Google removes 'deceptive' crisis pregnancy center ads from search


NARAL Pro-Choice America has been pecking at Google to remove "deceptive" advertisements placed by crisis pregnancy centers (CPC) for months.

On April 28, the abortion-rights group trumpeted victory: Google has apparently plucked from its search results more than two-thirds of ads placed by CPCs for allegedly violating its policy against "misleading, inaccurate, and deceitful ads" that "hurt everyone."

NARAL President Ilyse Hogue called the ads a "deliberate misinformation campaign" and "manipulation" targeting women who are searching online for abortion services and resources. The Washington Post reported that an analysis by NARAL discovered 79 percent of CPC ads "indicated that they provided medical services such as abortions, when, in fact, they are focused on counseling services and on providing information about alternatives to abortion." NARAL representatives did not respond to my request for an interview.

NARAL's claims make it sound like the majority of CPC ads tell bare-face lies about their services and pretend to offer abortions. Clearly, many readers who commented on the Washington Post article got that impression, too. But none of the examples of "deceptive ads" highlighted on NARAL's own website actually claims to provide abortion. One ad that popped up for the word search "abortion clinics hartford ct" had the headline "Abortion Information—Is it safe? How much does it cost?"

A word search for "abortion minnesota" displayed an ad stating, "Abortion Info for Teens: Teen abortion experiences, facts, stats, complications, survivors." Another ad condemned on NARAL's "Exposing Fake Clinics" Tumblr blog advertised "Abortion Resources" and "Free & Private Info/Ultrasounds. Determine Viability/Gestational Age."

Perhaps the ad that best meets NARAL's complaint is one from a CPC in Chicago: "Abortion Chicago Free—It's Your Choice. You May Not Need An Abortion. Free Ultrasound & Test." The ad's title might be ambiguous, but the subtext is pretty clear: It tells women they may not need an abortion, not that they can get an abortion at the CPC.

Debi Harvey, director of Open Arms Pregnancy Clinic in Northridge, Calif., said it's "very rare" that CPCs act with a lack of integrity in their advertising, literature, or counseling. All the CPCs she knows are affiliated with national organizations and "adhere to a strict standard of ethics," she said.

"It grieves me that 'pro-choice' people are so blatantly disparaging pregnancy centers," she said. "They might find one exception, or two, or three, and then they publish a full-on report on how this is what all pregnancy centers do. They paint us with a very broad brush."

NARAL and other anti-CPC groups frequently cite private investigations and official reports claiming CPCs distribute literature and quote debunked statistics on abortion risks, such as increased risk of breast cancer, future fertility problems, and psychological trauma. But the congressional committee report they wave as evidence was prepared in 2006 at the request of a Democratic representative with a long pro-abortion voting record. The report investigated only 25 out of the 2,500 pregnancy centers in the United States, of which 23 were successfully contacted and 20 were found "guilty" of "harmful and misleading" information. NARAL's own private "investigations" are hardly objective, either.

NARAL's main problem is the very existence of crisis pregnancy centers—a fact the group doesn't attempt to hide. NARAL resorts to vicious name-calling when referring to CPCs, using labels like "fake clinics" and "predators."

Brian Fisher, co-founder and president of Online for Life (whose website was not affected), said technology plays an "extremely important" role for the pro-life movement. About 2 million Internet searches in the United States involve abortion-related terms, and Google is still the most used search engine in the world by far.

"I think it's a matter of making sure people understand Google's ad policy and abide by those policies," Fisher said. "Our observation is that an overwhelming number of pro-life groups only advertise that women have options, and that they should consider those options."

The removal of certain ads does not mean Google has completely banned advertisements for CPCs. As long as CPCs rework their ads and comply with Google standards, they can appear. A spokesman for Google said the company is "constantly reviewing ads to ensure they comply with our AdWords policies, which include strict guidelines related to ad relevance, clarity, and accuracy." Google did not provide any specific examples of which ads they disabled.

Although Google is the first search engine to knuckle under to pressure from pro-abortion activists, it likely won't be the last. Hogue told The Washington Post NARAL is encouraging other search engines to follow suit. Google's main competitors are Yahoo! and Bing. Meanwhile, as part of its ongoing war against CPCs, the NARAL website provides a short quiz to "make sure you never accidentally visit" a CPC, and suggests posting negative reviews of CPCs on Yelp, a popular urban business rating and review site.

Despite all of the attention NARAL is getting over its announcement, it hasn't won a complete victory. If Google did its due diligence and got rid of false advertising, that's a win for everybody. A search with abortion-related terms on Google still shows some ads for CPCs. It's not clear how many might have been removed.

Harvey said whenever things heat up for the pro-choice side, things heat up too for the pro-life side. "Ultimately, we're affecting the bottom line dollars of the abortion industry," she said. "So it's a good sign, it's just, it's so sad to see this because I know our heart is in here to serve women and men through love, grace, truth and integrity. Anybody who is really pro-women could not object to what we do."