A new Google policy that was meant to rein in deceptive advertising by “crisis pregnancy centers” has a loophole that is allowing the centers to continue to post misleading ads on the search engine.
Crisis pregnancy centers often seek to aggressively discourage women from getting abortions and have earned the ire of abortion rights groups for often seeming to resemble abortion clinics.
The loophole means only users who are specifically searching under the term “abortion” will be provided information on Google’s website about whether a particular health care clinic does – or does not – offer the procedure to women.
If a user searches under other terms, like “free pregnancy test” or “pregnancy symptoms”, no such information appears under the advertisements for the same clinics. While the difference might seem semantic, there is a worry that it will confuse women who might mistake a crisis pregnancy center for an abortion clinic.
The ability of crisis pregnancy centers to influence possibly vulnerable women with false information is seen by pro-choice advocates as a significant challenge at a time when access to legal abortion is being curtailed in many states across the US.
Carolyn Maloney, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, said that while she was pleased that Google had take a step toward transparency, “it was just a first step”.
“I hope [Google] will monitor loopholes in its policy that may still allow these centers to purposely deceive pregnant women about the services they do or do not offer,” Maloney said in a statement to the Guardian.
Google’s handling of abortion-related advertising has been a source of controversy for years, with pro-choice advocates saying that it has allowed crisis pregnancy centers to propagate false information about the services they offer in violation of Google’s rules against deceptive advertising.
In many cases, advertisements for crisis pregnancy centers suggest that women can visit their clinics to either obtain an abortion or get more information about their choices, even though such centers are vehemently opposed to abortion.
In May, Google unveiled a new policy to try to tackle the problem. It said that advertisers in the US, UK, and Ireland who ran abortion-related ads had to disclose to Google whether they did or did not provide termination services, and that the information would be tagged on to advertisements when users searched under “keywords related to getting an abortion”. The tags, which appear in small grey print under the advertisement, say “Does not provide abortion” or “Provides abortion”.
Google declined to comment on the number of ads that have been affected by its new policy and said that the fact that some ads were still being published without any tags – depending on the search term – was not a loophole. The policy, the company said, was purposely designed to only target “abortion” keywords.
Google said in a statement to the Guardian: “This additional transparency is meant to help users decide which abortion-related ads are most relevant to them. Our policies already prohibit misrepresentation in ads and if we find ads that violate our policies, we immediately remove them.”
Crisis pregnancy centers and anti-choice activists were angered by the change in Google’s policy when it was announced in May. An article on pregnancyhelpnews.com, a website run by Heartbeat International, a Christian organization, said the new tags were “reducing the ability for pregnancy centers to compete with abortion providers on a digital scale”.
“Women deserve to have the information they need before making an abortion decision, not just abortion information from those who profit from abortion,” the article stated.
But it added that there was also “good news for life-affirming pregnancy help organizations”, because not all Google ads were automatically impacted. It then pointed out that advertisements tied to keyword searches for “free pregnancy tests” did not have the tags.
Alice Huling, counsel at the Campaign for Accountability, a liberal ethics watchdog and Google critic, said Google’s policy change had not given enough thought to the ways in which users use the search engine.
“Google knows that there are a lot of CPCs out there that are actively trying to trick women about their reproductive health options,” Huling said. “There is no reason that those same tags couldn’t be applied across the board.”
Huling said many women turning to Google for information, especially about an unplanned pregnancy, might be doing a “generic” search for information about their options, and that crisis pregnancy centers were purposely targeting women who were possibly thinking about abortion.
“They are trying to locate and populate those searches so that in a face-to-face discussion they can try to convince a woman to not have an abortion, including through ultrasounds or providing false information about or health and safety concerns,” she added.
In one case found by the Guardian, a search using the term “abortion” resulted in an advertisement for a website called yourabortionchoice.org. The search produced a tag that stated that the center “Does not provide abortions”. But a search for “free pregnancy test”, which resulted in the same ad being shown, did not provide the information.
The yourabortionchoice.org website provides visitors with a phone number and states on its website “we’re here to empower you with the information you need to make the choice that is best for you, your body and health”. Although it is not immediately evident, the website is run by a company called Heroic Media, which states as its mission that it is seeking to “save lives from abortion”.