and ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion on the federal level.

Additionally, laws that make it prohibitively expensive or impossible to operate an abortion clinic have led to clinic closures across the country, resulting in confusion about what services are available and where, the legality of abortion in one’s area, and what may have changed to prevent access. These technologies have proven necessary in this political moment, as politicians and anti-abortion groups continue to put the rights and health of abortion-seekers at risk.

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The app’s development came after the Digital Products Lab at Planned Parenthood Federation of America saw an uptick of the search term “abortion near me,” both on its website and in searches that were leading people there. 

Ambreen Molitor, senior director of Planned Parenthood’s Digital Products Lab, told Rewire.News that since launching, the tool’s page has been visited 400,000 times and the response has been “overall very positive.” With the Abortion Care Finder, Molitor said, they hope to educate and empower people.

“A few months ago, we saw a lot of people coming in through Google and apps, searching for an abortion center near them and whether abortion was legal in their state. What we realized was that, in 2019, that question became a little more complex and what we really needed to do was answer that in real time,” Molitor said.

Planned Parenthood is one of many groups using technology to reach people, especially those who live in areas affected by government restrictions on reproductive health care. Cara, an independent iPhone-only app, launched in the United States the week of the 2016 presidential election.

Another group using technology to serve people with reproductive health needs is Power to Decide, a campaign to reduce unplanned pregnancy in the United States. In August 2019, it announced a partnership with the telemedicine company Pill Club to provide 5,000 people with free emergency contraception. Telemedicine companies like Pill Club—a start-up that prescribes and delivers birth control— offer more than information over the internet: They provide remote clinical services. The Pill Club is no longer offering the free emergency contraception, after 5,000 people signed up for access, but Power to Decide continues to provide financial resources to people who need help with contraception. Through its contraceptive access fund, called BCBenefits, Power to Decide’s online network offers people living at or up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level reimbursement for travel, child care, and other expenses related to obtaining birth control.

Just as Planned Parenthood’s Abortion Care Finder is useful to people living in abortion deserts, locations from which people have to travel over 100 miles to reach an abortion provider, BCBenefits is especially useful to those in “contraceptive deserts,” or places where people “lack reasonable access in their county to a health center that offers the full range of contraceptive methods,” according to Power to Decide’s website.

While these tools expand access to contraception and abortion, there are limitations to the technological advances: Even Planned Parenthood’s Abortion Care Finder still requires access to a web browser. Abortion Care Network (ACN), a network of independent abortion providers, fills in the gap for people who have call- and text-only cellphones: People seeking care can text “hello” to the number 202-883-4620, then enter their zip code to find the three closest abortion care providers, as well as resources for funding an abortion.

“Not everyone has a smartphone, an internet connection, or access to a private or secure device they’d feel comfortable using to search for abortion care,” Jay Thibodeau, ACN’s communications director, told Rewire.News. “It’s also convenient—send a text, get results, and call clinics with one additional click.”

ACN also offers a browser-based clinic finder that’s similar to Planned Parenthood’s tool, but that lists independent abortion providers. Both have seen increased use in the past year.

“We saw a major spike in text-line use after Georgia and Alabama passed abortion bans in 2019while we don’t know if those users were patients, advocates, donors, or others, it’s clear that people wanted to know whether and where abortion was still legal and available,” Thibodeau said. “No matter the political climate, patients need accurate information and care they can trust without unnecessary delays or political interference.”

The attacks on reproductive rights are dangerous, and both private and public organizations are stepping in to make sure that people have access to information about abortion and other reproductive health-care services. One thing is clear: As anti-choice politicians and activists continue to promote confusion and misinformation about abortion care, new technological tools can put the guidance and resources we need back into our hands.

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