Heartbeat International facing questions about the tech they develop and promote globally

PI calls on UN Committee to look into the nature of Heartbeat International’s activities in countries it will review.

Key findings
  • The right to privacy is one of the precedents used to establish reproductive rights.
  • The review of countries's progress towards women's rights by UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is an opportunity to highlight the attempts of Heartbeat International to curtail reproductive rights internationally.
  • Heartbeat International should be prevented from deploying and promoting Next Level CMS and Option Line until, at a minimum, it provides information about how it collects and uses people’s personal information.
Long Read

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is meeting from 10-28 February to review the progress of women’s rights in Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Eritrea, Kiribati, Latvia, Pakistan, Republic of Moldova, and Zimbabwe. At forums like this, the attempts of Heartbeat International to curtail reproductive rights internationally must be highlighted. Heartbeat International is a US-based organisation that is developing and promoting a suite of data intensive technologies internationally and is promoting a partial view of reproductive health services. A Privacy International investigation showed how the organisation is developing data intensive technologies that appear to collect and centralise vast amount of people’s private information for that purpose.

The right to privacy is one of the precedents used to establish reproductive rights, and it is established by several international and regional legal instruments. The primary link between the two stems from the fact that laws and policies which impede upon individuals’ rights to access sexual and reproductive health services may also interfere with individuals’ right to privacy and to make autonomous decisions as it pertains to their health and fertility. Such reproductive rights are necessary for bodily autonomy.

Heartbeat International is a large and well-funded US-based international organisation that does not promote or support comprehensive, evidence-based, or non-discriminatory reproductive health information – it says that it does not promote birth control, abortion, or gay marriage. Heartbeat International says it has  “over 2,700 affiliated pregnancy help organizations worldwide and affiliated pregnancy help organizations in more than 60 countries” – it says it has “700 affiliate locations outside the US”. It promotes to affiliate organisations data intensive and exploitative technologies as well as digital trainings. In 2018, the organisation reported a total revenue of $4.7 million USD.

The principles and polices of Heartbeat International are out of step with international human rights norms with regards to reproductive rights. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women represents one in a constellation of treaties that establish and shape reproductive rights, such as the right to modern contraception, safe and legal abortion care, and comprehensive reproductive health information. It provides that member States should ensure “access to specific educational information to help ensure the health and well-being of families including information and advice on family planning”. Those seeking reproductive health information, pregnancy support services, and abortion care may be in vulnerable positions and the power imbalance that Heartbeat International’s technologies and tactics may create could substantially restrict a person from being able to exercise their reproductive rights. Given these commitments, it is concerning that Heartbeat International promotes a partial view of reproductive health services, is developing a suite of data intensive technologies, and promoting these technologies internationally.

One of these technologies is called Next Level Center Management Solution. In 2017, Heartbeat International unveiled the system, which appears to unify what questions people are asked when seeking a centre’s help and to centralise the information that visitors to anti-abortion centres are asked to provide during their visit. The types of information that is collected, which is visible in a promotional video on Next Level’s website, includes name, address, email address, ethnicity, marital status, living arrangement, education, income source, alcohol, cigarette, and drug intake, medications and medical history, sexual transmitted disease history, name of the referring person/organisation, pregnancy symptoms, pregnancy history, medical testing information, and eventually even ultrasound photos.

The Next Level system is promoted by Heartbeat International to its affiliates and like-minded organisations internationally.

Heartbeat’s privacy policies do not currently detail how the information collected by the system is collected, shared, stored, or deleted, and do not currently detail how the information of those based outside of the US is shared with Heartbeat International. However, the way the system is marketed raises serious concerns about how the organisation and affiliates are treating people’s private information. Next Level markets the software as a system that “[m]akes seamless data collection possible for pregnancy centres”. They say that it “allows information to move from the receptionist to the client, from the client to the coach or mentor, and from the mentor to the nurse’s office”, and visualise the system as data streams flowing from individual pregnancy centres to a centralised cloud.

Heartbeat has also developed a data intensive chat service called Option Line, which appears to integrate into the Next Level system without telling those who interact with the chat service that their data may be collected or stored in this way, or that Heartbeat International may have access to their information.

Given the invasiveness of these technologies, the organisation’s international reach, and its meaningful financial resources, Heartbeat International should be prevented from deploying and promoting Next Level CMS and Option Line until, at a minimum, it provides information about how it collects and uses people’s personal information.

Bulgaria, Latvia, Moldova, and Zimbabwe

On its website, Heartbeat International lists the following like-minded and affiliated pregnancy centres operating in Bulgaria, Latvia, Moldova, and Zimbabwe. As these countries are under the current review process, Privacy International urges the Committee look into the nature of Heartbeat International’s activities with these organisations and to recommend to States to take steps to ensure that the use of Next Level CMS and Option Line technologies is ceased.

Bulgaria

  • Advocates for Life
    • The relationship between Advocates for Life and Heartbeat International was described in a 2009 report published by the US-based Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group, in the following way.
      • Similarly, in Bulgaria, another country with a high abortion rate, Heartbeat affiliate Advocates for Life offers educational resources, free pregnancy tests, compassion, emotional support, and counseling. In 2005, 157 participants from 16 countries received training in core areas from Heartbeat and LIFE International in Kiev, Ukraine.
  • Life Center
  • Pro-Life Choice Bulgaria
  • Store for Mother and Child

Latvia

  • Katoliska Kusiba “Par Dzivibu”
  • Pro Sanctitate

Moldova

  • Social mission of the Bessarabian Metropolitan Church

Zimbabwe

  • Goodwill Centre
  • Hope Care Center
  • Wings of Hope
  • Zimbabwe Cares for Life