The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) recently released a report, “Profiting From Deceit: How Google Profits from Anti-Choice Ads Distorting Searches for Reproductive Healthcare.” This report examines anti-abortion fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, and how they attempt to deceive pregnant people seeking an abortion clinic.
The anti-abortion movement is well aware that their beliefs are unpopular. Instead of authentically uplifting their own opinions, they use lies and deceptive strategies to prey on vulnerable pregnant people who want an abortion. This deception is often carried out online, with anti-abortion fake clinics attempting to skew search results for abortion services by advertising their websites on Google’s Search function. The CCDH reports that fake clinics spent over $10.2 million on Google ads over the past two years. Google is implicitly supporting the anti-abortion movement by allowing these deceptive and misleading ads on its platform. These ads contribute to the wealth of misinformation from the anti-abortion movement and can seriously harm vulnerable pregnant people seeking abortions by making fake clinics look credible and safe. In actuality, they are neither.
The first way that anti-abortion fake clinics trick people seeking an abortion is by paying Google so that their own websites appear before actual, regulated, and medically certified reproductive health care providers. Most people trust Google and reasonably expect prominent corporations to engage in ethical practices. A top result on a Google search should be helpful and honest, but fake clinics are able to pay to boost their website to the top of one’s search results. From there, fake clinics make themselves look as much like real abortion providers as possible. For example, the anti-choice marketing firm iRapture encourages fake clinics to misrepresent themselves online, acknowledging that someone who wants an abortion is “not looking for a pregnancy center.” iRapture even provides fake clinics with URLs ending in “.clinic” or “.hospital,” despite most fake clinics being unregulated, and therefore unobligated to uphold medical ethics or provide true medical information.
By placing ads for their websites on Google, anti-abortion fake clinics are able to align themselves with searches for abortion. The $10.2 million spent by fake clinics between March 1st, 2021, and February 28, 2023, helped to connect the fake clinics’ websites to search phrases such as “abortion near me” or “abortion pill cost.” People who search for an abortion provider online—trusting Google’s results—will be directed to a fake clinic’s website instead. And the misinformation doesn’t stop there. The CCDH found that 71% of fake clinics with ads on Google attempted to deceive potential visitors: 16% claimed that abortion can cause issues such as breast cancer, suicidal thoughts, or loss of fertility, and 38% did not make it clear on their websites that they do not offer abortions. Someone who visits that fake clinic, not realizing that they don’t provide abortions, will likely be lied to about their gestational age (how far along their pregnancy is), what options are available to them, and what the side effects of an abortion procedure might be (like the debunked idea that abortion causes breast cancer). The anti-abortion movement’s constant deception is extremely harmful, and Google’s acceptance of their ad money makes it complicit in this harm.
The anti-abortion movement thrives on misrepresenting themselves and misleading people. As stated before, anti-abortion fake clinics spent $10.2 million over two years to increase their engagement with Google searches related to abortion services. In contrast, anti-choice organizations only spent $2.4 million on overtly anti-abortion ads during the same period. Rather than encourage people to join the anti-abortion movement through the honest promotion of their beliefs, however odious, the movement hopes to trick people into visiting their fake clinics by paying for ads that make them seem like real abortion providers.
The CCDH report also found that anti-abortion fake clinics located in states where abortion is legal spent far greater amounts on Google ads than fake clinics in states where abortion is banned in an attempt to catch people seeking a clinic that provides abortions. In abortion-legal states, fake clinics spent $7.3 million on Google ads, while those in abortion-banned states spent only $1.6 million. In states where abortion is legal, anti-choice marketing agencies encourage fake clinics to pay for ads that will boost their websites, hoping to divert people from exercising their legal right to an abortion.
Google is not blameless in these deceptive tactics by anti-abortion fake clinics. Firstly, Google allows the ads on its platform, despite their misleading content and false medical information. In September 2021, the CCDH published a report stating that 83% of Google searches for abortions were accompanied by ads for “abortion pill reversal,” an unproven, untested, and possibly dangerous treatment. “Abortion pill reversal” is connected to the abortion pill procedure, in which a patient takes two different medications. The first pill, mifepristone, blocks the hormone progesterone, which allows the pregnancy to grow. The second medication, misoprostol, contracts the uterus to expel the pregnancy from the body. The anti-abortion movement claims that by neglecting the second drug, one can prevent an abortion by administering large, unstandardized doses of progesterone to a patient who has taken mifepristone. Research testing the efficacy of “abortion pill reversal” has been rejected for not meeting ethical standards, and a more recent, ethically-conducted study was called off early because of possible danger to patients.
After the CCDH’s 2021 report, Google announced that it would “remove any ads promoting abortion reversal pills.” However, 40% of the fake clinic advertising on Google when CCDH’s report was published promoted abortion pill reversal on their websites. Google also stated that it does “not allow ads with unproven medical claims,” but 16% of the fake clinics made misleading claims about fertility loss, breast cancer, and suicidal thoughts resulting from an abortion procedure. As stated before, Google made $10.2 million from these ads. Google is helping the anti-abortion movement lie to vulnerable people and profiting off of the effort to which fake clinics will go to deceive. If Google claims that it doesn’t allow “ads with unproven medical claims,” it should demand clear disclaimers from fake clinics that pay for ads about whether or not they provide abortions, and remove ads that support those unproven claims about “abortion pill reversal” and the potential side effects of abortion. Furthermore, Google even provides some fake clinics with advertising grants of up to $10,000 a month. Google is not only uplifting the anti-abortion movement, but subsidizing it as well. It should end all ad grants for fake clinics that lie on their websites.
Federal law states that an advertisement “must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.” Google should adhere to these standards from the Federal Trade Commission for its own ads. Fake clinics’ ads are misleading when they link to search results like “abortion provider near me” and hide the fact that they don’t actually offer abortions and in fact contain an anti-abortion agenda. By allowing these ads, Google allows people seeking an abortion to be misled by fake clinics. And fake clinics promoting abortion pill reversal are not “backed by scientific evidence,” which again fails to follow the FTC guidelines. Google is responsible for misinformation and harm that betrays both federal standards and its own previous statements, and it must take accountability in its role as a supporter of the anti-abortion movement.
All sourcing is attributed to the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s report, which you can access here.
Hunter is supported by Collective Power for Reproductive Justice.