The right to a safe and legal abortion has been law in the US for over 46 years now, with 22 January marking the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling by the US Supreme Court.
That said, the fight for reproductive rights continues in the land of the free, in the face of mounting attacks. Over 400 anti-abortion laws have been passed at state level since 2010, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that studies sexual and reproductive health. It also warns that the conservative majority on today’s Supreme Court leaves Roe v Wade at serious risk of being hollowed out or overturned.
Even as the law stands today, an abortion may be a constitutional right, but it’s not always easily accessible for the women who need it - particularly under-18s, according to Eleanor Grano, community outreach and youth engagement coordinator at Jane’s Due Process (JDP), a Texas-based non-profit that works to help teens get legal access to birth control and abortions.
Texas, as Grano explains, is one of 37 US states that require parental involvement in a young woman’s abortion decision - but for many young women faced with an unplanned pregnancy, that simply isn’t an option. Many of the young women who turn to JDP are de facto orphans, she says: their parents are held in ICE detention, or have been deported, incarcerated, or have disappeared. Some clients are in the foster care system. Others fear emotional or physical abuse from parents as a result of revealing their pregnancy, or being forced against their will to carry their pregnancy to term.
This is where JDP steps in, helping pregnant teens to navigate the judicial bypass process. This means they can obtain an abortion without written parental consent, but only if they appear in front of a judge and are granted an order, based on meeting one of two conditions: either that they are sufficiently mature and well-informed about their pregnancy options to have an abortion; or that it is not in their best interests for their parent or guardian to be notified of their pregnancy and their decision to seek an abortion.
From JDP, these young women get experienced and compassionate legal representation, free of charge, as well as help with funding and transportation for their court and clinic appointments.
But to access that help, pregnant teens first need to get in touch - and this is where a confidential text hotline, underpinned by technology from Montreal-based messaging platform Smooch, is helping JDP in its work. Says Grano:
The reality is that most often teens text rather than call. It’s how they communicate with each other and it was essential they were able to communicate with us in the same way. What we found is that directing these messages to our volunteers securely, confidentially and at scale needed expertise and technology that was really hard to find and prohibitively expensive.
Fortunately, Smooch CTO Mike Gozzo got to hear about JDP at an Abortion Access hackathon in San Francisco in 2017. The company, he says, jumped at the chance to set up an SMS hotline for JDP to securely route messages to its distributed team of trained volunteers at scale, while masking contact information to preserve the anonymity of those texting the service:
The product we offer is designed for enterprise-grade messaging on a global scale - it’s certainly not a cheap or inexpensive solution. But JDP’s cause matters a lot to me personally and to other folks on the founding team, and we like to support organizations that we believe are making a positive difference in the world.
To put that in context, corporates using Smooch to power their messaging with customers include cosmetics company L’Oreal, retailer Target and van hire firm U-Haul, and the platform integrates directly with enterprise customer service and support software from providers including Genesys and Zendesk.
At JDP, Smooch is integrated with the Slack platform used by volunteers who advise and counsel clients. As Grano explains:
A message arrives through Smooch in Slack, and it’s completely anonymized, so we don’t know who it’s from or what their number is. The only information we get is whether they’re in Texas or outside Texas, which is a help for volunteers in terms of knowing whether to refer them to services in their own state.
What I really like about the way that this is set up is that, with each message that comes in, all of our volunteers have access to it, and can collaborate on it if necessary. So if one of the volunteers doesn’t know how to respond, they can ask for help, and I can also offer advocacy to ensure that the information the client is given is in line with our values.
This is extremely important, since JDP deals with some very difficult cases and is obliged to make mandatory reports to the authorities in certain circumstances if disclosed by clients, such as pregnancies that result from rape.
As well as SMS text messages, using Smooch means that JDP can receive messages sent via other messaging services, such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, in the same anonymized way. Next up are Instagram messages, which is a good fit for the demographic that JDP supports, says Gozzo.
It’s through these initial, message-based interactions that trust is won and a conversation can develop between JDP and its clients about their options going forwards. They may be referred to a birth control clinic, or in cases where a judicial bypass for abortion is needed, to JDP’s own client services team. It’s a reassuring way to get these difficult conversations started, as one JDP client, Veronika Granado, explains:
When I found out at 17 that I was pregnant, I was very emotional at the time, so my boyfriend researched everything and found Jane’s Due Process. Since I was not emotionally stable to call, he told me to text the number provided instead and it worked perfectly.
As I texted with JDP, I started to calm down, as I understood what I had to do. It helped me feel like I was more in control and getting the abortion was more tangible. I’m so glad I got to do this by text, because I was still processing my emotions and panicking and had never been in this situation before. It made me feel ready to take on the judicial bypass.