After years of all but ignoring abortion rights advocates and people who have tried to seek abortion care via Google, the company finally announced updates to how its search engine will handle abortion on Thursday, namely through attaching labels to ads to identify whether organizations actually offer abortion. Considering how many search results for abortion care—particularly for users in states that are hostile to or have banned abortion—and Google ads link to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), it’s a crucial step. The move comes just days after Yelp announced it would attach similar consumer warnings to listings for anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers.
CPCs purposefully pose as abortion-providing clinics on their websites and capitalize on key placement in Google (i.e. the top of the search results page) to target abortion seekers. But the anti-abortion facilities, which are awash in state funding, provide neither abortion nor really any other health care. They exist solely to harass, spy on, and convince abortion seekers to not have abortions. As they aren’t health providers, CPC workers aren’t held to the medical privacy standards set by HIPAA, meaning they can—and will—share your private health data at a time when criminal charges for abortion and pregnancy loss are on the rise.
Moving forward, Google told U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) in a letter that it will include “Provides abortions” or “Does not provide abortions” labels underneath each of its ads. The label will be assigned based on organizations’ responses as part of Google’s abortion certification process—if the organization doesn’t complete this process, it can’t place ads attached to keywords around getting an abortion. The letter doesn’t specify what keywords this entails but presumably includes searches for abortion.
On top of labeling ads, Google says it will also exclude non-abortion providing facilities from Google Maps searches for “abortion clinics” or “abortion near me,” though it will provide an option for users to “broaden their search to show other relevant listings (including from organizations that do not provide abortions).”
However, due to abortion bans in a growing number of states, some reproductive health clinics that can offer care and medical advice to abortion seekers could get lumped with fake clinics, excluding them from Google Maps searches because they technically no longer provide abortions. As reproductive justice activist Erin Matson put it, “provides abortion” and “does not provide abortion” labels don’t accurately “capture the post-Roe reality we live in,” and “if someone wants solid information about abortion or the full spectrum of reproductive health, what they need to know is whether the provider has an anti-abortion agenda.”
The abortion clinic directory ineedanA.com launched in 2016 to directly address abortion seekers’ struggles with Google directing them to fake clinics. The website’s executive director Rebecca calls Google’s updates a “much-needed step,” but says its labeling process “has been out for a few weeks” and has problematically lumped ineedanA.com “as well as other verified abortion resources and legitimate abortion pills-by-mail providers” with crisis pregnancy centers.
“As the most up-to-date, comprehensive, and user-friendly website for abortion seekers in the United States, ineedanA.com should not be put in the same bucket as deceptive crisis pregnancy centers,” Rebecca said in a statement shared with Jezebel. “ineedanA.com exists in large part because Googling didn’t return factual resources when I needed an abortion 10 years ago.” She says her website would “welcome the opportunity to collaborate with Google” to “better distinguish and label abortion providers, crucial resources, and predatory CPCs.”
Google’s announced updates come amid mounting criticism of the company’s lackluster response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Google faced intense pressure over its collection of location data that can place people at abortion clinics. Despite its recent pledge to automatically delete data collected at these locations, the company says it will still respond to some warrants and requests from law enforcement (the company received almost 12,000 geo-fence warrants in 2020 alone). And as Jezebel previously reported, linking to the websites of crisis pregnancy centers, in general, enables data collection of abortion seekers. All of this can help build criminal cases against abortion seekers and pregnant people.
Exposing crisis pregnancy centers in their ads is long-awaited progress from the world’s biggest search engine—the same company that previously awarded a $150,000 grant in free advertising to the crisis pregnancy center network Obria. But questions remain: Google promised to implement some of these changes as early as 2019. And, despite stating in its letter to Congress that the company “[does] not allow ads that promote harmful health claims,” Google doesn’t specify how it will handle the influx of ads and search results for “abortion pill reversal”—an unproven claim from anti-abortion activists that medication abortions already underway can be “reversed.”
If Google actually follows through, the updates it announced this week could be vital at an increasingly tenuous time for pregnant people’s privacy and safety. One can only hope Meta—the same company that recently shared a Nebraska teen’s texts about abortion with police, resulting in her arrest, and reportedly allowed CPCs to use abortion seekers’ data—will take a page from Google and Yelp’s recent actions and announce changes of its own.