Google Profits from Barriers to Abortion Access

Technology Policy Brief #91 | By: Mindy Spatt | June 27, 2023
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A Google search for abortion services will often serve up just the opposite- ‘Pregnancy Crisis Centers’ and other fake clinics dedicated to preventing abortions rather than providing them.  It isn’t a new problem, but the complaints about the misinformation that appears in searches became more urgent after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that enabled many states to outlaw or severely restrict the availability of abortions, forcing many women to search further afield.  In response to advocates’ demands, Google promised to remedy the problems, but two recent reports say not only that it continues, but also that low income women are especially impacted, and that Google is profiting handsomely from the fake ads. 

Policy Analysis

As far back as 2015, a study by Prochoice America concluded that “Crisis Pregnancy Centers”  (CPCs) were deliberately trying to “lure” women to their websites with deceptive advertising tactics, bidding on keywords such as abortion and then aggressively using them in keyword based online ads.  The ruse worked well, and cost was apparently no object.  Prochoice America found that just two CPCs were spending $18,000 a month on pay per click advertising, purchasing over 100 keywords that also included “morning after pill” and “women’s health clinics.” 

Fast forward to June 2023, and a report from Center for Countering Digital Hate which found that CPC’s are the “cornerstone of the anti-choice movement” and are spending four times as much on deceptive search ads on Google then they do on their out-and-out anti-choice campaigns.  

The amount the CPCs pay Google for the ads is staggering, over $10 million in the last two years alone.  The misinformation spread for that price included deceitful ads linking abortions and cancer and other serious diseases.  And Google has been slow to follow through on one relatively easy fix.  Although the company had previously committed to requiring disclaimers on CPC websites to clearly inform visitors that their clinics do not provide abortions, the Center’s report noted 38% of CPC sites still have no such disclaimer. 

What’s worse, the false advertising is especially impacting low income women.  The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) reached this conclusion in February 2023 by creating a new Google account for testers in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Miami, all for women born in 1992.  Then, within each account’s advertisement personalization settings, the testers selected either high, middle or low for their household income.  When the testers searched for abortion services, a higher percentage of the lower income testers drew search ads from CPCs than those who had listed themselves as high income.

TTP noted that “by serving a higher rate of crisis pregnancy center ads to lower-income women, Google is helping these centers reach their intended audience. Abortion rights groups and academic studies have noted that crisis pregnancy centers typically target women of lower socioeconomic classes…”

Profiting from false advertising isn’t the only way Google is standing in the way of access.  After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade and some states moved to criminalize abortion, the protection of users’ healthcare information and searches related to it became far more urgent.  Google had been under fire in the past for collecting and retaining sensitive healthcare data, and advocates demanded that data that law enforcement could use in prosecutions be routinely deleted.  Google promised to do so, but here too, advocates from Accountable Tech found that Google failed to live up to its promises.  (See Brief #153 – Health & Gender )

Now a group of democratic US Senators including Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar are pressing those demands.  The Senators recently sent a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, citing Accountable Tech’s investigation and an expose by the Washington Post, and strongly urging that healthcare related location data be deleted within 24 hours. 


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