Digital rights advocates on Thursday warned that Google has become a “willing participant” in the anti-abortion rights movement’s attempts to mislead pregnant people and deny them healthcare as it allows so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” to advertise their services alongside facilities that provide abortion care.
In its latest report on crisis pregnancy centers’ (CPCs) use of internet search engines to promote their anti-abortion services, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that the anti-choice movement has spent $10.2 million on Google search ads in the last two years.
Over that time period, anti-abortion groups have spent four times as much on boosting deceptive clinics as they’ve spent on ads related to “their constitutionally-protected right to campaign to restrict abortion care,” said CCDH, suggesting that these groups are relying heavily on misinformation to promote their cause.
CPCs are facilities that are often affiliated with national ideological groups that aim to ban abortion care. They purport to offer unbiased mental and reproductive healthcare to pregnant people but, unlike genuine healthcare facilities, are unregulated and have no legal obligation to provide accurate information.
“Staff at fake clinics have been found to impede access to comprehensive, ethical care by using deception, emotional manipulation, delay tactics, and disinformation,” in order to stop clients from obtaining abortion care, the CCDH report says.
Hundreds of thousands of people per month seek information about abortion care using Google’s search engine, but CCDH found that even after Google said nearly two years ago that it would ban ads from fake clinics that advertise an unproven and dangerous method of “reversing” the effects of abortion pills—as many CPCs do—it is still selling ad space to such facilities.
Since Google pledged to crack down on false advertising by CPCs, “fake clinics have targeted more than 15,000 different queries related to abortion, including ‘abortion pill,’ ‘abortion clinic,’ ‘abortion clinic near me,’ and ‘planned parenthood,'” reads the report, titled “Profiting From Deceit.”
“Google is betraying the trust of hundreds of thousands of Americans seeking reproductive healthcare and services,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of CCDH. “Instead of providing accurate results to people who search for ‘abortion clinics near me,’ Google is directing them straight towards those who wish only to delay and prevent their care using deceptive practices.”
More than 70% of the fake clinics that have advertised on Google’s search results pages in the last two years use deceptive tactics, including claiming to clients that abortion care is linked to diseases including cancer. Thirty-eight percent do not carry disclaimers on their homepage making it clear that they do not provide abortion care.
Forty percent of the clinics advertising on Google continue to promote abortion pill “reversal” despite Google’s pledge two years ago. Proponents of the method claim that a pregnant person can reverse the effects of medication abortion—a two-pill regimen—by ingesting high doses of progesterone after taking the first pill and then forgoing the second pill.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says abortion pill “reversal” is “not based on science,” and a 2019 study on the method was halted after several participants were hospitalized for “dangerous hemorrhaging,” CCDH found.
“Despite pledging to ban advertisements of this unproven and unsafe ‘treatment,'” said the group, “Google has since taken $2.6 million in search ad revenue from such fake clinic websites that promote it.”
The Women’s Equality Party in the United Kingdom said CCDH’s new findings show that Google is permitting “deceptive and cruel” groups to target vulnerable people.
In addition to allowing CPCs advertise their services on their search results pages, Google has given an anti-choice marketing firm access to its Ad Grant program, which offers nonprofit groups up to $10,000 per month in free ad credits.
“Google is a willing participant and supporter of the fake clinic industry, profiting from—and even subsidizing—the anti-choice lobby’s campaigns,” said CCDH. “It is the linchpin of a multi-million dollar fake clinic industry that works around the clock to deprive Americans of medical assistance by deceptive means.”
CCDH called on Google to enforce transparency rules for fake clinic by demanding that they make clear on their homepages that they do not provide abortion care and ending Ad Grants for deceptive CPCs.
The group also said the company should “highlight and prioritize genuine abortion clinics in search results” and that lawmakers must empower the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to prosecute those who use false advertising to promote anti-abortion facilities. While the FTC has established “truth in advertising” rules, “anti-abortion organizations are often unregulated facilities which don’t need to adhere to key principles of patient care,” said CCDH.
“Google and the anti-choice movement must not be allowed to continue to betray Americans seeking reproductive healthcare advice and services,” said Ahmed. “The first step is to dismantle the vast, powerful digital advertising architecture that has been so effectively weaponized to deprive them of their rights.”