Google Maps Has Been Directing Women In Search Of Abortion Clinics To Anti-Choice Clinics
For many abortion-seekers in rural areas across the country, a search on Google Maps for a clinic where they can obtain the lawful family planning procedure could actually lead them to anti-choice centers that shame them for wanting to terminate their pregnancies. VICE News conducted an investigation into the matter, looking specifically at 55 cities across 22 states that are at risk if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
In 21 of the cities, the reporters discovered that Google directs users to centers that either do not provide abortions or would attempt to dissuade them from attaining the procedure.
In North Dakota, searching for “Where can I get an abortion in Bismarck, North Dakota” leads users to North Dakota Right to Life, an anti-abortion clinic that, as you might guess, doesn’t offer the procedure.
Red River Women’s Clinic, which does provide abortions, does not show up in the search. In Tennessee, similar anti-choice centers also populate. However, the Google Maps search also leads to the National Memorial for the Unborn, a site “dedicated to healing generations of pain associated with the loss of aborted and miscarried children.” While it should be noted that some people do regret having an abortion, according to the American Psychological Association, a single first-trimester abortion is no riskier to a woman’s mental health than carrying a pregnancy to term.
Similarly, the search for, “Where can I get an abortion in Little Rock, Arkansas?” offers a combination of family planning centers that do provide abortions, like a Planned Parenthood location, but also generates Arkansas Right to Life, a pro-life organization that’s website states the procedure influences “society’s acceptance of infanticide.”
Additionally, through their study, VICE News found Google Maps results from crisis pregnancy centers that used misleading language about their family planning options or outright shamed abortion-seekers as well as centers that claim to “reverse” a medication abortion using the “abortion pill reversal,” a drug that has not been proven to work.
Google’s struggle to help give abortion-seekers accurate information isn’t knew.
In February 2018, Gizmodo found that when users search, “Where can I get an abortion near me?” Google Maps directed many of them to “crisis pregnancy centers.” These facilities, while legal, have become largely controversial because they disguise themselves as abortion centers yet shame and counsel people who think they are obtaining the procedure against it. Additionally, they fail at providing “comprehensive, accurate, evidence-based clinical information” and instead try to sway abortion-seekers into believing that becoming a parent or considering adoption are better options for them.
Since that investigation more than a year ago, VICE News notes that Google Maps has gotten better at differentiating between abortion clinics and crisis pregnancy centers, but the problem of sending abortion-seekers to pro-life clinics still remains.
Google, which is aware of the problem, claims that it exists because pro- and anti-abortion centers usually operate on the same keywords.
“There are situations in which it can be overt misrepresentation and the business knows what they’re doing. I mean, that’s the purpose of the business,” spokesperson Paul Pennington told the news outlet, referring to misleading crisis pregnancy centers.
He continued: “If you are picking the right business category, if you are — again — being very clear in your website and you say, ‘We do not provide these services, etc.,’ that’s on us.”
That’s why Google deploys human analysts from its fraud and spam team to physically investigate businesses that might be misrepresenting themselves on Maps.
If a business identifies as an “abortion clinic,” a protected category, an additional certification is required from these analysts.
According to Pennington, the question is, “What is that balance of having something that’s automated and scalable but also maintaining some level of manual labor that really has people kind of going in and reviewing this?”
During its probe, VICE reached out to COPE Pregnancy Center, a clinic that appeared in a Google Maps search for abortion clinics in Montgomery, Alabama but does not provide or refer the procedure.
“That is absolutely insane. We would not do that and certainly didn’t do that, especially today — when it’s, when pregnancy centers have such a bad reputation anyway,” COPE executive director Lorie Mullins said of the inaccurate label, adding that she planned on contacting Google to correct it. “We really fight to be upfront and open about what we are and what we provide, and certainly would not lie.”
However, a Google spokesperson told VICE News that the facility continually applied to be certified as an “abortion clinic.”
They believe that a Google employee must have mistakenly approved them. After VICE flagged the miscategorization to Google, the company said it would fix the problem in 24 hours.
Despite the improvements, problems still persist, leaving some pro-abortion rights groups to take matters into their own hands. For instance, Abortion Access Front has an initiative called exposefakeclinics.com, which encourages supporters to review anti-abortion centers and abortion providers on Google Maps.
“We saw Google reviews as a tool to combat that misinformation,” Anna Bean, the nonprofit’s community engagement manager, told the outlet. “Write a completely accurate review: ‘As a consumer, I see that this place does not provide abortion services.’ As simple as that. So that when people then upvote that review — you know, give it that little thumbs-up — that rises to the top of the page.”
But even this is limited, as anti-choice groups have started their own copycat movement, using Exposefakeclinics.org — instead of .com — to defend anti-abortion centers.
“There’s an influx of these clinics. They’re more empowered than ever before by the Trump administration now,” Bean said. “Google needs to play a role in ensuring that people are getting factual information about the services in their community.”