Data protections and privacy in a post-Roe world

September 13, 2022

Amanda Ducach launched Ema (formerly Social Mama) in 2019 to give mothers a place to congregate. The app gives a place for people at every step of their parenting journey to connect—over classes, through conversations, and, ultimately, build community. It helps those going through complicated pregnancies connect with others who faced similar circumstances. It can connect users to mental health resources. It's an indispensable app for people making their way through life as a parent, from expecting to empty nest.

We talked with Ducach about how the Roe v. Wade decision impacts her business, life as an expecting mother in Texas, and the importance of data privacy protections around female health apps.

You're nearly eight months pregnant. How has living in Texas impacted the health care decisions you and your family can and cannot make?

It's really scary to think that that something can happen in the next six weeks, where if I need medical intervention to keep myself alive for the five-year-old child that I have that, in my opinion, would miss me a lot more than a baby that's in utero. I can't make that medical decision. My husband can't make that medical choice for us. It is very obviously unfair. But more importantly, it's an injustice for the son that I have and for my husband.

These very personal medical decisions have been made for you by the state of Texas. The only way to ensure you have agency over those decisions would be to have the financial ability to move elsewhere.

Exactly. But so much of Texas—and America—is rural. Which means many women don't have easy access to hospitals, let alone proximity to maternity wards. So they don't have the option to find a different doctor, they don't have the option to try to find a doctor that will give them a different diagnosis hoping that they can maybe terminate a potentially dangerous or high-risk pregnancy at 34 weeks, so they can survive.

I don't think we understand as a population that there's a lot of women that will not have access to the medical care they need and will truly just just die. That's what's so sad and frustrating. Living in Texas, it could happen to me too. 

And what's scary for people in states with trigger laws is they are stuck in the middle of regulation changes. Are we just going to let them all die? Because that's definitely how it feels as someone who's seven-and-a-half months pregnant. I don't even know what would happen if I needed a medical exemption. I don't know if I would get it or not. There's no clarity for women.

It seems like there's no clarity for doctors either, especially in states with trigger laws.

100%. There's just so much confusion. This goes back to the fact that access to abortion is access to medical care—to health care. That's what's scary for doctors: I think they're now trying to figure out what lawmakers in their state consider abortion. When I have conversations with physicians and doctors, they are trying to figure out what is considered “medically necessary” where they practice. If the mother has a 70% chance of passing away, where is that line? None of that's been defined yet. And, again, there are people having babies today, going through very high-risk pregnancies today. 

You can't pass laws before these definitions occur. And that's very scary as a pregnant person.

How has living in Texas influenced the way you run your business? 

We're not going to be staying in Texas long term. We're looking at moving our headquarters to Massachusetts. Not everything about Texas has been negative. We're really lucky that we started in Texas—one of the reasons why is that part of having a startup is it's financially very difficult. When you're venture backed and when you're early stage, it is much more affordable in Texas. And because we launched in Texas, a lot of our early adopters of the product were in places like Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. So what that ended up doing is we basically created a product where a good majority of the women that came to us were Black and Hispanic women who did not have the support they needed in their rural communities, because of the zip codes we launched in. It gave us the opportunity to build a product for women that really need us.

That said, we have seen how state laws have serious influence and real world impact. As a company, we follow General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California laws, not just because some of our users are there, but because we believe that they best protect the data of our users. And we believe so much in the privacy of our users, not just because the data is sensitive, but because I personally believe as a CEO that data should be owned by the individual. It's very personal. 

The way to disrupt healthcare tech for women is to put the power of their data back in their hands to create their own health disparities. What is happening right now with the abortion laws, is that we see how states have massive influence and the thought of being in a state that could possibly ask for access to data for things like period tracking or around what happens in our app.

Women are taking classes about how to mentally recover post abortion in our app. We are not willing to subject our users to their data being given to the government because of state laws.  

And if it means that I have to move the company and move my family, then I'm totally OK with that. What matters to me is protecting the users and growing the company so it can have real positive health outcomes. We are going to be more protected in a place like Massachusetts than we will be in Texas long term. So that's a decision that we've made. 

You have to move the company's headquarters to protect data.

Data can be weaponized very quickly. I think that a government thinking they have the right to track somebody's period is very Orwellian. It's scary. So we'll get out of dodge before it's too late. 

What kind of conversations are you having around health care and data protection?

Conversations have been going on for a long time around data with female health. Like when Flo, the big period tracking app, was selling data to Facebook and Google for advertisements. So the data conversations have been happening for a long time with female healthcare apps.

What's changing now is that we're having conversations around how the government could take data that we never thought that they would. Roe v. Wade was a wake-up call. So the conversations now are, how do we proactively  try to look at other ways that our data can be weaponized? And how do we work with our lawyers and government officials to try to protect this so we can protect our users and community? 

You mentioned earlier  a class for after having an abortion on your app. What are your concerns around the data on your app?

That's a really great question. First of all, we have amazing security around our data. We keep encrypted. 

Second, terms and conditions really matter. That's a legal contract that we have between our users. Having the right terms and conditions that allows our user to have protection around their data allows me to literally say to somebody in the government, “I don't own their data. I can't give you their data. I have a legal contract with them that says that is their data.” Which is why it's really important that companies like ours have incredible security policies, good data architects and engineers—that makes a huge difference. 

But we do keep a lot of data to create positive health outcomes. My fear would be laws that somehow changed or were created. So we have to do everything that we can from a legal perspective to try to protect ourselves and our users.

From a data-protection standpoint, is it all about where the company is headquartered? Does moving to Massachusetts give the company and its users more data protections than Houston?  

I do think we're going to be more protected in Massachusetts. There are lots of reasons why the Massachusetts move makes sense for us. Health tech, in general, is incredible in the Boston area. There's are a lot of reasons why, but truly what's going on with with data and abortion was the straw that broke the camel's back. It really just helped us make that final push to say, let's do it. 

I'm sure that you are not the only company that is making decisions like that in the wake of this.

Which is sad, because places like Austin are becoming these huge tech hubs. But it's very different when you're an oil and gas technology startup versus a female healthcare startup, where up to 50% of users face socioeconomic disparities. Our users already feel like they are not protected. 

Here's an example of how something we're doing was influenced by recent events. We are launching a new version of our app in September—and we're not putting our period tracker on the app, because I don't understand the ethical lines on what could possibly happen with that. So it's sad, because our users now are not going to have a great feature on the app that could have improved their health. But right now, I think we're protecting them by not putting it on.

About the Author
Amanda Ducach

CEO and Co-Founder of Ema.

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