The Supreme Court’s move to overturn Roe v. Wade has left abortion-seekers across the U.S. scrambling to find access to medical care online, only to find themselves awash in a sea of search results and ads for clinics offering anything but. Now, the biggest search engine out there is making it slightly (and I do mean only slightly) easier for telemedicine providers in the space to distinguish themselves to people in need.
Up until now, the sorts of companies that would mail FDA-approved medications like mifepristone to folks looking for a safe, at-home abortions weren’t allowed to label themselves as “abortion providers,” when advertising in Google search. On Wednesday, the company amended those policies to let mail-order abortion providers know that they, too, can apply for the “provides abortion” label that searchers see on ads for abortion-related businesses. The label may help to flag them as legitimate sources of abortion care rather than “crisis pregnancy centres” digitally disguised in search results to seem like an abortion clinic but ultimately dissuade abortion seekers from obtaining the medication.
“Going forward, advertisers promoting medication abortions or abortion pills but who do not dispense them to customers at their own facilities will also be qualified to receive the ‘Provides abortion’ disclosure,” Google said. Because yeah, they do.
The entire country saw a surge in Google searches for these sorts of services following the leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court in May, researchers found that the more restrictive states had the highest search volumes: Nebraska at the top, followed by Iowa and Missouri. For people in more restrictive states, medication-by-mail is the only option they have.
These advertisers will need to go through the company’s certification process for online pharmacies — which it first rolled out during the telemedicine boom at the start of the pandemic — in order to qualify for the label, the company added. And at least for now, this option is only available for marketers based in the U.S.
And from the looks of things, some of these companies, like the abortion pill startup Hey Jane, are already bearing the label on their ads. This ad was at the top of this reporter’s Google search for “abortion delivery in my area:”
Some quick context: in 2019, Google came under fire from the pro-abortion rights community when the Guardian revealed it had donated $US150,000 ($208,230) in ad credits to anti-abortion organisations looking to target vulnerable people across Search. In fact, the company had faced criticism for a bit before that, too, after reports from Gizmodo and others found that Google searches and map results for, say, an abortion clinic, would surface results sponsored by deceptive, anti-abortion orgs instead.
Google didn’t stop taking ad dollars from anti-choice orgs following these reports (in fact, they claim the tech giant is still doling grant money their way). Instead, the company introduced a new set of rules for advertisers based out of the U.S., U.K., and Ireland looking to run ads against abortion-related keywords: pro-life and pro-choice advertisers alike would both need to go through a certification process, Google said. Following that certification, their ads would get slapped with a label clarifying that they do or don’t provide abortions.
At a glance, these labels are an easy way for a searcher to suss out whether a result is legit. And while the companies offering medicated abortions by mail are, indeed, legit — they’ve had the FDA’s blessing since last December — they were still forced to advertise on Google with the caveat that they do not provide abortions, which Google was defining as an on-premises procedure, whether via medication or surgery.
Google’s abortion-provider labels might be a flimsy excuse for the company to keep pocketing ad dollars from both sides of the abortion debate. But they still matter, especially when you’re scared, alone, and desperately scrolling through your search results. At least now these searches will be a bit more straightforward.