Period tracking apps aren’t anything new, but recently, a few have been subject to greater scrutiny regarding their privacy, and efficacy—especially those marketed as contraceptive methods. The latest is Femm, which a Guardian report has found to be funded by anti-abortion campaigns.
According to the Guardian, the app receives most of its funding from private donors. Among them is the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a charity that’s primarily backed by wealthy businessmen. The charity has a history of donating to pro-life, religious liberty, and evangelization. One of its founders, Sean Fieler, is a conservative philanthropist and vocal pro-life advocate who the Guardian reports as supporting politicians against birth control and abortion. As the report details, Fieler not only sits on the Femm Foundation’s board, but his charity also gave $1.8 million to the app over the past three years.
That alone doesn’t necessarily make Femm a “bad” app. After all, it makes sense that anti-abortion advocates would funnel money into natural family planning technology. But additional details in the Guardian’s reporting reveal where Femm gets its medical advisors, and it’s a bit troubling. Two of the app’s medical consultants hail from a Catholic university in Chile and are not licensed to practice in the United States. Again, a seemingly innocuous detail, except when you consider both of the doctors in question have ties to anti-abortion organizations, the Catholic Church, and have written papers trying to link Catholicism with science.
This, in combination with Femm’s marketing and where it gets its money, is worrisome. In Femm’s app description, it clearly states:
Are you looking to track your menstrual cycles and symptoms, get pregnant or avoid pregnancy? The FEMM app is more than just a period tracker: it provides you with cutting edge science that helps you keep track of your health, understand what is going on with your body, flag potential issues, and connect with a network of doctors and nurses to provide you the best health care.
Phrases like ‘cutting edge science’, and ‘avoid pregnancy’ should be met with healthy skepticism. The benefit of tracking apps like this is increasing awareness among women of their own bodies, but wading into areas like contraception is risky. Take Natural Cycles. Though this app did get FDA approval to market itself as a contraceptive, it’s recently caught some flack for a number of unintended pregnancies. That’s because noninvasive charting methods like basal body temperature and charting cervical mucus (the method promoted by Femm) can be prone to human error and normal variance from woman to woman. That’s fine if you’re trying to get pregnant without resorting to expensive treatments like intrauterine insemination (IUI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF). But when it comes to contraception, good old condoms and hormonal birth control like pills, rings, and IUDs still have a higher efficacy rate. The Centers for Disease Control lists fertility-awareness-based methods as the least effective, with 24 out of every 100 women experiencing unintended pregnancies. Another good example of is the Daysy, a thermometer that claimed its scientific study predicted fertility in 99.4 percent of cases. Not only was that debunked in a BuzzFeed News report, the journal that published it eventually retracted Daysy’s study entirely.
Also troubling, the Femm Foundation’s website is littered with phrases that seemingly discredit the benefits of hormonal birth control due to potential side effects. For example, the site’s FAQ claims that depression “can be related to hormone-imbalances and FEMM protocols can help to diagnose and address this.” While it is true that birth control can cause side effects, such as depression, they can also regulate irregular periods and manage symptoms of more serious conditions like endometriosis. Furthermore, depression can have many causes aside from hormones and while tracking can help you become more aware of bodily trends... you should probably still consult with your own doctor who is familiar with your whole medical history before trusting an app. This is true for some other conditions Femm’s FAQ claims to help, including acne, and obesity.
“The info on their website appears misleading when read with a critical eye,” says Dr. Paula Castaño, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “There are many places where they could state that cycle irregularities would make their method less effective and yet they don’t.”
Castaño also noted the information on Femm’s website overemphasized the importance of checking hormone levels—which can vary greatly during the course of a day—as well as leaned into the negatives of contraceptive use without mentioning any positives.
The website lists a white paper to give it some additional credence—but a white paper is not the same thing as a clinical study. The former can be written by a company or organization to inform consumers about an issue and suggest possible solutions. The latter actually requires trials and peer review from other experts and scholars in the field. While the site also presents a list of other publications, none of them actually involve peer-reviewed clinical trials testing the efficacy of Femm itself among users or compared to other options in the market. Again, this highlights a worrisome trend where period apps could be marketing themselves as backed by science, when the reality is the purported “research” isn’t ironclad or in Femm’s case, may come with a political agenda. As the Guardian initially reported, and Gizmodo confirmed, calling the Femm Foundation will get you the World Youth Alliance, an anti-abortion group. Both the WYA and Femm app’s contact pages also lead you to the same address and phone numbers.
As of this writing, Femm has a 4.8 rating in the App store from over 1,000 users. Likewise, it has a 4.5 rating in the Play Store from over 1,200 users. And sure, the app itself features a clean and simple design. However, when you consider its marketed as also helping to avoid pregnancy with less-than-rigorous science, features dubious literature on its website, and is funded by anti-abortion groups—that raises a few red flags about how trustworthy the service is. Gizmodo reached out to the Femm Foundation for comment but did not immediately receive a reply.