The ACLU'S Siri-ous Abortion Problem

The iPhone’s new voice-recognition software won’t find abortion businesses. Controversy highlights the question of how to engage with emerging technologies.

(photo: Courtesy of Apple)

NEW YORK — When the latest iPhone 4S model was unveiled in October, Apple’s “Siri” voice-recognition software was widely hailed as its catchiest new feature. Smartphone experts said Siri can do so many things effectively by voice alone that it could revolutionize how people use the ever-more ubiquitous gadgets.

But Siri caught the critical attention of the American Civil Liberties Union last week for something it couldn’t do: locate abortion facilities.

When iPhone users ask Siri to find something, the technology utilizes a built-in Internet search engine similar to Google to glean related information from the Internet. News that Siri couldn’t find abortion facilities or places to procure contraceptives was reported initially last month by pro-abortion groups. Abortion activists were even more aggrieved because, in some cases, when Siri was asked to find an abortion facility, it instead generated locations for pro-life pregnancy centers.

The ACLU augmented the pro-abortion complaints by creating a webpage with an online petition demanding Apple modify Siri.

“If Siri can tell us about Viagra, it should not provide bad or no information about contraceptives or abortion care,” the ACLU webpage declares. “Send a message to Apple: Fix Siri.”

The Register contacted the ACLU Dec. 2, seeking additional comment about why it had intervened in the matter. Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said Siri’s failure to provide abortion and contraception information is “a symptom of a much larger problem” of inadequate access to medical care and information that women and couples “need to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.”

Speaking about the matter Nov. 30 to The New York Times, an Apple spokeswoman stressed that Siri had been released in an unfinished “beta” mode. “These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone,” she said about the complaints by abortion supporters. “It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks.”

Patrick Leinen is a Web developer and co-founder of Little i Apps, creator of the popular iPhone confession application and other Catholic apps. Based on his company’s own experience with Apple, he thinks the company had no intention of taking sides in the abortion issue.

“They try not to push too many things politically on their users one way or the other,” Leinen said. “They try to look for a very broad, happy audience.”

Catholic blogger Matthew Warner said the ACLU’s involvement in the Siri controversy merely demonstrated its own pro-abortion biases.

“I don’t think [the ACLU] has a place dictating what a private company’s preference is regarding computerized search results,” said Warner, who is also CEO of flockNote, an online company that markets an Internet and email tool intended to serve Catholic parishes and other Catholic organizations. “If anything, it should be defending the rights of a private company to not help women find abortions if it didn’t want to.”

The Bigger Picture

From the perspective of tech-savvy Catholics, the bigger issue highlighted by the controversy is the question of how to engage constructively with emerging new communications technologies like Siri.

Like his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly advocated this type of positive engagement.

“As with every other fruit of human ingenuity, the new communications technologies must be placed at the service of the integral good of the individual and of the whole of humanity,” the Pope said in this year’s World Communications Day message. “If used wisely, they can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity, which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.”

Jeff Geerling, flockNote’s chief technical officer, recommends that Catholics participate actively in Catholic social networks. They should also engage online with non-Catholics with similar interests to their own “and share and link to great Catholic articles and websites to help get them into Google searches and in the public’s eye.”

Similarly, Geerling said, Catholic bloggers should be ready to address hot-button topics “like abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, artificial contraception, etc., and link to high-quality Catholic sources (like Catholic Answers, EWTN, the Vatican website, etc.) instead of linking to secular publications when referring people to more information.”

Given how the Internet operates, Geerling says it’s not practical for Catholics to try to control the vast stream of data that flows constantly through social media, mainstream news media and other websites and services.

“However, especially in a family environment, we can and must train ourselves, our children and our neighbors to be wary of online sources, and prudent in what we view or read,” he said.

Family filtering software can be a useful tool here, Geerling added, but more importantly, “Catholics need to pray, fast and receive the sacraments, especially with the intention of keeping their lives and media consumption pure, chaste and meaningful.”

Geerling recommends Catholics seek more detailed guidance by reading Benedict XVI’s recent teachings in the area of social communications, particularly his annual messages for World Communications Day.

He also suggests that prudent technology consumers review the information about using social media made available by the U.S. bishops. Comments Geerling, “It’s not comprehensive, but it does offer a lot of food for thought.”

Leinen, who works with his brother Chip and their friend Ryan Kreager to create Catholic apps for Apple products, says they’ve learned the best approach is to avoid products the company deems too “aggressive.” That still gave them enough latitude to market their confession app, which by its nature potentially touches on sensitive topics like abortion and sexual issues.

“I think the reason why we can get away with mentioning those things is because it’s not like we specifically target them,” Leinen said. “It’s built for confession, and that’s obviously what the program is for.”

Like Geerling, Leinen believes “we need to start building a stronger Catholic community online.” And he thinks that, courtesy of its universality, the Catholic Church is uniquely capable of utilizing the Internet’s immense capacities.

“You know, we have a global Church,” Leinen said. “We try to use the technology to help people understand how big our Church is and how many great things it does.”

A Fair Playing Field

For his part, Warner said Catholics should view new information technologies like Siri as tools. Trying to prevent such tools from having the capacity to access immoral information is probably futile and could have dangerous consequences, he said. 

“We should always advocate for a fair playing field,” Warner suggested. “We don’t need tricks because we have the truth. We should instead focus on other efforts, whether it’s improved pro-life search rankings or more pro-life, pro-woman pregnancy centers.”

Like Leinen and Geerling, Warner thinks it’s incumbent that Catholics provide more and better content online bearing witness to their faith.

“And most of all, when we do it, regardless of what we’re sharing about, we need to do it with love and with joy,” Warner said. “That’s attractive. And if we can get our act together, we can easily outdo the negatives out there.”

Register correspondent Tom McFeely writes from Victoria, British Columbia.