A Decision Between a Woman and Her Abortion Bot? Meet ‘Chatbot Charley’ Pushing Mail-Order Abortions

Abortion activists recently unveiled chatbot ‘Charley’ quick to offer women one-track advice.

Meet Charley the abortion-bot.
Meet Charley the abortion-bot. (photo: Melissa Hartog / Shutterstock/Register)

WASHINGTON — Meet the abortion lobby’s latest technique for circumventing limitations on access to abortion: “Chatbot Charley.”

For a vulnerable woman considering her options after discovering an unplanned pregnancy, an internet search can often be a starting point. But rather than offering more direct access to counselors or medical professionals for women during this difficult time, abortion advocates recently launched the abortion chatbot Charley, offering automated answers that can direct a woman to get an abortion by mail without ever talking to another person.

A “conversation” with the chatbot sends women to abortion-pill websites, even if they are beyond the gestational age at which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says they can be safely used, advises women and minors on how to circumvent state abortion laws, and tells women that pro-life pregnancy centers that offer alternatives to abortion are “fake clinics” designed “to prevent pregnant people from getting abortion care.”

According to the bot’s website, Charley was “created to help people in every zip code understand their abortion options” and is a “private and secure chatbot that provides users with personalized abortion options, including information about different abortion care methods, nearby clinics, accessing abortion pills, and referrals to support services. It's a user-friendly, judgment-free, and confidential tool designed by abortion experts for abortion seekers.”

The majority of the team behind the chatbot tool are former employees of the nation’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, including former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who is a co-founder of the chatbot, and Tom Subak, another co-founder who formerly led Planned Parenthood’s digital team for 12 years.

The tool’s partner organizations include the abortion advocacy group NARAL (recently rebranded Reproductive Freedom for All, in another post-Dobbs marketing innovation by abortion activists) and the abortion group Aid Access, which received a warning letter from the FDA in 2019 over its “interstate commerce of misbranded and unapproved new drugs.”

Its creators told The Washington Post that the bot “works like a decision tree, offering pre-vetted information in response to user selections.”

‘Dangerous’ Abortion-Pill Advice

The bot begins by asking the user whether she is more interested in an abortion procedure or abortion pills. It does not ask about the age of the user, requesting only the user’s location and the date of her last period to determine how far along she is in pregnancy.

For a date past 10 weeks in pregnancy, up until 13 weeks, the bot does not warn users that FDA guidelines for abortion pills only approve their use through 10 weeks or that complications are more likely the later abortion pills are used in pregnancy. Instead, it inquires if the user would like to learn about picking up pills at a clinic or getting them by mail.

When the mail option is selected, it advises that one can “get FDA-approved abortion pills by mail from a telehealth provider,” again without informing the user that the FDA only approves these pills through 10 weeks’ gestation. “These providers require basic medical screening online, and you can schedule follow-up support from a licensed clinician if you need it.” The bot adds, “Many telehealth providers can help guide you to additional tests to confirm how many weeks pregnant you are, if needed.”

The second option is to “get abortion pills by mail by ordering them online,” although the bot does note that “these websites typically don’t require screening or prescriptions, but also don’t provide clinician support. These medications are usually made overseas where quality testing may or may not be the same as in the U.S. They are generally shipped to you from within the U.S. This may cost $25 or more, but prices can change and vary based on the website.”

If a user inputs a date in the chat indicating that she is past 13 weeks in a pregnancy but interested in using abortion pills, the abortion bot does warn, “You might be too far along for abortion pills.” According to the bot, “Abortion pills work best in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. Using pills later in pregnancy can be more painful and less effective. The risk of medical complications also goes up as you get further along. Many providers only offer pills up to 10 or 12 weeks.”

However, if a user persists in expressing interest in abortion pills rather than an abortion procedure, the bot states that “abortion pills are used differently after 12 weeks of pregnancy” and sends the user to a graphic from the Miscarriage and Abortion Hotline that tells women they can take the mifepristone and misoprostol abortion-pill regimen after 12 weeks of pregnancy, but just in different doses compared to earlier in the pregnancy — without mentioning the increased risk of complications.

Dr. Christina Francis, CEO of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG) and a practicing OB-GYN, told the Register it was “especially dangerous to point women towards sources that support the use of chemical abortion drugs past the FDA-approved limit of 10 weeks' gestation, as the rate of failure and complications skyrockets after this point.”

She added that “in directing women towards abortion-pill providers,” the bot “endangers their health and safety” because “telehealth providers cannot adequately screen for human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and medical risk factors for complications, including life-threatening ones such as ectopic rupture.”

Francis also said the tool “is only designed to direct women to providers without informing her about the risks of and alternatives to induced abortion,” which “hinders its ability to offer her informed consent, which is vital for quality health care.”

Circumventing State Pro-Life Laws

If a user indicates to the bot residency in a state like Texas, where abortion is illegal with few exceptions, it says that “in addition to traveling to another state, you can also consider traveling outside the United States if you have a passport and can afford to do so.”

The bot also advises that “there may be some legal risk for getting pills in your state, but there are ways to protect your privacy while you explore your options. I’ll guide you to resources that can help.”

While it doesn’t screen for age, the bot does indicate that it can provide information to minors about how to obtain an abortion without informing their parents in states with parental-consent laws.

For example, for a Virginia-based user, it says, “if you’re under 18, Virginia law requires providers to tell 1 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.”

Danielle Pimentel, policy counsel at Americans United for Life, told the Register that the area of law around chatbots like this one is still developing, which leaves a “concerning” legal gray area, given its potential impact on women and girls. She pointed out that information given by bots “may be inaccurate with the changing laws” in individual states and also may not give women “an accurate list of the complications that they might have” with an abortion.

Pimentel said the bot’s advice about traveling to other states and even other countries for abortions could be very harmful for minors seeking abortions, as adolescent pregnancies already carry higher risks and young women could face health complications far from home without their parents’ help.

Targeting Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers

Towards the end of any exchange with the chatbot, it warns the user about pro-life pregnancy centers, saying they are “designed to prevent pregnant people from getting abortion care. They may advertise free pregnancy tests or free ultrasounds, but they’re actually fake clinics that may give you incorrect information about your options. They’re designed to look like real health centers, but most aren’t licensed and don’t provide health care.”

Pimentel said the labeling of crisis-pregnancy centers as “fake clinics” is harmful and untrue, as “there are close to 3,000 pregnancy-resource centers in the U.S., many of which adhere to national standards of care and ethics when dealing with their patients.”

“Many women do feel forced to have abortions,” she emphasized. “That’s why pregnancy-resource centers are a great resource for women, because they provide that information to women to ensure they really do have an authentic choice.”

Jeff Bradford, president of The Human Coalition, told the Register that the chatbot is “just another example of the abortion industry being transactional in everything they do,” rather than seeing and addressing the difficulty that the woman in this situation faces on a personal level. His group is a pro-life nonprofit that operates marketing outreach and contact centers for abortion-minded women as well as pregnancy-care centers.

The Human Coalition pioneered reaching women through targeted pro-life internet advertisements. He said the group is still focused on using the latest technology to reach women, but always with human interactions that “give them the opportunity to hear their choices, to be empowered, to understand what an abortion is and what it would look like to parent,” as well as options like adoption. He observed that “these are women, who are scared, who feel like they have been told that abortion is their only option — 76% of women who have made up their minds to have an abortion tell us that they would prefer to parent if their circumstances were different. If 76% of the women who go to the chatbot are only getting one option … killing your child, then that’s really not doing women a service.”

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