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New abortion chatbot can help find healthcare, even in states with bans

For abortion seekers, deciding whom to trust is important. Now there’s an online chatbot that purports to help.

Starting this week, an abortion bot called Charley from the team behind major abortion organizations Planned Parenthood, IneedanA and Plan C is rolling out across the United States — even in states with abortion bans — to help people find accessible health care. Users answer a series of questions such as the date of their last period, their Zip code and the type of procedure they’re looking for. Along the way, the bot points them toward vetted clinics, telehealth providers or support resources.

But the bot is launching into a complicated landscape for both abortion and health-care technology.

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision striking down the nationwide right to an abortion caused many clinics to close, forcing abortion seekers to travel out of state or hunt for pills online. Fears about digital privacy and criminal prosecution left abortion seekers unsure which online resources — from period trackers to Google search — were safe to use. And the dangers of mixing AI and health care are still coming into focus. This year, a mental health support app used ChatGPT to converse with patients without disclosing that they were talking to a bot. A Washington Post investigation found that ChatGPT itself will give users dangerous health advice around disordered eating.

The Charley team is familiar with the hurdles abortion seekers face and the information they need, said Nicole Cushman, a subject matter lead for Charley and former director of education at Planned Parenthood. It’s because of these challenges, not despite them, that now is the right time for an abortion bot, she said.

“It’s a lot easier than relying on the user to go through this scavenger hunt from one site to another to piece together the information they need,” she said.

Why trust an abortion bot?

Charley is a chatbot, but it’s different from tools such as ChatGPT that use artificial intelligence to mimic human conversation.

That’s important in part because those models are plagued by problems. They hallucinate, or make up information and present it as fact. They’re easy to manipulate, at times with hilarious results. And they reflect the biases of the data they’re trained on — usually gobs of text from the internet.

Exposing abortion seekers to those risks would be inappropriate, Cushman said, so instead Charley works like a decision tree, offering pre-vetted information in response to user selections.

Charley doesn’t ask for identifiable information such as your name, address, email or phone number, according to its privacy policy. However, it does store your IP address, which is traceable to your general location, and chat history for a limited time. Metadata such as IP address is encrypted immediately and deleted promptly, Charley spokeswoman Emma Sands said, though the organization won’t share the exact time frame to help protect users from law enforcement subpoenas.

Davi Ottenheimer, vice president of trust and digital ethics at data security company Inrupt, reviewed Charley for The Post and found that the webpage wasn’t sharing data with third parties, a common marketing practice even for health-care organizations. He also didn’t immediately identify vulnerabilities in the site or the bot, he said.

“You can see that they took care in developing it,” Ottenheimer said.

Still, the Charley team recommends that users take some security precautions, particularly if they live in a state with an abortion ban. Be careful whom you tell about your abortion search — friends and family tend to be bigger threats than your digital footprint. If you want to keep your visit to Charley private, delete your search history, use Chrome’s incognito mode or choose a browser that doesn’t store your activity.

Do we really need a bot for this?

Chatbots can save time. They can also be reductive or unpredictable. When does it make sense to build one?

Charley representatives said in the case of abortion search, a bot is the right solution. Since the Dobbs decision, many abortion clinics have been forced to alter their services or close, making it tougher for advocacy organizations to maintain up-to-date directories of operational clinics, said Rebecca, executive director at abortion database IneedanA who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld for privacy.

Google allows crisis pregnancy centers — which often promote parenting or adoption and sometimes disguise themselves as clinics — to pay for sponsored search slots that appear at the top of the page. And Charley says its research found top Google results for abortion-related searches don’t always include information on telehealth and abortion medications by mail, leaving seekers with the impression they have to travel to receive care.

Google spokesman Davis Thompson disputed that finding abortion information on Google is difficult. Google labels sponsored results and puts an additional label on sponsored results for abortion searches indicating whether organizations actually provide the service. It updated those disclosures in 2022 to make them more prominent, Thompson said.

A standard internet search can leave abortion seekers confused and intimidated, Rebecca said. Charley, by contrast, is a walled garden that only points users toward providers, financial help or psychological support that’s been reviewed by a team of doctors and lawyers, she said. For instance, the tool keeps updated information on state abortion limits so users can know exactly how long they have to make a decision and plan their care.

Charley lives on a homepage, but the team is encouraging other organizations to embed the tool on their websites, as well.

Maybe the bot can help streamline the scattered search for an abortion. It could also serve as a reminder for other organizations tempted to build a health-care bot: Keep it safe, simple and secure.

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