Why you should care
Because when women’s rights get restricted, techies build new tools.
Going to work used to be stressful for Emily Loen. Every time the brunette stepped from her car, she braced for taunts about her appearance and her morals from protesters picketing nearby. That’s because Loen, 35, was a women’s health care worker at a North California clinic providing abortions. (Loen asked for the clinic to remain unnamed to avoid further reprisals.) But she also knows she’s lucky: Many of her peers encountered far worse, from threats of violence to being trolled and doxed online. Loen felt powerless to help them, so when a colleague proposed co-founding a hackathon to build tools for abortion seekers and providers, she was all in.
Hackathons are a recent cultural phenomenon, a gathering place for civic-minded engineers to compete by building prototypes that target specific problems. According to Hackathon.com, 3,450 such events took place last year, with 1,568 of them in the U.S. The majority, though, tackle commercial issues, and health care is considered such a thorny subject even the International Women’s Hackathon shied away from it. But with legislators from Texas to Ohio clamping down on women’s rights, there has been a growing call for help — and, considering that two-thirds of abortions are provided by independent clinics like Loen’s, their struggle has renewed urgency.
“I didn’t know any technology that specifically focused on delivery services,” Loen says. She was aware of We Testify, a website launched by the National Network of Abortion Funds, where users share personal stories, but she wanted something more actionable. Loen, who describes herself as “ambiguously brown,” says abortion access — a problem even in blue states like California — is particularly hard for people of color and gender-fluid folk who deal with bias, racism and, in the case of trans people, language that excludes them.
Loen traces her sense of civic responsibility to her family. “They’re all teachers, police officers, small-business owners,” she says. “They fostered the idea you should give back and advocate for your community.” She was attending art school and looking to channel her activist beliefs into helping women when she landed a job running the outreach and education division at a women’s health care clinic. Known for her wide smile, dangly earrings and a voice that accelerates when she gets fired up, Loen says, “If politicians are abusing your power, I can’t sit and watch it.”
With help from her fraternal twin, Somer, president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women, Loen connected with startups in the same space, including Nurx, a company providing affordable access to birth control, pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, and Plan B. Nurx CEO Hans Gangeskar is enthusiastic about Loen’s venture. “It’s obviously a long road,” he says, referring to the challenge of bringing something from concept to scale. “But it’s an important cause; right now, access is under attack.”
Can a handful of apps from weekend warriors really make a difference?
Now in its second year, the Abortion Access Hackathon has grown from roughly 20 people at University of California, Davis, to more than 200 in GitHub’s shiny San Francisco offices. “It’s time to disrupt the legal barriers,” says Loen’s former clinic colleague Shireen Dada Whitaker, who conceived of the hackathon after a class in media innovation and community development at UC Davis. Together, they crafted a proposal and got sponsorship from All Access, a reproductive rights group.
The second hackathon was held this March, with a focus on the challenges faced by providers, which include harassment, misinformation, anti-abortionists creating fake clinics, and the shortage of doctors. The new location was thanks to Kate Bertash, a Bay Area techie who contacted Loen and asked to help. This time, the hackathon generated significantly more buzz, a change Loen attributes to anti-Trump voters searching for grassroots ways to push back.
Loen spent a month vetting the 600-plus applications. “We wanted to make sure they were here to help, not to disrupt the process,” she says — anti-abortion activists are known to infiltrate similar events. Lila Rose, president of anti-abortion group Live Action, feels these volunteers’ time could be better used. “Abortion is never a just or loving solution to the challenges women may face,” she emailed.
Hackathoners typed furiously on laptops, fueled by LaCroix and free pizza, to build apps and websites that included a virtual doula service, Rhetorical Uterus (a debate platform) and Termina (presenting options based on a woman’s age, state of residence and pregnancy stage). The mood seemed friendly and supportive, perhaps because 80 percent of participants identified as female or gender nonconforming — a rarity in the engineering space, where men make up 92 percent of software developers.
And while no one would argue against techies using their skills for social good, can a handful of apps from weekend warriors really make a difference? Caitlin Gerdts, vice president for research at Ibis Reproductive Health, a nonprofit specializing in improving women’s health worldwide, says the hackathon spotlights the potential that technology has to expand access to care — pointing to the growing use of Samsara, an Indonesia-based abortion information hotline and app, as one tangible outcome. Gerdts also says that large-scale change will likely stem from examining state-level abortion restrictions based on evidence, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2016 ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt gives her hope.
For her part, Loen is confident enough to leave her job at the clinic to devote more time to this enterprise. She is currently waiting for confirmation that the Abortion Access Hackathon has achieved nonprofit status and will be hosting the next hackathon this summer, probably in Austin, Texas, where, she says, recent restrictions to access make it imperative that women receive support.
Loen knows the hackathons, while valuable, won’t be instantly actionable, and many women will continue to struggle while she distributes fliers and tries to raise awareness. But she’s not doing this for pats on the back; here to make incremental change, she knows she’s chosen a long and difficult road.