Steered Wrong By Googling “Abortion Services”? It’s No Accident

ID: screenshot of google results for the phrase "need abortion"
A screenshot of Google search results for the phrase “need abortion.”

In the seemingly endless war over abortion rights in America, battles are waged in legislatures, in courts and, most recently, on the Internet.

The strategy of using abortion-related keywords to send a woman searching the web for abortion information to a nearby crisis pregnancy center is already a few years old. But the scheme only received real national attention a couple of months ago, when Siri, Apple’s new voice-activated search assistant, was caught sending women looking for abortion clinics to centers that specialize in talking women out of abortions.

Apple refuted accusations of an anti-abortion agenda, instead blaming the “glitch” on search engines like Google and user-generated guides like Yelp, from which Siri largely extracts its information.

Apple’s explanation matched claims made by anti-abortion rights groups, whose websites describe in detail how they use keywords and Google ads to direct abortion seekers to a central website called Option Line, whose primary function is to route people to one of the thousands of crisis pregnancy centers throughout the country.

Option Line is a 24/7 live-operator contact center headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, which fields inquiries from people seeking information about abortion and pregnancy. It has a Spanish-only version staffed by bilingual consultants. Option Line was co-founded in 2003 by Care Net and Heartbeat International, two of the three largest CPC networks in the U.S. About half of the more than 4,000 centers across the country are affiliated with one of these two networks.

Like most businesses trying to boost their visibility on Google, anti-abortion pregnancy centers buy ads through Google’s AdWords program. Using various Google search approaches–“abortion,” “abortion services” “how can I get an abortion,” “I need an abortion”–the results turn up at least one ad or entry that was linked to Option Line or to Option Line-created software on each primary search page. These pages often also included two or three entries for individual crisis pregnancy centers or anti-abortion websites. One search result turned up a list of “abortion services” in the D.C. area that included anti-abortion pregnancy centers.

A Google ad that popped up frequently is “Thinking of Abortion?” which links to the website for Assist Pregnancy Center, a CPC in Annandale, Va. At the very bottom of the website is a note: “Website created by Optionline e-Xtend.” This links to Option Line Extend, a website development program that provides pregnancy centers with “a professional Internet presence.” In 2007, Option Line created Option Line Extend to sell to centers affiliated with either Care Net or Heartbeat International. CPCs are charged $150 for “basic websites,” $300 for “premium websites” and $500 for “ministry websites.”

Care Net, which made about $7 million in revenue in 2010, reported spending $600,000 on Option Line. Heartbeat International, which reported making about $1.4 million in revenue (PDF) in 2010, reported spending about 46 percent of its budget on its Option Line program between October 2010 and September 2011.

Aside from live-chats and directions to the closest CPC, Option Line offers answers to questions about abortion, birth control and emergency contraception.

In an answer to the question, “Should I take the morning-after pill?” Option Line replies:

Many times women panic after having unprotected sex and rush to take the morning-after pill (Plan B One Step® or Next Choice®). However, you can only become pregnant on certain days of the month–around the time that you ovulate. Taking the morning-after pill during a time when you cannot become pregnant needlessly exposes you to large doses of hormones.

If you are already pregnant from an earlier sexual encounter, taking the morning-after pill is of no value and may cause harm. To find out if you are pregnant, contact us, and we’ll connect you with a caring, qualified pregnancy center near you.

According to a recently released updated report (PDF) on crisis pregnancy centers produced by the Family Research Council, Option Line averages about 1 million visitors per year and makes about 20,000 contracts per month, with media partners such as Heroic Media and Online for Life.

Online for Life is run by the Texas-based Media Revolution Ministries, which was founded by CEO Brian Fisher in 2009. Fisher explains Online for Life’s general strategy in a video uploaded to YouTube in April 2011:

There are over 6 million Internet searches each and every month in the United States alone for the word ‘abortion’ and other related keywords. This is a problem of epidemic proportions, and Online for Life is here to meet that need. We intercept them when they’re searching for abortion information, and instead we direct them to pro-life pregnancy centers in their area where they’re counseled for life.

In early December, just a few days after the Abortioneers bloggers discovered Siri’s proclivity for CPCs over abortion clinics, a Google search using the word “abortion” produced seven Google Map results for locations. Three of them were anti-abortion pregnancy centers in Maryland. The following month, the same “abortion” search from the same location pulled up just one anti-abortion map search, and it wasn’t to a CPC, but to the website for the anti-abortion rights group Priests for Life.

A Google spokesperson, who did not want to be named for this story, would not directly respond to questions about the sudden change in searches or about anti-abortion search strategies in general, but did note that Google takes action when websites are found to be violating its policies. Google has a general policing policy when it comes to websites that use devious practices to manipulate searches and can, with little notice, demote a site’s page rankings, as happened last year with J.C. Penney, after it was caught by The New York Times using search optimization methods that violate Google’s policy.

Google actually has specific ad policies on the word “abortion”: It prohibits ads with violent language or gruesome imagery. And in some countries, the company will not even allow ads for abortions or related services.

“When we find ads which violate our policies, we investigate and remove them if appropriate,” the spokesperson said. “Google is constantly updating its ads policies to comply with local law.”

The Siri scandal has helped educate the public on the some of the practices CPCs employ, and perhaps the increased awareness will result in an increase in sponsorship of the federal “Stop Deceptive Advertising for Women’s Service Act,” first introduced in 2007 by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). The measure, which has been reintroduced to Congress every year since, would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to penalize organizations that falsely advertise as resources for abortion services when they do not offer such services. To date, the bill has 39 co-sponsors in the House and three in the Senate.

According to Allyson Kapin–a founding partner of the Rad Campaign, a D.C.-based online strategy firm–even if a federal bill were passed demanding truth in advertising from CPCs, it will still be a few years before our legal system learns how to deal with false advertising on the Internet.

“It’s really tricky with Internet law,” Kapin said. “Judges are still relying on old laws and applying [telephone loopholes to Internet cases].”

Excerpted with permission from The American Independent.

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