How Google Directs People to Misleading Anti-Abortion Centers

How Google Directs People to Misleading Anti-Abortion Centers
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Google homepage under magnifying glass

Googling “abortion clinic near me” or “abortion pill” in several U.S. states yields misleading results, according to a new report from the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

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

“A surprise in particular was the maps results,” said Callum Hood, head of research at CCDH and one of the report’s contributors. “The way that Google presents these [centers] on the first page of search results is, it actually puts them under a [maps] heading such as ‘abortion clinics.’”

Anti-abortion centers purposefully capitalize on misleading and attracting people who are seeking abortion care, explained Hood. Google seems to be enabling that deception through their maps results.

Google map search results

Only the first of these search results is actual a clinic that offers abortion and other healthcare services. The other two listings are for anti-abortion centers.
Screenshot: Center for Countering Digital Hate

Research has already demonstrated how harmful anti-abortion centers (which usually bill themselves as pregnancy centers) can be for people seeking abortions or other related healthcare. It’s a particularly acute problem as the U.S. enters a critical inflection point for U.S. abortion access.

The end of Roe v. Wade

The landmark Roe v. Wade decision is expected to be overturned within the next few weeks, and when that happens, 13 U.S. states have “trigger laws” on the books that will go into effect. These laws severely restrict, outright ban, and even criminalize abortion.

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

In a post-Roe future, “the big concern is that, as the law changes, women who are seeking abortions could be misled into visiting or contacting fake clinics. And that could actually land them in real trouble,” said Hood. It’s easy to imagine anti-abortion clinics reporting women to law enforcement, simply for trying to get an abortion, Hood explained.

What are anti-abortion centers?

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

Instead of outlining all of the available and legal options for managing a pregnancy available to a person, or providing accurate information on abortion, these centers and their websites omit and lie, telling clients fictions like that abortions increase the risk of breast cancer or mental health issues. (A landmark study found that lack of abortion access actually harms peoples’ mental and physical health.)

Yet across the country, anti-abortion centers outnumber actual clinics offering abortion care by 3 to 1, according to a 2021 research report from 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 funded with tax-payer money.

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

What is Google Doing?

Google has run into similar problems with their search results before. The company implemented a policy in 2019 that added a small disclaimer to paid ads for anti-abortion centers that show up in search results. If a place advertises itself as a clinic or an abortion/pregnancy center, but doesn’t actually offer abortions, light grey lettering below the ad listing will say “Does not provide abortions.”

A sponsored Google search result

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

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

But even if they were much more prominent, the problem with anti-abortion centers isn’t just that they don’t provide abortions. It’s that they propagate false information, dissuade people from seeking out healthcare, and pose as health clinics when they are not. So the search engine’s existing policy isn’t enough, according to Hood. “We would argue to Google that they should be blocking ads clearly intended to mislead, and that the disclaimers on them at present are not fit for purpose.”

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

Across our products, we work to make high-quality information easily accessible, particularly on critical health topics. Any organization that wants to advertise to people seeking information about abortion services on Google must be certified and show in-ad disclosures that clearly state whether they do or do not offer abortions. We’re always looking at ways to improve our results to help people find what they’re looking for, or understand if what they’re looking for may not be available.

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

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

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