Beware Google Ads for ‘Abortion Consultations’
Imagine you’re pregnant, and you don’t want to be. You type “abortion pittsburgh” into Google, and the first result is the Pittsburgh Women’s Clinic, offering “free abortion consultations.” “Only you know what’s best for you,” the Google ad reads. “Same-day appointments available. Call now!” You click and come face-to-face with a photo of a smiling woman with a stethoscope. “Looking for an abortion?” she asks in 65-point font. But you won’t get one from her or from the Pittsburgh Women’s Clinic. No clinic with that precise name exists.
The site is a landing page for a network of 41 pregnancy centers seeking to deter women from getting abortions. These centers, located in what they say are America’s “most abortion-dense cities,” are affiliated with or owned by Human Coalition—formerly Online for Life, sometimes going by the name Media Revolution Ministries—a Texas-based nonprofit that reaches “abortion-determined women” via ad campaigns shaped by search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). If you call the number on the landing page or initiate an online chat, you’re connected with Human Coalition’s national call center and, eventually, a nearby pregnancy center. The Google ad showed up because you were within 15 miles of one.
In Pittsburgh, 30 percent to 40 percent of women who got abortions last year first spoke to a representative “working to rescue the child and the mother,” says Human Coalition co-founder Brian Fisher, based on his own data and numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Operators tell callers the centers don’t provide or refer for abortion, Fisher says. Nationwide, 1 in 3 women who connect with a Human Coalition representative visit one of the group’s pregnancy centers. “The technology backbone undergirds it all,” he says.
The U.S. has more than 3,000 pregnancy centers explicitly steering women away from abortions, compared with only 1,671 facilities that perform the procedure. Pregnancy centers are typically 501(c)(3) nonprofits backed by religious donors, though nine state governments also subsidize them. Human Coalition has been funded in large part by Farris Wilks, the Texas fracking billionaire and evangelical pastor, whose $2.2 million donation in 2012 increased the organization’s revenue 30-fold, according to IRS disclosures.
Targeting ads with SEO and SEM is becoming standard practice for pregnancy centers, overseen by umbrella groups such as Human Coalition, Heartbeat International, and Care Net. Several rally support and solicit donations through apps, pinging users to pray when a woman visits a center and, later, updating them on her decision. A chain of centers in California is testing telemedicine. Another chain has geofenced abortion clinics, meaning it has paid to show ads on the smartphones of people in waiting rooms.
“These centers are bullies,” says Amy Everitt, state director of Naral Pro-Choice America for California. “They’re sanitizing their image, but the goals and tactics are the same.” Her group has published reports documenting undercover investigators at pregnancy centers being routinely given false medical information and shamed for seeking abortions.
Pregnancy centers using SEO and SEM buy Google ads for keywords and phrases including “abortion” and “abortion clinic.” Like the Pittsburgh network, many don’t immediately make clear what they’re advertising. “The more ‘pro-life’ we are in our marketing, the more we drive away those who need us,” reads a post on Pregnancy Help News, a website for which Heartbeat International acts as the publisher. “If Jesus blurted out, ‘I am the Christ!,’ [nonbelievers] would have likely run.”
Everitt says this tactic amounts to false advertising and that her group works with Google Inc. to flag misleading search results, which violate the company’s ad policies, for removal. Pregnancy centers say their ads aren’t inherently misleading. “A lot of people search for abortion information,” says Human Coalition’s Fisher. “It doesn’t mean they want an abortion.”
Sometimes, though, pregnancy centers say they’ve gone too far. Allison Poosawtsee, digital marketing director for the 100-location nonprofit Bethany Christian Services, says her organization, which also provides adoption services, has stopped targeting ads to women inside abortion clinics, a practice that prompted public outcry. “We didn’t feel right about it,” she says, because women seeing the ads had likely made up their minds. Bethany’s geofencing campaign, which ran for three months in 2015, generated 16,652 sessions on the organization’s landing page, impregnant.org.
Baltimore, New York, and San Francisco have passed ordinances requiring centers to disclose that they don’t provide or refer for abortion, and Oakland, Calif., levies fines if ads imply they do. Naral helped draft a 2015 California law that requires centers to refer. (This compares with more than 1,000 restrictions on abortion clinics across the U.S., 30 percent passed in the past seven years.) The California rules have withstood court challenges, but lawyers for centers fighting the statewide law say they plan to appeal to the Supreme Court as early as this fall.
Pregnancy centers say they’re expanding beyond counseling and ultrasounds with an eye to supplanting Planned Parenthood. Some offer parenting classes and financial assistance. Obria Medical Clinics, the California chain testing a telemedicine app at its six centers, delivered primary-care services to about 4,000 patients last year. “We’ll provide an alternative,” says Obria founder Kathleen Eaton Bravo, who regrets getting an abortion decades ago. “I started this organization not to take away options, but to provide them.” Her centers offer testing for sexually transmitted diseases but no forms of contraception.
The stakes of confusing one kind of facility for the other can be high for pregnant women, whose options for terminating a pregnancy become fewer and costlier over time. Molly Spadt, 30, of Lincoln, Neb., once visited an Omaha pregnancy center she mistook for an abortion clinic. The billboard and radio ads she saw didn’t disclose its religious affiliation, and she only figured it out after a sonogram. “The words ‘choice’ and ‘options’ were what made me feel comfortable,” she says. “It’s incredibly deceptive.”
The bottom line: America’s 3,000 pregnancy centers are adopting online and mobile ad tactics to draw women away from abortion providers.