US anti-pill campaigners promote menstruation tracking app in Nigeria

Jessica Glenza in New York
Photograph: Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images

US campaigners who oppose the birth control pill have promoted a menstruation tracking app in “the most vulnerable communities” in rural Nigeria with the backing of the Catholic church, the Guardian has learned.

Prominent anti-abortion campaigners in New York developed and funded the Femm app, which collects intimate information about women’s sex lives and sows doubt about hormonal birth control methods.

The app has been downloaded more than 400,000 times globally, according to its developers, and appears to be the first ideologically aligned fertility tracking app.

But leaders of the organization are also promoting the app and teaching the “Femm methods” of natural family planning in places such as rural Nigeria, where women are at high risk of HIV infection, child marriage and sexual violence.

The Catholic church’s diplomatic arm, the permanent observer mission of the Holy See at the United Nations, has promoted the Femm foundation and its app in speeches and events at the UN headquarters in New York. Femm also received a $100,000 grant from the Papal Foundation.

Related: Revealed: women's fertility app is funded by anti-abortion campaigners

Video footage uncovered by the Guardian shows a UN event called Affirming the Human Dignity of Rural Women and Girls through Healthcare and Education, where Femm’s chief executive, Anna Halpine, described the company’s work in Nigeria.

The event at the UN Commission on the Status of Women was co-sponsored by the Holy See in March 2018. Halpine showed footage of Femm-trained teachers from an organization called Doctor’s Health Initiative (DHI) speaking at what appeared to be a camp for displaced people in Nigeria.

The footage shown at the UN side event showed DHI’s employees teaching women about natural family planning methods.

Femm promotes its app as a way to help women “avoid or achieve” pregnancy without hormonal birth control, by tracking their ovulation to determine their most fertile days of the month. However, the app offers no information on its efficacy, and the methods do not protect against sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV.

Natural family planning methods have an up to 33% failure rate per 100 women per year, according to the most recent review in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Nigerian women are among the world’s most vulnerable to maternal mortality, HIV infection, sexual violence, forced child marriage and genital mutilation. Abortion is illegal in Nigeria under almost all circumstances. These laws are “a major contributor to the country’s high levels of maternal death”, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Halpine was introduced at the event by Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the permanent observerer of the Holy See to the United Nations, who said: “Various contemporary approaches to what is referred to as sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights do not respect this full dignity of the woman.

“There is another way, a way in line with her dignity, a way that treats femininity in all its aspects as a gift rather than an imperfection, a disease, or a curse … Femm is a method that does just this. It is a comprehensive women’s health program,” said Auza.

The Guardian contacted Halpine by phone and email, but she did not respond to questions. The permanent observer mission of the Holy See at the United Nations referred the Guardian back to statements made by Auza.

At the event, Halpine told an audience that the Femm Foundation offered reproductive health education in “the most vulnerable communities in rural Nigeria”, including in camps for people displaced by the Boko Haram terror group.

DHI describes itself as a non-profit organization working in displaced persons camps in places such as Edo state in southern Nigeria, and Femm describes DHI as a “partner”.

DHI opposes abortion and birth control, according to the group’s posts on social media. As recently as March 2019, DHI members marched in Lagos with signs reading, “Don’t use contraceptive, drug abuse is dangerous” and “Abortion is murder”, according to video footage. The group did not respond to a request for comment from the Guardian.

The side event appears to be part of an ongoing relationship with the Catholic church, which co-sponsored an earlier event with Femm in 2016 called Investing to Expand Reproductive Health Programming.

Reproductive rights groups in Nigeria called Femm’s activities “disappointing and worrisome”, and said the information it distributes falls in line with common myths about birth control and contraception.

“We can’t just say this app is just dealing with fertility,” said Olabukunola Williams, executive director of Education as a Vaccine, a leading health and education non-profit. “It’s dealing with the fact we’re not providing accurate information [to women] about decision-making power.”

“It’s not just an app – it’s feeding into more ways to deny power to young girls and young women,” said Williams.

In a statement, Halpine said Femm “works to ensure that women can know how their bodies work, and have access to health and fertility education to choose the options that work best for them.

“Femm is international, and cultivates partnerships and talent with researchers, providers, health educators and others in many countries around the world.”

The Roman Catholic church teaches that artificial contraception is a sin. More than 87% of Americans believe it is morally acceptable or not a moral issue, according to a 2016 Pew Research report. Modern birth control methods are used worldwide, are safe and effective, and were developed by a Catholic physician.

Halpine is also founder and former CEO of World Youth Alliance, an anti-abortion organization whose work has often been cited by anti-abortion factions at the United Nations headquarters over the past two decades.

An adviser to World Youth Alliance was recently appointed to the Trump administration’s Commission on Unalienable Human Rights. Mary Ann Glendon is a prominent anti-abortion campaigner who has advised World Youth Alliance for years.

“Part of the way the Holy See exerts this influence is by using these organizations, like C-Fam, like this app organization, like World Youth Alliance,” said Amanda Ussak, an expert in international Catholic relations at Catholics for Choice. Ussak said non-profits affiliated with the Holy See often use, “their exact talking points, their exact language, to make it seem more widely accepted”.

“Many women can’t even control their sex lives,” said Ussak. Fertility tracking, she said, “does nothing for areas of violence and war. It’s not helping the vulnerable at the very least, and it’s probably doing a lot more harm than that.”