Reprinted from Mercury News: Feb 02, 2018
Women and girls who use Google to find an abortion provider in the Bay Area may end up in the hands of an anti-abortion operation that doesn’t terminate pregnancies and instead seeks to persuade clients to give birth.
Google searches in Silicon Valley — home to the company with the world’s most popular search engine — direct those searching for abortion providers to the offices and websites of abortion foes while abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood are lower in search results.
The search-results issue “is just a small piece of a much larger war that’s being waged over the legitimacy of different types of pregnancy services for women,” said Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who specializes in technology law. “I do see (legal) cases regularly about false advertising about abortion services.”
Google, in a response to Gizmodo, which first reported the issue, said the company was “looking into” the matter.
Questions about the search results recall the early days of Apple’s iPhone-based assistant Siri, which, when in beta in 2011, would not produce results for abortion services or birth control, a gap Apple said it would fill. Today, Siri provides links to Planned Parenthood when asked about either topic.
For abortion opponents, Google search results represent a potentially powerful tool for getting in contact with pregnant girls and women and persuading them to give birth.
In San Jose, for example, when a user enters a search query such as, “Where can I get an abortion near me?” anti-abortion facilities are featured at or near the top of the results.
The serving up of anti-abortion information on abortion-provider searches is most pronounced when a user goes to Google Maps after searching for an abortion provider.
From San Jose, for example, the search, “Abortion providers near me” produced results that put in the two top spots the San Jose clinics of Catholic-funded RealOptions Obria — an organization that started out as the anti-abortion group Birth Choice and seeks to locate its facilities near Planned Parenthood clinics. Planned Parenthood, which does provide abortions, came up at No. 3 in the search.
RealOptions, which also has facilities in Mountain View and Union City, is what is commonly referred to as a “crisis pregnancy center.” These facilities typically advertise pregnancy services and counseling and seek to divert girls and women away from abortion and toward adoption and parenthood.
RealOptions runs medical clinics, providing medical consultations, pregnancy tests, ultrasound exams, sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, prenatal care, hormone-based reversals of effects of the “abortion pill,” and support services.
The organization’s CEO Valerie Hill acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that RealOptions pays Google for keywords including “abortion” and “pregnancy” and “unplanned pregnancy.” Purchased keywords call up ads when users search those words.
“We are buying the keyword ‘abortion’ because we’re using abortion information in one of the main services that we offer,” Hill said. “Ninety percent of our patients determine that they want to parent their children, and we help them find the resources and support to do that.”
According to Google, keyword purchases and other advertising do not affect search results placement.
Positive online reviews help RealOptions to achieve high placement in search results, Hill said.
Regional Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Lupe Rodriguez argued that many crisis pregnancy centers use deceptive online methods to get pregnant women and girls into their offices, where “misinformation and scare tactics” are used to convince them not to have abortions.
“If you are buying a keyword that doesn’t necessarily represent what you do or what you provide, then that’s misleading for consumers. We’re concerned that that’s a public health issue,” Rodriguez said. “We hope that Google or other search engines can look at how they might be able to temper that type of tactic and thereby give their consumers better search results that are more attuned to what they’re looking for.”
A Google spokesperson said the company has “robust policies” against misleading ads. “We actively enforce those policies,” the spokesperson said.
Also showing up in search results are the St. Juan Diego Women’s Center and Birthright, anti-abortion operations, surfacing fairly high up on Maps results in Google searches for abortion providers in or near San Jose.
St. Juan Diego Women’s Center Executive Director Christine Ibañez said her organization does not manipulate search results.
St. Juan counsels women to “choose life” and supports them and their children if they do so, via a suite of services, Ibañez said.
Birthright did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Crisis pregnancy centers provide a range of services, with St. Juan and Birthright offering counseling, baby clothes, pregnancy testing and adoption information, along with general life assistance.
In California, the battle over abortion has seen the state Reproductive FACT Act, which requires licensed clinics that provide pregnancy-related services to notify clients about free or low-cost abortions, assailed by abortion opponents in legal actions that have put it on the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Just because abortion-related search results include anti-abortion organizations that counsel against abortion doesn’t mean Google’s search system is broken — the results may still be useful to the person searching, law professor Goldman said.
Protima Pandey, director of the Santa Clara County Office of Women’s Policy, said search results should explicitly reflect the search terms. “When I’m looking for an abortion provider I’m not looking for counseling services. I’m looking for an abortion provider,” Pandey said.