color image of an outdoor protest where people stand obscured under rainbow umbrellas and carry a large banner in rainbow letters that reads "your body your choice"
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 04: Abortion rights activists confront anti-abortion supporters who protest at the Planned Parenthood clinic on March 4, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, access to abortion information online has become critical for people living in states with restrictive access to reproductive care—but some lawmakers and major tech companies are taking steps to make those resources more challenging to find. 

In Texas, state Rep. Steve Toth has introduced a bill that would prevent people from reading about abortion access online. The bill would require internet service providers to block internet access or any information “intended to assist or facilitate efforts to obtain an elective abortion or an abortion-inducing drug.” It would also bring civil lawsuits to those who run abortion pill information sites.

People in Texas, where abortion is banned, are more likely to seek this information online. A 2020 study found that people who live in states with restrictive access to abortion are more likely to rely on the internet to find information. While search results may seem impartial, the findings from Googling a phrase as innocuous as “abortion near me” are double-edged. 

A Tech Transparency Project (TTP) investigation released in February found that Google is helping target anti-abortion center (AAC) advertising to low-income people of reproductive age in select major cities. These centers, also called crisis pregnancy centers, are non-medical facilities that aim to dissuade people from receiving an abortion through counseling, fearmongering messages about abortion and sex, surveilling clients, and providing disinformation.  

In the investigation, TTP registered test user Google accounts to women born after 1992 in Miami, Phoenix, and Atlanta. Researchers applied different household incomes to three registered accounts for each city, ranging from average or lower income, moderately high income, and high income. TTP then ran 15 abortion-related searches from each account from a clean version of a Google Chrome browser, recording each ad appearing on the first five pages of results. 

In Phoenix and Atlanta, Google showed AAC ads at a higher rate for those on the lower end of the income scale. The first ad after searching for “abortion clinic near me” in Phoenix from the average-to-lower income account is an AAC, with text that reads “Abortion? Get Confidential Info & Help from the Women’s Clinic. 100% Free.”

In Miami, the opposite was true—higher-income individuals were more likely to receive targeted ads, which the report speculates is a result of AACs targeting lower-income individuals in states with more restrictive limits on abortion. Florida bans abortion after 15 weeks and six days, and Arizona bans abortion after 15 weeks, with a law that would completely ban abortion currently being challenged in court. Georgia bans abortion after about six weeks, and the state allocates funding to 89 anti-abortion centers through taxpayer-funded grants. 

Google changed its advertising policy to ensure that AAC ads offer a label indicating whether a facility offers abortion to help people differentiate between an AAC and an abortion clinic. But another TTP report found that Google is violating its policy on misrepresentation and the labeling is not universally applied. 

“Google has a long history of allowing anti-abortion clinics to use its advertising tools, often in deceptive ways,” said TTP Director Katie Paul. Paul noted that Google previously gave $150,000 in free ads to a network of AACs. 

Why lower-income individuals are a target 

Often, AACs tout free services such as pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and diapers. But these services often come with a cost: attending biased and Christ-centered “Earn While You Learn” counseling in exchange for goods. 

“This promise of free services and, in some cases, free parenting items, can overshadow any potential red flags on anti-abortion fake clinic sites,” Kara Mailman, the chief research analyst at Reproaction. “When your options are extremely limited, you may feel like you have to accept whatever help you can get even if it’s not exactly what you want.”

Due to a lack of societal support for pregnant people, “lower-income people are being placed in a position where they may feel the ‘help’ of fake clinics is their only option,” Mailman said. 

AAC advertising in states with restrictions carries the ulterior motive of delaying someone from accessing abortion care past the restriction window in their state, sometimes by lying about how far along a pregnancy is based on an ultrasound. 

“Since low-income individuals may not have the resources to travel out of state if they pass their home state’s restrictive abortion deadline, they are more vulnerable targets for anti-abortion center delay tactics,” Paul said. 

Like Google, social media often serves as a lifeline for finding information on abortion. Those who provide critical abortion information on social media face obstacles around censorship, such as shadowbanning. Abortion pill information site Plan C recently encountered shadowbanning on Instagram, where their account was hidden from search results. According to the site’s Instagram post, anti-abortion and fake Plan C accounts are showing first, further leading users to disinformation. 

Ensuring online accuracy 

One platform committed to ensuring people receive accurate online information is the abortion subreddit. Doctoral student Ariella Messing, who founded Online Abortion Resource Squad, a team of volunteers that runs r/abortion, said that the platform sees around 800,000 visits each month, with spikes in activity accompanying policy changes or expected policy changes. 

“The abortion subreddit is a critical resource for people most impacted by restrictive laws and barriers to access. Their stories demonstrate how compounded forms of oppression manifest in unmet needs for support and information,” Messing said.  

Moderators on r/abortion emphasize that AACs are not run by medical professionals and cannot be trusted. 

“Many members of the r/abortion community are young, facing financial barriers to abortion care, living in restrictive jurisdictions, and self-managing their abortions with pills accessed online,” Messing said. 

Confusion about where to access care is a prevalent theme. 

“We’ve been noticing a lot of people in ban states who are unaware that there is no abortion access in their state of residence and others in legal states thinking abortion is banned,” Messing said. According to recent polling from KFF, about half of adults in the U.S. don’t know whether medication abortion is legal in their state. 

Messing detailed that the nature of posts on r/abortion is shifting alongside a changing landscape, with more people expressing fear of prosecution. 

“Fear is permeating posts; people express fears of ordering and using pills, fears of talking to medical professionals, fears of crossing state lines,” Messing said. 

Users express the support they feel from the forum, whether through reading others’ honest abortion experiences or receiving resources. Messing explained that people ask questions they are often unable or uncomfortable disclosing in other settings. 

The subreddit is staffed by volunteers round-the-clock who support users but also correct misinformation and remove harassment. 
“Post-Dobbs, online research is both more complicated and more important than ever,” Mailman said.

Xenia Ellenbogen (she/they) is a freelance reproductive rights and mental health writer. She focuses on reproductive health and justice, LGBTQIA+ issues, menstrual equity, and trauma. She has a BA in writing...