Women seeking abortion advice online are being directed to pregnancy counseling services run by anti-abortion activists, a Observer research has found.
Google ads that are designed to look like real search results and appear above genuine listings are routinely shown to people searching for key terms related to pregnancy and abortion.
In an analysis this month, 117 of the 251 ads shown by Google UK to a user searching for 40 key phrases, including “NHS abortion advice”, “confidential abortion support” and “help for pregnant teens”, they were from groups that oppose abortion.
The findings reveal the marketing efforts of anti-abortion groups in the UK and have raised concerns that women could be exposed to biased information when seeking medical advice. A sexual health charity described the advertising as “clearly immoral”.
The ads in the analysis, which were offered to a woman in her 20s in London in early February, contain a small label marking them as advertising, but resemble actual search results and appear above reputable information sources, including the NHS website. In some cases, they promote counseling services that claim to offer unbiased support but do not clearly express the anti-abortion views of the people behind them.
One of the top advertisers was Pregnancy Crisis Helpline, whose ads appeared after searching for 14 of the 40 phrases analyzed in the analysis. They included one that read: “Considering an abortion? Talk to someone,” and it came up after searches for “buy abortion pills” and “help for pregnant teens.”
People who clicked on the links were directed to the helpline’s website, which it says is a “safe and confidential place” that offers “support to women struggling with an unplanned pregnancy.”
But while it says it “does not refer to abortions”, it also does not offer information on the anti-abortion views of its organizers and presents itself as an impartial service that offers support “away from all pressures”.
In reality, the helpline was launched in conjunction with Christian Concern, a right-wing evangelical organization that wants abortion banned. Helpline trustees include Regan King, pastor of Angel Church in Islington, London, who described abortion as “Disgusting. severe disturber. Awful. Horrifying. shocking horrible. She vile” and compared it to “the new slave trade”. Another trustee is Christian Clive Copus, former head of the anti-abortion campaign group Prolife Alliance.
The helpline recently reported an increase in the number of people contacting it, saying it had 2,000 clients in 2022 compared to 500 in 2021.
Other Google ads directed women to a counseling service run by the anti-abortion charity Life. One said: “We provide a safe space for you to explore your feelings away from outside pressures. Discuss your options in confidence.”
Google said that ads flagged by the Observer complied with its rules, noting that they contain a bold-type “ad” label and a line indicating that the services they promote do not provide abortions.
But Lisa Hallgarten, head of policy at youth sexual health charity Brook, described the marketing approach as “blatantly immoral” and said ads provided to those searching for terms like “NHS abortion advice” could delay the women’s access to health care.
“We are genuinely concerned that people seeking unbiased support are being directed to organizations and websites where they might experience the complete opposite,” he said. Pam Lowe, an expert on anti-abortion activism, said: “Anyone who Googles ‘NHS abortion’ should see a link to the NHS website as the first result. There is a risk that people end up with biased information.”
Labor MP Stella Creasy, who has campaigned on access to reproductive health care, urged the government to force tech companies to remove potentially harmful listings. She said there was a difference between allowing free speech and “seeking to mislead vulnerable readers who need to be sure that what they are reading is medically correct and unbiased.”
The Crisis Pregnancy Helpline said it stated on its website that it did not offer medical advice or “refer for an abortion.”
“If a client requests medical advice, we refer it to their GP, 111 or A&E as appropriate,” said Toby Cosh, chairman of the trustees. He added that while the helpline was set up with the support of Christian Concern, it had operated independently since 2018 and was a UK registered charity.
Kerry Smart, CEO of Life, said: “Our person-centered online pregnancy listening service was inspired by Samaritans and is non-coercive and non-judgmental.”
It added that people using Life’s “listening services” were told they were not referring to abortion or providing information about abortion providers, and that the charity complied with the ethical guidelines of the British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy. “If clients want to explore medical issues, we inform, not advise, using information from the NHS in specialist listening sessions,” she said. “We agree that attempts to mislead or provide false information are wrong.”
Other ads appearing in UK Google searches related to pregnancy and abortion come from regulated abortion providers, including MSI Reproductive Choices and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
They appeared alongside ads placed by anti-abortion charities in the UK and US that do not offer counseling services and instead direct people to websites on the ethics of abortion. he Observer understand that they don’t always pay for their ads due to a Google scheme that means organizations with charitable status can receive free ad credits.
Google said: “We know that people come to Google for information they can trust, and we have invested heavily in providing a secure and transparent experience.
“When it comes to abortion-related ads, we require an extra level of transparency so that people looking for abortion-related resources know what services an advertiser actually provides. Any organization that wants to address abortion-related inquiries must complete our certification process and clearly disclose whether or not they offer abortions.”