Google made headlines a few weeks ago when it announced it would remove misleading ads for “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs), the facilities across the US that try to deter women considering abortions by showing them false sonograms and gruesome and graphic images, stories about black market fetus sales, and giving false information about abortion risk.
A 2006 Congressional report found that 87 percent of federally funded CPCs in America offered false and misleading health information, telling female undercover investigators that abortion increases risk of breast cancer, causes future miscarriages and infertility, and that the post-abortion suicide rate “goes up by as much as seven times.”
Basically, they told a bunch of lies to women they perceived as being pregnant, desperate, and considering abortion. According to the National Cancer Institute, numerous studies have shown no connection between abortion and breast cancer risk. And even Reagan-era Surgeon General C. Everett Koop famously pissed off the conservative community when he reported that abortion did not show any negative effects on women’s physical or psychological health.
"Once they get the girls through the door, they can really go to work on them"
It’s estimated that for every legitimate abortion clinic in the country, there are about three CPCs, according to abortion rights non-profit NARAL Pro-Choice America. Which may explain why CPC ads pop up all over the internet in abortion search results.
Following Google’s announcement, NARAL has moved on to Yahoo, petitioning the company to remove what it says are deceptive ads that seem to offer abortion, but really lead to faith-based groups looking to deter women and girls from abortions.
What appeared last month to be a rousing PR success for the pro-choice movement actually sort of wasn’t. Look at what ad pops up when you type the word “abortion” into a Google search:
The second ad is for a legitimate abortion clinic. But the first, not so much. While the ad doesn’t exactly say that you can run over to pregnancydecisiononline.org to hand over $400 to not be pregnant anymore, it does use the word “abortion” in the headline — which could easily mislead someone who is both desperate and perhaps not too web savvy.
A Google spokesperson told VICE News that while the company won’t comment on specific ads, they are “constantly reviewing ads to ensure they comply with our AdWords policies, which include strict guidelines related to ad relevance, clarity, and accuracy. If we find violations, we'll take the appropriate actions — including account disabling and blacklists — as quickly as possible."
Google has a policy on abortion-related ads, but it refers mostly to a ban on “gruesome imagery” and the way ads show up, or don’t, in various countries. That policy has been in place for years, and doesn’t address the issue of misleading language.
The spokesperson at Google pointed out that they did in fact remove ads that NARAL brought to the company’s attention, but only because the ads violated the AdWords accuracy rules by claiming to provide abortions when they didn’t.
NARAL President Ilyse Hogue told VICE News that Google responded to their concerns quickly, and the group will “trust Google’s intention, and continue to do our research and provide them with information.”
“This was a step forward, because before this no one has really addressed how these centers sidestep truth in advertising laws,” said Hogue. “We don’t want anyone to walk through expecting one type of service and getting a different one.”
Since ads are tailored to the geographical location of the user, it’s no surprise that an actual abortion ad popped up during our search — which took place in New York City.
But what if you live in an area that heavily restricts abortion services? VICE News asked residents in four such states to search “abortion” via both Google and Yahoo. The results were about as expected.
In Texas, the Yahoo search brought up four ads, only one of which was for an actual abortion clinic. The others all led to anti-abortion sites.
Texas Google results were slightly better, resulting in two legitimate abortion clinics, two anti-abortion efforts, and an ad for a morning after pill.
Results from a Louisiana search were mixed. Google ads all referred directly to abortion clinics, while the top Yahoo ad was for StandupGirl.com, an anti-abortion site. That ad is deceptively headlined “What about an abortion?”
A Google search performed in Massachusetts resulted in just two ads for abortion clinics and three for deceptive CPCs. One of the sites had completely false medical information about abortion, claiming the RU 486 pill “requires at least three trips to the abortion facility,” and other methods “suck the baby’s brains out.”
In Vermont, two out of three Yahoo ads popping up during the “abortion” term search were for misleading CPCs. The only ad that showed at the top of the Google results was for a Catholic adoption site.
None of the sites visited clearly stated that they were against abortion. One was a anti-abortion site masquerading as an adoption scam, the rest initially appeared to be neutral counseling hotlines until deeper examination revealed an anti-abortion, often religious-based stance.
“We have found at least some of the ads to be out of compliance with our policies and we are taking them down,” Yahoo told VICE News. “We’re in the process of reviewing the other ads and will take similar action if any are found to not be in compliance with our policies.“
Hogue said Yahoo had not yet responded to NARAL by press time.
Not only do CPCs outnumber abortion providers three to one, they’re also better funded. Federal and state funds pour into the centers, and that’s a lot of money for advertising.
The Congressional report said that federal funding to CPCs barely existed before the Bush Administrations. Between 2001 and 2005, over $30 million in federal money went to just 50 crisis pregnancy centers. Another 25 centers received millions in funding from the $150 million “Compassion Capital Fund,” a Bush initiative that directed federal funds to faith-based groups.
Federal funding to anti-abortion counseling has continued under the Obama administration as well.
Hogue said that some CPCs are state-funded. Got a “Choose Life” license plate at your local DMV? Available in 30 US states, the license plates had raised $19 million for crisis pregnancy centers by December 2013.
NARAL is putting together a national report on CPCs this year that links their expansion to the ongoing closure of medical clinics. In states with few abortion providers, CPCs are sometimes the only “clinic” woman considering an abortion can find.
“Once they get the girls through the door, they can really go to work on them,” Hogue told VICE News. “The whole goal is to get them through the door, and that’s easier when they’re closing all the real clinics.”
Nicole Georges, Osa Atoe, Jace Smith, and Jen Rogue contributed to research for this article.
Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara
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