By Maggie Gorini
It’s called FEMM…
…and you don’t want it anywhere near your personal life. Fake clinic “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs) are aggressively pushing the FEMM app (Fertility Education and Medical Management), a fertility tracking app promoted as an alternative to hormonal birth control that is backed by opponents of reproductive rights and health care.
The Chiaroscuro Foundation funded the app’s production to the tune of $1.79 million over three years. From their website, the foundation is concerned with society’s shift away from organized religion and, in response, has funneled money into projects (such as this app) that push conservative Christian religious beliefs onto young women. The foundation is chaired by Sean Fieler, a Catholic anti-abortion hedge fund manager in New York with a long history of opposing access to reproductive health services. Fieler also sits on the Femm Foundation board that oversees the app’s operation. As reported by The Guardian, “The Catholic Church’s diplomatic arm, the permanent observer mission of the Holy See at the United Nations, has promoted the Femm Foundation and its app in speeches and events at the UN headquarters in New York. Femm also received a $100,000 grant from the Papal Foundation.”
In line with their views, the ideology-based app uses a medical facade to steer users away from hormonal contraceptives, falsely casting them as ineffective and unsafe. Unsurprisingly, FEMM’s content stems from a research arm run by two conservative doctors affiliated with Universidad Católica in Chile, where abortion services are limited due to social and legal restrictions and the majority of citizens identify as Catholic.
Suffice it to say, the app’s makers are not the kind of folks we would trust with our weekend plans let alone sensitive information about our sex lives and reproductive health. Thousands of women, however, have downloaded this unsecured and unregulated app (over 400,000 times) since its launching, which makes their personal information vulnerable to exploitation by anti-choice groups such as the World Youth Alliance. This anti-reproductive rights group not only calls FEMM a “sister organization,” but also promotes their educational materials and shares an office with them in New York.
Had sex today? Feeling anxious or moody? The FEMM app wants to know your most intimate reproductive health information.
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), signed into law in 1996, doesn’t protect health data on various apps, including FEMM, despite many of them having medical implications. Holes in federal regulations make it possible for the app’s operators to share users’ sexual health information with like-minded partners—people who do not have women’s interests at heart.
As we’ve noted before, even supposedly anonymous data can be traced back to specific individuals using publicly available information. Users entering sensitive information into for-profit fertility apps like Natural Cycles or Ovia risk their data being sold or shared, even to their employer or insurance company.
But FEMM users combine those risks with an additional risk that their most sensitive information will be weaponized against them by the anti-abortion zealots behind the app.
We know that fertility app algorithms can determine whether a user has gotten pregnant or had an abortion based on information entered about menstrual cycle and body temperature, even if the user doesn’t report the pregnancy or abortion directly. It’s not hard to imagine that data being turned over to law enforcement in states where abortion rights are under attack and self-managed abortion is already against the law.
The company’s main hurdles to sharing information freely are state data privacy laws. These days, the focus is on California, which passed a law last year that will likely make its rules the highest standard for data collection/sharing in this field starting 2020.
Before entering information into the app’s “Intercourse” or “Medication” tabs, consider also that those data will stay with the anti-choice organization for a while. FEMM says it keeps your information for up to six years unless you formally request it be deleted (you can’t just unsubscribe), and even then FEMM can take a month to complete the request. (If they really do.)
But you said my tax dollars were involved.
The FEMM app is being promoted by Obria Group, an anti-choice organization based out of southern California that hosts dozens of CPCs across five states. Recently, the Trump Department of Health and Human Services awarded the group $1.7 million through the Title X family planning program (with a likely renewal totaling $5.1 million), even though centers like these offer patients false and coercive advice and actively dissuade patients from pursuing contraceptive/abortion options. The Obria website, for example, fails to disclose its ideologically motivated opposition to abortion or to discuss abortion as a safe procedure and instead recklessly suggests there are ways to reverse the effects of medication abortion, via procedures that are not recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and are not supported by valid scientific study.
As part of its application for Title X funds, Obria made clear that they would not directly offer any form of hormonal birth control to patients and would instead “emphasize the value of abstinence” and actively promote the FEMM app as a way of avoiding pregnancy.
Obria may have been the one to secure public funds, but FEMM stands to also benefit. With this marketing boon, FEMM can reach more users, misinform more users, and leave more users’ sensitive health information well within reach of anti-reproductive rights groups.
To put it lightly, if you’re considering using FEMM to track your cycle, we suggest thinking again.
Maggie Gorini is the NWHN Policy Fellow