‘Coding for Abortion Access’ Analysis

‘Coding for Abortion Access’ (Weigel 2017) was published on the 5th April by journalist Moira Weigel working for The New Yorker (TNY). This publication, as described in their ‘About’ page (2017), reports on matters of politics, popular culture, science and technology, business and the arts to name a few. Founded in 1925, the magazine is still available in weekly print format but, as evident by their ‘video’ and ‘audio’ sections, TNY has seamlessly adapted to the digital renaissance. This no doubt helped their online readership grow 80% in 2011 -2012 (Sasseen, Matsa & Mitchell 2013). PEW Research Centre (2014) indicates that the magazine typically attracts an affluent, primarily female (53%) and left-leaning readership (77% identified as ‘left-of-centre’).

This apparent demographic is reflected by the article in question. Weigel recounts a recent ‘hackathon’ organised and ran by women with the goal of creating software that engages with ‘the issue of reproductive rights’ and coding’s ability to facilitate ‘subversions and workarounds’ to increasingly restrictive state and federal legislation. As such, the article is clearly aimed at a female audience who are tech savvy, have an adequate knowledge of computing jargon, and understand the concept of a ‘hackathon’ as the article doesn’t readily explain what this is.

While the piece does make references to the controversial activity of hacking, it doesn’t grapple with this on an ethical level. Computer science is, more or less, standard textbook science but the article frames the developers as more contentious ‘hackers’ instead. Furthermore, the ‘hacking’ in question revolves around the controversial topic of abortion, with the author taking a stance that’s aligned with the target audience.

Weigel writes in a distinctly third person style which largely relies on quotes from the ‘hackers’ present at the event to frame any politically charged statements, which they refer to as ‘the language of reproductive justice’, suggesting a moral high-ground. This doesn’t, however, prevent her from framing the topic. Weigel remarks that the challenges of accessing abortion services are often ‘insurmountable’, and subtly frames ‘pro-lifers’ as unapologetically obstructing otherwise helpless women.

The subject of the article is of a female-centred ‘hackathon’, which can be defined as ‘a gathering where programmers collaboratively code in an extreme manner over a short period of time’. Generally held to tackle a specific problem, often with similarly philanthropic intentions, these events are a fantastic example of computer science working to benefit society. As Weigel states, the tech industry demonstrates that ‘… even the most intractable problems can be solved if only you break them down into the right set of engineering decisions’ which reflects the programmers’ ‘can-do optimism’. To further commend the event, Weigel reminds us frequently that everyone in attendance were volunteers, most of them women, who worked efficiently as teams under the banner of ‘collaboration, not competition’.

Weigel argues that ‘the tech industry is not known for attending to the needs of women’, but doesn’t offer any examples of this imbalance. Rather, she laments the historic context of abortion and it’s relatively recent (‘1860’s’) criminalization. After a brief account of past cultural practices, she alludes to technology as a phenomenal opportunity to return power and decision to women who ‘once gathered to pass around herbs and vines and illegal diaphragms and D.I.Y. abortion kits’. Now, ‘code’ provides the means to alter the paradigm and re-establish the network of women ‘who share the knowledge they need’ in an environment reminiscent of ‘older feminist gatherings’.

The article continuously praises the wonderful opportunities offered by technology and hackathons, citing the development of ‘bots to search government sites’ for relevant legislation, programs to ‘process… screening clinic volunteers by aggregating and scanning their social media’, and using data mapping tools to ‘identify volunteers who might be able to help women… get a ride to a clinic’ or look after children among other things. As a science communicator, Weigel helps parse their projects for her audience but curiously leaves terms like ‘GitHub’, ‘Slack’ and ‘Ruby on Rails’ to be individually researched.

Weigel’s article is largely devoid of anything that would suggest a passive or explicit belief in there being a literacy deficit with her readership. As aforementioned, there is plenty of terminology in use that someone who is unfamiliar with computing may not understand, but the author is well aware of her audience. In fact, there’s evidence that the article assumes the public has a thorough understanding of this field of science with unexplained quotes like ‘she’s a dev-ops engineer’. Weigel is quick to point out that many of the participants at the hackathon were graduates of various ‘get-girls-to-code boot camps’, many of whom brought along their children. One woman in particular named Lillie was ‘eight months pregnant… [and] had brought yoga blocks’.

Crucially, Weigel reminds us that these women are not all credentialed, traditional professionals that engage in ‘boundary work’. Instead, they occupy an interesting position as individuals who’ve developed an interest in the field of computer science and programming in their own time. As such, they’ve functionally removed the barrier between the ‘public’ and the elusive ‘scientist’. They’ve become mobilised citizen experts who communicate with a largely ‘contingent repertoire’ as Gilbert & Mulkay (1984) would define (Mercer p.12, 2017). As such, these women have circumvented the need for technology companies that have previously ignored the ‘needs of women’. To that effect, a Google representative was concerned that the hackathon was too ‘politically biased’ and so they couldn’t send a representative.

The article itself functions almost as the antithesis of the ‘literacy deficit’ model: grassroots programming workshops demonstrate that previously ‘scientifically unwitting’ women have taken these challenges upon themselves to accomplish, effectively ignoring any theoretical ‘literacy deficit’. The message being communicated states that regular people are very much capable of tangling with the intimacies of science and technology without needing formal training.

Weigel intersperses with her narrative various background histories on abortion and its legality in the States over time. These are crucial cultural narratives that are surely familiar to many of the feminist programmers at the event, and are important historical landmarks in their own right. Narratives like the reference to the Roe vs. Wade decision by the United States Supreme Court  in 1973 which ‘invalidated any state laws that prohibited first trimester abortions’ (Landmark Cases, 2017). Instead, ‘opponents have focused on making abortion more difficult to obtain’ which these ‘hackers’ are directly pushing back against.

Similarly, Weigel brings what could be considered as a developing cultural narrative; the new Trump administration and his pledge to ‘appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade’. In line with those beliefs, Trump’s first week in office saw him sign an order barring the government from ‘funding international organizations that so much as provide information on abortion’ not to mention new bills to ‘require women to provide written permission from the foetus’ father’. Weigel also informs of ‘criminalizing abortion starting as early as six weeks’. These are contemporary actions that will surely become part of the future cultural narrative for feminist groups like those attending the hackathon.

Weigel regrets that the ‘attitudes driving these policies cannot be’ metaphorically ‘…programmed away.’ Similarly, even the concept of a ‘hackathon’ is metaphorically uncertain. The attendees aren’t so much ‘hackers’, or the event a ‘hackathon’, as they’re simply ‘programmers’. They aren’t unlawfully breaking into or modifying existing systems, so has the term ‘hacker’ been itself (ironically) hijacked to mean ‘rebellious’ programming?

Shireen Whitaker, a master’s student in computer science and so not an amateur enthusiast, spent her time ‘researching antis’; an abbreviation this community is clearly familiar with, for anti-abortionists who try to infiltrate abortion clinics. Whitaker’s credentials reflect hackathons propensity for collaboration; participants undertake whatever task is needed regardless of their professional standing.

Undeniably, the article has a political angle intrinsic to the subject matter. Indeed, one participant acknowledged this when two teams unknowingly developed similar applications, exclaiming “No political hackathon would be complete without duplicate effort!” The article is unapologetically political, with reference to attendees’ ‘RESIST’ t-shirts, the presence of vulgar ethical opposition; “We got our first bloody fetus on the hashtag!”, and multiple references to government opposition. These views aren’t unexpected by the audience of TNY however, aligning with their readers’ demographic.

Overall, this article by Moira Weigel from The New Yorker is an effective piece of science communication. As a narrative account of the event, Weigel’s goal was two-fold. Firstly, to document a hackathon that demonstrated the benefits of programming to society and secondly, to tell the story of women who were once members of the supposed ‘ignorant public’ that unexpectedly became technologists. The communicator was acutely aware of her audience and thus didn’t need to overly simplify the message. While there is an underlying political tone, the technical information is delivered effectively with direct quotes from the technical ‘professionals’. Conversely, with the format of a narrative account the author isn’t required to explain the intricacies of the software design that she’s reporting on which significantly lowers her burden of responsibility as a science communicator.

Reference list:

Gilbert, GN & Mulkay, M 1984, Opening Pandora’s Box: A Sociological Analysis of Scientists’ Discourse, Cambridge University Press, London

Roe v. Wade 2017, Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court, viewed 8 April 2017,
http://landmarkcases.org/en/landmark/cases/roe_v_wade#Tab=Overview

Mercer, D 2017, ‘An Introduction to Some Frequently Used Terms and Concepts in Science Communication’ PowerPoint slides, STS 286, delivered 6 March 2017

About Us 2017, New Yorker, viewed 8 April 2017,
http://www.newyorker.com/about/us/?src=tny-footer

Pew Research Center 2014, Where News Audiences Fit on the Political Spectrum, viewed 9 April 2017,
http://www.journalism.org/interactives/media-polarization/outlet/new-yorker/

Sasseen, J & Matsa, KE & Mitchell, M 2013, ‘News Magazines: By the Numbers’, Pew Research Center, viewed 9 April 2017
http://www.stateofthemedia.org/2013/news-magazines-embracing-their-digital-future/

Weigel, M 2017, ‘Coding for Abortion Access’, New Yorker, viewed 5 April,
http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/coding-for-abortion-access

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s