On September 12, 2023, an abortion services chatbot named Charley launched with the intention of making shopping for abortion services as easy as finding a car mechanic. This chatbot, co-founded by Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood, and Tom Subak, the former chief strategy officer at Planned Parenthood, appears to be part of a broader agenda to improve the accessibility of abortion services, particularly in the wake of legal changes.
From the first interaction, Charley’s approach is not about fostering open conversation. it employs a rigid “decision tree” format that essentially steers visitors through pre-written prompts, avoiding any room for nuanced discussion or considerations. Users are asked about the type of abortion they desire and the date of their last menstrual period, following which they must reveal their zip code to determine the legal status of abortion in their state.
After that, Charley is a veritable fountain of information on abortion options. It’s interesting to note that Charley pushes the abortion pills Mifepristone, although even in some states where abortion is legal, a physician must administer it in a hospital or clinical setting because of safety concerns. Per a statement released by Walgreens in July of 2023, the FDA does not allow any retail pharmacies to dispense Mifepristone.
Luckily, Charley shows women how to bypass this minor inconvenience and order the pills online.
For users beyond the FDA-approved 10-week limit for abortion pills but up to 13 weeks, the bot fails to inform them about the increased risks associated with later use of these pills. Instead, it offers options to pick up pills at a clinic or receive them by mail without conveying the potential dangers. If a user selects the mail option, the bot advises users to order abortion pills via telehealth providers, neglecting to mention the 10-week limit.
Should a user indicate she is more than 13 weeks pregnant but still interested in abortion pills, the bot does offer a warning about being too far along. However, if the user persists, the bot directs her to a graphic detailing how to take abortion pills after 12 weeks without adequately emphasizing the heightened risk of complications.
In states like Texas, where abortion is strictly regulated, the bot suggests traveling to another state or even going abroad for the procedure. While it mentions potential legal risks, it assures the user that it can guide her to resources that can help protect her privacy while pursuing these options. This controversial chatbot raises significant concerns about the quality of care and the implications for women’s health and well-being.
While the chatbot doesn’t specifically ask about the age of the users, Charley offers advice for those under 18 who wish to circumvent parental consent. One Virginia user was informed, “If you’re under 18, Virginia law requires providers to tell one of your parents and/or get their permission before you can get an abortion. But if you cannot or do not want to involve a parent, you can ask a judge for permission to make the decision on your own. I can show you how to get help with that at the end of the conversation.”
The chatbot concludes with a summary of expected costs and a directory of resources to find an abortion provider. If a user is approaching the cut-off stage in her pregnancy, the chatbot urges her to hurry before her time runs out.
While Charley claims to have been developed by “medical and legal experts,” its narrow approach is worrisome. The chatbot’s intended role as a “triage solution” for abortion information in no way addresses the individual needs of women seeking these services.
Charley steers women toward abortion, with no attempts to provide alternatives. In fact, Charley warns women to stay away from pro-life pregnancy centers. It alleges that these centers are purportedly “intended to obstruct individuals facing pregnancy from accessing abortion care.” The chatbot contends that these centers may promote free pregnancy tests or ultrasounds, but its assertion is that they are deceptive establishments that might provide inaccurate information regarding one’s choices. Charley claims that while these providers “look like genuine health centers,” many of them “lack proper licensing and do not offer healthcare services.”
It’s a bold new world of a progressive dream. Thanks to Charley, ordering online abortion pills is as easy as getting pizza delivery from Uber Eats.