Google (still) directs people to misleading anti-abortion centers

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Googling ‘abortion clinic near me’ or ‘abortion pill’ in several US states yields misleading results, according to a new report of the non-profit association Digital Hate Center (CCHR).

The researchers polled the first page of Google search results in a select group of 13 states that have some of the strongest anti-abortion policies in the country. They found that 11% of the 445 registered search results led to anti-abortion centers, not actual clinics offering abortion care. About a quarter of all sponsored ads appearing on search pages were for anti-abortion centers, as were 37% of Google Maps results.

“One surprise in particular were the map results,” said Callum Hood, CCHR’s research manager and one of the report’s contributors. “The way Google presents these [centres] on the first page of search results, it actually puts them under a [maps] headings such as “abortion clinics”.

Anti-abortion centers capitalize on purpose deceive and lure people seeking abortion care, Hood explained. Google seems to allow this deception through their map results.

Only the first of these search results is a clinic offering abortion services and other health services. The other two lists concern anti-abortion centres. (Screenshot: Center for Combating Digital Hate)

Research has already shown how harmful anti-abortion centers (which bill themselves as pregnancy centers) may be for people seeking abortions or other related health care. This is a particularly acute problem as the United States enters a critical inflection point for access to abortion in the United States.

The End of Roe vs. Wade

The landmark decision Roe v. Wade is expected to be canceled in the coming weeks, and when that happens, 13 US states have “trigger laws” on the books that will go into effect. These laws severely restrict, outright prohibit and even criminalize abortion.

Even now, people already face legal consequences for seeking and attempting abortions under existing restrictive state laws. A woman in Texas who suffered a miscarriage was charged in March after telling a hospital worker that she had attempted to induce and self-manage an abortion. Ads and other search results like those from Google could exacerbate the criminalization of pregnancy.

In a post-Roe future, “the big concern is that, as the law changes, women seeking abortions could be misled into visiting or contacting bogus clinics. And that could actually cause them real problems,” Hood said. It’s easy to imagine anti-abortion clinics reporting women to law enforcement, just to try to get an abortion, Hood explained.

What are anti-abortion centers?

Anti-abortion centers are places run by anti-abortion groups. They advertise themselves under many different names as “pregnancy crisis center” or “pregnancy resource center” and often include the terms “clinic” or “abortion clinic” on their websites. These centers “exist solely to deter people from having abortions”, said Ashley Underwooddirector of Equity Forward, a non-profit reproductive justice organization.

Instead of describing all of the available and legal options for managing a pregnancy available to a person, or providing specific information about abortion, these centers and their websites omit and lie, telling customers fictions such as that abortions increase the risk of breast cancer or mental health problems. (A historical study found this lack access to abortion actually harms people’s mental and physical health.)

Yet across the country, anti-abortion centers outnumber actual clinics offering abortion care by three times, according to a 2021 Research Report of the gender equality advocacy group, The Alliance. They are often a first step for low-income people seeking care, without access to other resources. These centers are often ffinanced with taxpayers’ money.

Because they aren’t actual health clinics, Underwood says they also present a major privacy issue. “Abortion centers are able to obtain private medical information…but they are not actually bound by medical confidentiality laws” like HIPAA, she says. Anti-abortion groups are increasingly interested in data as they look for ways to penalize and punish people who seek abortions. It’s already hard to keep things private in the age of the internet, so Google results promoting anti-abortion centers that circumvent HIPAA could make things that much harder.

What does Google do?

Google has encountered similar problems with its search results before. The company implemented a policy in 2019 that added a small disclaimer to paid ads for abortion centers that appear in search results. If a location advertises itself as an abortion/pregnancy clinic or center, but does not actually offer abortions, the light gray lettering below the listing in the ad will read “Does not provide abortions”.

Each of the subheadings in this advertisement takes you to the website of the same anti-abortion group.  Google's disclaimer only appears in small print with the top link.  (Screenshot: Center for Combating Digital Hate)Each of the subheadings in this advertisement takes you to the website of the same anti-abortion group. Google’s disclaimer only appears in small print with the top link. (Screenshot: Center for Combating Digital Hate)

The disclaimers are small and often poorly positioned relative to the size of the ads themselves, which contain multiple sublinks without any additional Google disclaimers.

But even if they were much larger, the problem with anti-abortion centers are not just that they do not provide abortions. It’s that they spread false information, dissuade people from seeking treatment and pretend to be dispensaries when they are not. Thus, the search engine’s existing policy is not sufficient, according to Hood. “We would say to Google that they should block ads that are clearly intended to mislead, and that the disclaimers there currently are not fit for purpose.”

In an email to Gizmodo, a Google spokesperson sent the following statement:

In all of our products, we strive to make high-quality information easily accessible, especially on critical health topics. Any organization wishing to advertise to people searching for information about abortion services on Google must be approved and display information in advertisements that clearly indicates whether or not they offer abortions. We’re always looking for ways to improve our results to help people find what they’re looking for or understand if what they’re looking for isn’t available.

The company also noted that users can flag Maps results for removal if they are inappropriate or misleading, and start experiments to improve the visibility of their disclaimers.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for abortion services or abortion information, Google might not be the best place to start. “When people are looking for real, unbiased information about abortion care, keep in mind that these anti-abortion centers pay millions of dollars to get ads on the internet,” Equity Forward’s Underwood said. To find more reliable resources, she recommends starting with your local abortion fund.

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