On Monday, Google started to take down ads from crisis pregnancy centers that engage in overt deception of women seeking out abortion information online. Crisis pregnancy centers are anti-abortion centers that often masquerade as women’s health clinics; they exist to disseminate anti-choice propaganda to dissuade women from abortion and contraception. According to the Washington Post, Google’s decision was made after NARAL Pro-Choice America created a report for Google that showed that a full 79 percent of the paid ads for crisis pregnancy centers that pop up on Google deceitfully “indicated that they provided medical services such as abortions” when they simply did not.
Crisis pregnancy centers know that women who want abortions are likely to go to Google first to figure out next steps, and the hope is that these ads will trick women into thinking that they can get abortions at the advertised locations. Google’s ad policy states that, “All advertising claims must be factually supportable,” so this little bit of subterfuge is simply not allowed. Obviously, any glance at the claims made in sidebar advertising for beauty products or health supplements shows that a lot of companies slip through with deceptive claims, but considering the seriousness of this issue, insisting on truth in advertising seems extra important.
While it’s usually pretty clear once you start an appointment at a crisis pregnancy center that they are not going to give you your abortion, it’s a major problem using lies to get women in the door in the first place. As the Crisis Project has shown with its undercover videos of activists posing as women seeking information about reproductive health care, these centers employ the same tactics used by multilevel marketers and time-share salesmen: Get people in with promises of easy money or free vacations, and then make it nearly impossible for them to escape politely without agreeing to buy what you’re selling. Except, in this case, the promise that they attempt to extract is for the woman to have the baby.
No one disputes the right of crisis pregnancy centers to try to persuade women to avoid abortion or contraception. The issue here is whether they should be transparent in their goals. A number of cities, including New York City, have passed laws requiring crisis pregnancy centers to have signs indicating whether they have medical staff at all and if they provide referrals for abortion, contraception, or prenatal services. These disclosure laws haven’t fared well in courts. A federal appeals court has found that New York City can at least require crisis pregnancy centers to disclose whether a licensed medical provider works on site, but by and large, the First Amendment right to lie has been protected, since these centers don’t charge for their services and fall outside of the realm of being subject to consumer protection laws.
But just because the law can’t do much about this deceitful behavior doesn’t mean that private corporations such as Google are hamstrung. Google’s decision is a small step toward beating back the deceitful tactics of crisis pregnancy centers, but hopefully it will save a lot of women the pain and humiliation of thinking they are going to get an abortion when they get lies and a guilt trip instead.