Google Improves Flagging of Fake Abortion Clinic Ads—But ‘There’s Much More To Be Done,’ Say Advocates

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A protest outside an anti-abortion women’s health clinic, or crisis pregnancy center (CPC). There are more than 2,500 CPCs across the U.S.

As states pass ever-expanding abortion restrictions and people search online for how to find abortion services, accurate online information is more critical than ever. But anti-abortion groups are spreading misinformation to interfere with women’s access to abortion information and services.

If you Google “abortion services near me,” chances are an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center” advertisement will appear at the top of your search. There are over 2,500 CPCs across the country. They masquerade as women’s health clinics to lure in pregnant women and use medically-inaccurate information and coercive tactics to obstruct their access to abortion.

Reproductive rights advocates fighting abortion misinformation are encountering headwinds in their efforts to promote accurate, science-based information on social media.

One tactic CPCs use is to buy Google ads making themselves appear to be abortion clinics. After abortion advocacy groups raised the issue, Google adopted a policy in June of 2019 requiring the flagging of abortion advertisements for organizations that do not provide abortion with a warning—“does not provide abortion”—in small, gray print underneath the ad. This policy resulted from research conducted in 2018 showing that only one-third of Google ads facilitated abortion referrals, while another third hindered abortion referrals. (The rest neither facilitated nor hindered access.)

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Google search done in Northampton, Mass., showing a paid ad for anti-abortion CPC Clearway Clinic at the top of the results list.

But even after the adoption of the new policy, abortion rights advocates noticed that the warnings were often missing. So, activists at the abortion pill advocacy organization Plan C made it a priority to work with Google to ensure flagging of all abortion-related ads.

“We’ve been noticing this for some time that the warnings were not always showing up when it comes to ads,” said Martha Dimitratou, Plan C’s social media manager. “We’ve been in communication with Google for maybe a year now.”

Google told Plan C that a technical glitch led to many anti-abortion ads without flags. Plan C worked closely with people at Google to make the warnings mandatory. Google recently stated that the warning will now appear on all abortion ads.

“A Google engineer worked on it to make sure that it now appears in a way that is more consistent,” said Dimitratou. “As of right now, we’re seeing the flags appearing correctly on all ads in different browsers, including Firefox, Chrome and Safari.”

The warnings are triggered when advertisers tag their ads to search terms like “abortion.” Dimitratou explained, “It not only has to do with the way the ads are built, but also with the destination URL, meaning the website to which you’re trying to direct traffic to. If either of these are somehow abortion related, they would get flagged.”

Plan C urges people to pay attention and report any ads they notice do not have the warnings to [email protected].

“I gather the reports and then send them to Google,” said Dimitratou. “Hopefully, they look at them. We need to put enough pressure on Google to do something.”

Our goal is to try to get not only the ads, but also all the content created by CPCs to be flagged because it’s deceptive, false advertising. They use a lot of our language and our visuals. They claim to be something they’re not.

Martha Dimitratou

Google also blocks ads that promote harmful health claims. In September of 2021, Google canceled anti-abortion group Live Action’s advertisements for “abortion pill reversal”—the medically unproven and dangerous theory of countering the effect of abortion pills with high doses of progesterone.

“Under our ads policies, we do not allow ads that promote harmful health claims,” Google spokesperson Christa Muldoon told Newsweek at the time. “This includes claims about the abortion reversal pill’s safety.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said claims about “abortion pill reversal” are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards.

Dimitratou hopes Google will do even more to address abortion misinformation online. “Of course, there’s so much more to be done. Our goal is to try to get not only the ads, but also all the content created by CPCs to be flagged because it’s deceptive, false advertising. They use a lot of our language and our visuals. They claim to be something they’re not.”

Reproductive rights advocates are also helping people find accurate information online and avoid scams. Women on Web and Safe2Choose have a campaign providing tips on how to avoid scams when buying pills online and an online database of scams.

Reaching People With Accurate Abortion Information

Despite misleading Google ads by anti-abortion groups, the internet plays a critical role in providing information about how to find abortion pills and use them safely. Plan C’s online guide to abortion pills, for example, lists reliable telehealth providers and online pharmacies.

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Dimitratau says she’s noticed an increase in people searching for abortion pills online, especially after the Supreme Court draft opinion leaked.

“People are looking for answers, especially after the leak. More people are trying to find ways to access abortion pills,” said Dimitratau. “People rely on social media platforms to find information.”

On the day after the leak, Plan C’s website had 56,000 visitors—compared to 65,000 in the entire month of April. The first week of May had 100,000 visitors.

Reproaction, which provides free online training on at-home abortion, saw its biggest bump in web traffic in 2022. New users made up 93 percent of this audience, many coming from GOP-led states like Texas, Virginia, Florida and Georgia.

People similarly flooded the website of the Austria-based telemedicine abortion provider Aid Access, which provides care to everyone in the U.S., no matter where they live or if they can pay. Their website traffic increased by 2800 percent the day after the leak—from 1,290 visitors on May 2, to 38,530 on May 3.

The Miscarriage and Abortion Hotline, staffed by clinicians who provide support to people who are self-managing their abortions, was also deluged the day after the opinion leaked.

But on social media and Google, these groups have to fight to keep up their posts and ads, which have been flagged and removed from social media platforms or buried on Google searches.

Our post about self-managed abortion with pills was flagged for violating their community guidelines. I didn’t receive an email. I didn’t receive a notification. It was just quietly removed.

Jessica Ensley

Plan C has had issues with Google blocking or restricting their ads, says Dimitratau. “Some of our ads have been completely blocked. And some of the ads have run, but they run with a limited reach. And also Plan C’s account with Google ad was taken down a few months ago. We had to appeal this.”

Dimitratau says Plan C has had four ads taken down from Instagram and their account shut down twice in a row right before the Texas bounty hunter abortion ban went into effect last September. “We were not able to share information. We rely a lot on Facebook and especially Instagram to get our message out there. We had to spend so much time appealing everything. It’s really hard to overturn these decisions. It’s a constant back and forth. It’s very counterproductive.”

Reproaction has also had posts taken down from Instagram and Facebook.

“Our post about self-managed abortion with pills was flagged for violating their community guidelines. I didn’t receive an email. I didn’t receive a notification. It was just quietly removed,” said Jessica Ensley, digital outreach and opposition research director at Reproaction. “When we reached out, we did not get a response. There wasn’t an ability to ask for a review of that post. It’s been very frustrating. I feel like these platforms are this black box when it comes to decision making. They don’t explain what goes against the guidelines.”

Reproaction executive director Erin Matson said, “It’s hard to get information out there when we’re being suppressed. We’re routinely getting clobbered by social media companies.”

To fight back, Reproaction created a petition, which they attempted to deliver in person to Meta’s office in D.C. in March, calling on Facebook to stop suppressing fact-based information on abortion. Ensley says they have not yet received a response.

“A lot of our website traffic comes through social media so when social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter suppress fact-based abortion information, it can really make an impact on sharing abortion information,” said Ensley.

To report Google ads without the required flag, contact Plan C at [email protected].

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.