“Profiting from those who put people at harm is unacceptable.”
—Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate
ReproAction and the Center for Countering Digital Hate are raising an alarm about social media companies circulating anti-abortion groups’ unproven and potentially dangerous “abortion pill reversal” theory, while at the same time blocking factual information about abortion pills from reproductive health groups.
Abortion pills are a safe, effective and affordable way to end an early pregnancy. Whether physician-supervised or self-managed, use of abortion pills have become increasingly popular during the pandemic because people can order them online, receive them by mail and safely use them at home. In response, the anti-abortion movement is attempting to stigmatize abortion pills—which they pejoratively call “chemical abortion”—by promoting the idea of “abortion pill reversal.”
“So-called abortion ‘reversal’ procedures are unproven and unethical,” according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Clinical trials of the procedure ended after participants experienced dangerous hemorrhages requiring hospitalization. “Claims regarding abortion ‘reversal’ treatment are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards.”
So-called abortion “reversal” procedures are unproven and unethical. Claims regarding abortion “reversal” treatment are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards.
Despite these dangers, social media companies regularly allow anti-abortion ads promoting “abortion pill reversal,” reveals a recent research report “Endangering Women for Profit” by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. According to the report, Facebook and Google accepted between $115,400 and $140,667 for 92 ads promoting “abortion pill reversal” since January 2020. Almost all of these ads—98 percent—promoted websites that claim abortion reversal is “effective.”
These anti-abortion ads received up to 18.4 million views, including 709,870 impressions from minors between the ages of 13 and 17. By targeting minors, these ads violate Facebook’s policy against advertisements to minors that promote unsafe services or “exploit, mislead or exert undue pressure on the age group targeted.”
“Profiting from those who put people at harm is unacceptable,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. But it gets worse.
To counter this misinformation circulating on Facebook, the reproductive justice organization ReproAction posted graphics with medically accurate information about abortion pills. On October 21, Facebook removed these posts.
“Facebook said that we had violated their community guidelines,” said Kara Mailman, ReproAction’s senior research analyst. “They didn’t explain how or what guideline we had specifically violated and we have not been given recourse for appeal.”
A month after removing ReproAction’s graphics, Facebook is still blocking the organization from purchasing ads to share crucial information about medication abortion with patients in need, says Mailman.
“Facebook is letting anti-abortion organizations take out abortion pill reversal ads, while suppressing our fact-based posts about abortion pills,” said Mailman. “This ongoing bias shows that Facebook doesn’t have an interest in fairly moderating according to their own community guidelines.”
Another reproductive health organization SASS (Self-Managed Abortion; Safe & Supported) has also experienced censure of their social media posts. Peggy Cooke, SASS’s media team coordinator, told Ms. that they recently had two posts taken down—one on Facebook and one on Instagram (a subsidiary of Facebook). In both cases, SASS appealed the removal of the posts and both were put back up.
“What really stood out for me was the innocent nature of the posts—just the graphic saying you can have an abortion at home,” said Cooke. “I don’t understand why Facebook reacts so quickly to things like that but then so slowly or not at all to actual horrible things that people say to each other.”
Cooke explained how the posts’ removal interferes with SASS’s mission to get accurate information about abortion pills to people. “We are a volunteer team. It costs time and energy to appeal it, and check to see if it got put back up. If one person or 20 people see that post, that makes a difference,” says Cooke.
Cooke and Mailman believe anti-abortion advocates are responsible for the post removals. “A lot of the posts on abortion pills that have been suppressed or removed were likely flagged by [anti-abortion activists] as medical misinformation,” said Mailman. “That is a tactic of antis to frame factual information about abortion pills as dangerous medical misinformation.”
“It’s not right that Facebook or Instagram would take it down based on clearly political attacks,” said Cooke. It does not seem to matter that the information included in abortion rights advocates’ posts is actually medically accurate.
As frustrating for abortion rights advocates, Mailman said, is that when reproductive rights advocates “complain about [anti-abortion] misinformation, it doesn’t get taken down.”
Mailman says Facebook and Instagram are suppressing accurate abortion-related information in other ways as well. “When the Texas abortion ban went into effect, Instagram and Facebook both suppressed the hashtags for mifepristone and misoprostol”—two medications that can safely end a pregnancy at home. Meanwhile, they allowed anti-abortion advocates’ access to the “abortion pill reversal” hashtag.
The consequences of tech giants’ promoting medically inaccurate information about abortion pills could be severe for those in need of abortion care. In an environment where anti-abortion activists are successfully making in-clinic abortion inaccessible, the option to receive abortion pills by mail and use them at home is revolutionizing abortion care.
Today, 89 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider. In states like Texas, where 96 percent of counties have no abortion provider and abortions are banned after six weeks, people are increasingly turning to abortion pills. Research shows these pills are safe, convenient and affordable.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate and ReproAction are both calling on Facebook to stop spreading abortion pill misinformation and blocking medically accurate information about medication abortion.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate has a petition urging the tech giants to enforce their policies against ads with misleading health claims, to refuse ads from organizations that repeatedly violate their rules and to contribute their revenues from “abortion pill reversal” ads to reproductive health charities. They also call on social media platforms to ensure that users known to have been exposed to misinformation receive accurate information.
ReproAction also has a petition telling “Facebook and Instagram that censoring vital, fact-based medical information about abortion pills is unacceptable.”
Mailman urges abortion rights supporters to sign the petition. “Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram are hiding vital, accurate information about abortion pills—and we won’t stand for it. Allowing the promotion of unscientific anti-abortion propaganda while removing information about a safe, common medical procedure is wrong,” said Mailman. “Facebook and Instagram need to hear from you.”