According to an Observer probe, women looking for abortion help online are being led to pregnancy counselling centres run by anti-abortion activists. People who seek words related to pregnancy and abortion are more often shown Google ads that are meant to seem like actual search results. In fact, these ads appear above real listings.
In a recent study, Google UK’s display of 251 ads to a user seeking 40 key keywords, such as “NHS abortion advice,” “confidential abortion support,” and “pregnant teenager help,” revealed that 117 of these ads were from pro-life groups. The results expose the marketing strategies used by anti-abortion organizations in the UK. There are now concerns that women may be prone to false info when seeking medical help. One group that promotes sexual health called the ads “clearly immoral.”
The analysis’s ads, which were given to a woman in her 20s in London in early February, have a tiny sticker labeling them as ads. They also look like genuine search results and are placed above credible info sources, such as the NHS website. Sometimes they push advisory services that represent themselves as providing unbiased support. However, they hide the anti-abortion beliefs of their sponsors.
Pregnancy Crisis Helpline, one of the most prominent sponsors, had ads show up after queries for 14 of the 40 words examined in the study. Some of them read, “Considering an abortion? Talk to someone”, “buy abortion pill” and “pregnant teenager help”. These key phrases all had results from the anti-abortion sites ranking higher.
How reliable are Google ads?
When people clicked on the links, they were brought to the helpline’s website. The site offers “support for women dealing with an accidental pregnancy” and describes itself as a “safe and confidential place”. Although it claims to “not refer for abortions,” it also makes no mention of the anti-abortion beliefs of its organizers. Instead. it positions itself as a neutral service that offers support “away from all the pressures.”
Actually, a right-wing religious group called Christian Concern, which advocates for the outlawing of abortion, co-launched the hotline. Regan King, a minister at the Angel Church in Islington, London, is one of the helpline’s sponsors. He describes abortion as “Disgusting. Disturbing. Grim. Gruesome. Horrifying. Shocking. Terrible”. In addition, he also compares it to “the new slave trade,” calling it “vile”. Christian Clive Copus, a previous head of the Prolife Alliance, another anti-abortion advocacy group, is a trustee.
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The helpline recently claimed an increase in the number of calls it received. It claims that in 2022 it had 2,000 visitors as opposed to 500 in 2021.
Google claims it has broken now law
Other ads from the brand point women toward a counselling program operated by a group that detests abortion. One said: “We provide a safe space for you to explore your feelings away from outside pressures. Talk through your options in confidence.”
Google stated that the ads reported by the Observer were compliant with its guidelines. It points out that they have an “ad” tag in bold and a sentence saying that the services they advertise do not offer abortions. However, Lisa Hallgarten, director of policy at the Brook, called the marketing strategy “clearly immoral” and claimed that ads shown in response to queries like “NHS abortion advice” could prevent women from receiving medical treatment. Pam Lowe, an expert on anti-abortion activism, said:
“We are really concerned that people looking for impartial support are being directed to organisations and websites where they could experience the complete opposite … Anyone who puts ‘NHS abortion’ into Google should be shown a link to the NHS website as the first result. There’s a risk that people could end up with biased information.”
Google has more work to do
There is a need for tech brands to expunge harmful listings. A call from Labour MP Stella Creasy has been doing all she can to ensure that tech brands comply. According to her, “seeking to mislead vulnerable readers who need to be confident that what they are reading is medically sound and impartial” and free speech are two different things.
However, Pregnancy Crisis Helpline claims that it does not offer medical advice. Toby Cosh, a chair of trustees said “If a client asks for medical advice, we signpost them to their GP, 111 or A&E as appropriate”.
“Our person-centred online pregnancy listening service was inspired by the Samaritans and is non-coercive and non-judgmental,” said Kerry Smart, chief executive at Life.
She continues by saying that Life’s “listening services” adhered to the ethical standards set forth by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Those who used them were informed that they did not discuss the abortion or provide info on abortion providers.
Google run legit ads also
Other pregnancy and abortion-related ads from controlled abortion clinics can also be found on UK Google searches. This includes ads such as MSI Reproductive Choices and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. Google run these ads alongside ads from anti-abortion groups in the US and the UK. These groups don’t offer counselling services but instead point people to websites that discuss the morality of abortion.
Google said: “We know that people come to Google looking for information they can trust, and we’ve invested heavily in providing a safe and transparent experience. When it comes to abortion-related ads, we require an added level of transparency so that people seeking abortion-related resources know what services an advertiser actually provides. Any organisation that wants to target queries related to getting an abortion must complete our certification process and clearly disclose whether they do or do not offer abortions.”