With the reversal of Roe v. Wade seemingly imminent, pregnant people and abortion seekers may rely on search engines like Google more than ever to navigate the increasingly twisted, perilous journey to get abortion care. Yet, in states that are set to immediately ban abortion once Roe falls, a new study shows Google could be actively sabotaging their ability to get care by directing them to anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers.”
Crisis pregnancy centers are faith-based organizations that lure people struggling with unwanted pregnancies to their premises and aggressively try to dissuade them from having abortions via dangerous disinformation about the health service.
Per the new findings of the big tech watchdog Centre for Countering Digital Hate, in Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Texas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, 37 percent of Google Maps search results for abortion care are crisis pregnancy centers. If one performs a cursory Google search for abortion, 28 percent of the Google ads they’ll see at the top of their search results are CPCs. Overall, about 11 percent of Google search results for abortion will lead an abortion seeker straight to a fake clinic.
“When people search for information or services relating to their sexual and reproductive health, Google is sending them to sites that users might expect contains robust, scientific, evidence-driven healthcare information—but they actually contain ideologically driven opinion and misinformation,” Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer of the CCDH, said in a statement about the study.
Across the country, CPCs outnumber real abortion clinics three to one, while in states like Pennsylvania and Minnesota, that ratio surges to nine to one and 11 to one, respectively. Many states even offer public funding to CPCs, including redirected federal funds for welfare programs. And amid a rising tide of state legislation to develop government contracts with CPCs to collect information on abortion seekers, they’re set to play a critical role in spying on people who try to get abortions post-Roe.
That Google is directing pregnant people to CPCs at this scale is jarring, but ultimately unsurprising. Reproductive rights advocates have been sounding the alarm on this phenomenon for years now while the company has repeatedly pledged to “improve.” But in addition to the CPCs they’re boosting, Google itself—which offered a $150,000 grant for free ads to the anti-abortion network Obria Group in 2019—is positioned to play a significant role in the surveillance of pregnant people, post-Roe.
While the company collects customer data primarily for business purposes like targeted ads, this data is also routinely sought and obtained by law enforcement officials, who produce warrants to require Google to turn over its customers’ location information. Per the company’s own data, a quarter of law enforcement orders it receives each year are specifically for location data through geofence warrants. It received almost 12,000 geofence warrants in 2020 alone.
Geofencing can be used to uncover who’s gone to abortion clinics, as well as substance use treatment centers, which can be particularly dangerous if someone has a miscarriage or stillbirth and is suspected of drug use, leading to possible fetal homicide charges. People of color—and especially Black and Indigenous pregnant people as an extension of the racist War on Drugs and state policing of Indigenous families—are particularly vulnerable to being criminalized for their pregnancies.
Already, online search history and location data are being used to surveil pregnant people and abortion seekers. Text messages to friends about abortion pills were used as criminal evidence in 2015, and Google searches for abortion pills preceding a stillbirth landed a mother of three in jail in 2018 for second-degree murder. National Advocates for Pregnant Women reports criminal charges for pregnancy outcomes (including abortion) have tripled between 2006 and 2020, compared with 1973 to 2005. And when the fall of Roe reduces pregnant people’s bodies to crime scenes in dozens of states, we’ll see even more cases like this.
Crisis pregnancy centers will operate at the heart of this harrowing reality, using the methods they’ve always used—extensive data collection, targeted ads, misinformation, intimidation, and even stalking. Because, to be clear, even without the threat of criminalization, crisis pregnancy centers are just terrifying places. Several people who have been lured to CPCs have told the Expose Fake Clinics campaign they were forced to sign contracts pledging to not have an abortion, before being able to leave the clinic. One victim told the Expose Fake Clinics campaign that after she left a clinic, a CPC worker “began calling her almost daily and telling her aggressively that she would die, or end up in hell, or get very sick,” if she were to go through with the abortion.
Reproaction deputy director Shireen Shakouri previously told Jezebel she’s heard from several health providers whose patients have told them that, while at CPCs, staff “locked them in exam rooms and told them ‘you’re not leaving until you say you’re not going to have an abortion.’”
“Fake clinics can’t be an afterthought when we talk about abortion bans and the threat they pose,” Shakouri said. They’re the eyes and the ears, arguably the backbone of the anti-abortion movement—and they’re all over Google.