Many of the fake clinics, which are registered as 501c3 nonprofits, also take advantage of Google’s ad grants, CCDH says. The grants allow qualifying nonprofits to get up to $10,000 worth of ads per month for free.
Researchers at the CCDH also found several marketing firms catering to crisis pregnancy centers and offering services, including help accessing the Google ad grants, along with strategies to ensure that their content appears next to legitimate reproductive health information by hijacking keywords used by people seeking abortions.
“There’s a set of keywords which are clearly abortion search keywords, and those keywords tend to be the names of abortion providers,” says Callum Hood, head of research at CCDH. “Amongst the top keywords that fake clinics target, ‘planned parenthood’ is in the top five.” Planned Parenthood is a genuine reproductive health organization.
This is not the first time Google’s free advertising perks have gone to anti-abortion groups. In 2019, a group of anti-choice clinics run by a Catholic group were found to have received tens of thousands of dollars worth of free advertising on Google. In response, the company changed its policies to require such organizations to note whether they actually offer abortion services.
But the CCDH report found that sometimes these labels were still not applied to ads from crisis pregnancy centers. And even then, Shakouri says the label can be confusing to users who don’t know the difference between a crisis pregnancy center and a legitimate health clinic that may simply not provide abortion care.“There’s a lot of ways people could interpret that labeling, and that labeling has been applied to organizations like abortion funds or services that act as referral services,” she says.
This confusion extends beyond ads and search to Google Maps, where crisis pregnancy centers often show up alongside legitimate clinics.
“It’s very hard for people that are less digitally literate to find out who is a legitimate provider,” says Sanne Thijssen, the creator of #HeyGoogle, which maps crisis pregnancy centers throughout Europe to help women better identify fake clinics. “A lot of times if they see something on Google Maps … they aren’t able to really distinguish as well.”
Martha Dimitratou, media manager for PlanC, a nonprofit that provides information about access to the abortion pill, says that the organization’s Google Ads account was banned over a year ago for advertising “unauthorized pharmacies.”
“We have tried to appeal this very many times, but Google does not want to change the system,” she says.
Meanwhile, Google continues to display ads from crisis pregnancy centers directing users to sites that promote “abortion reversal,” an unscientific method of administering progesterone to a woman who has taken abortion medication in order to stop its effects.
Angela Vasquez-Girouxat, vice president of communications and research at abortion advocacy group Naral, notes that a past study on “abortion reversal” had to be halted because the regimen posed a threat to the health of the women involved. “Imagine if there were a vaccine study that found the vaccines were harmful to people,” she says. “Google probably wouldn’t promote that as a legitimate regimen, but they allow these organizations to continue to promote abortion pill reversal and other fake science, despite the fact that it is physically dangerous.”
Aciman says Google does not allow ads promoting abortion reversal treatments.
Updated 06/15/2023, 1:25 pm ET: A statement from a Google spokesperson has been added.