Democrats push Google to limit, label search results for pro-life centers ahead of abortion decision

Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers his keynote address during the Google I/O 2016 developers conference in Mountain View, California, U.S., May 18, 2016. | REUTERS/Stephen Lam

A group of Democratic U.S. senators is urging Google CEO Sundar Pichai to take action after a report from a left-wing activist group found Google may be directing users who search for abortion services toward pro-life pregnancy centers. 

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va. and Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. led colleagues in a letter to Pichai, CEO of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google, citing research by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which the letter described as "a U.S.-based nonprofit that fights online hate and misinformation."

According to the June 17 letter, the CCDH report found that 37% of Google Maps results and 11% of Google search results for "abortion clinic near me" and "abortion pill" were for anti-abortion clinics in "trigger law" states, where laws would effectively ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Such a ruling may come down as early as this week.

The CCDH report also found about 28% of Google ads displayed at the top of search results were for pro-life, "anti-abortion" clinics. 

After citing criticism leveled at Google in 2019 over a now-updated policy that allowed abortion-related ads from abortion providers and "non-providers" without clarifying information, lawmakers acknowledged Google already provides a disclaimer for such ads. 

But because non-sponsored Google search results do not require such disclaimers, the letter warns the "prevalence of these misleading ads marks what appears to be a concerning reversal from Google's pledge in 2014 to take down ads from crisis pregnancy centers that engage in overt deception of women seeking out abortion information online."

That pledge came in response to a report from the activist group NARAL Pro-Choice America (NARAL), formerly the National Abortion Rights Action League, which stated that nearly 80% of paid ads for crisis pregnancy centers on Google deceptively advertised "medical services such as abortions."

"Directing women towards fake clinics that traffic in misinformation and don't provide comprehensive health services is dangerous to women's health and undermines the integrity of Google's search results," lawmakers wrote. "Google should not be displaying anti-abortion fake clinics or crisis pregnancy centers in search results for users that are searching for an 'abortion clinic' or 'abortion pill.'" 

"If Google must continue showing these misleading results in search results and Google Maps, the results should, at the very least, be appropriately labeled."

Pro-life pregnancy centers provide material support for women seeking to carry their babies to term as an alternative to abortion clinics and provide counseling to women unsure about abortion. Pro-life activists have long pushed back on claims by abortion advocates that pro-life pregnancy centers are misleading or "fake" clinics. 

"For years NARAL Pro-Choice America has tried to shut down alternatives to abortion by falsely branding (state certified) pregnancy medical clinics as 'fake clinics' and as an 'insidious threat to reproductive freedom,'" Ryan Bomberger, the founder of the Radiance Foundation, wrote in a recent op-ed.  

"In 2019, pregnancy help centers and medical clinics distributed 1.3 million diapers, 2 million baby outfits, 50,000 car seats and strollers, and hundreds of thousands of other items of material support. They provided 291,000 clients with parenting classes. All for free. Planned Parenthood reported providing zero of these items or services. That's not 'pro-choice.'"

The senators' letter — which was also signed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and others — urged Pichai to provide plans on how to limit anti-abortion clinics "in Google search results, ads, and Maps" and add disclaimers to indicate whether a search result provides abortion services.

Pichai was also asked to provide information on "Google's attempts to provide accurate search results pertaining to health care."

The senators' letter comes at a time when there has been a drastic increase in vandalism and attacks, including firebombings, against pro-life pregnancy centers across the nation. The attacks follow the unprecedented leaking of a draft Supreme Court majority opinion suggesting the high court could soon overturn a 1973 ruling that made abortion a national right. 

A group of 16 Republican U.S. senators, led by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., signed a letter sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking for the Justice Department to act in response to the vandalism of pro-life pregnancy centers. 

A group of pro-life leaders has called on the department to investigate Jane's Revenge, a group that has claimed responsibility for multiple recent acts of vandalism and arson, and other violent actors. The group has published statements threatening the safety of pro-life activists and pregnancy centers.

The conservative watchdog Media Research Center warns that the CCDH aims to censor organizations that it disagrees with politically and is led by an activist who wrote a book on defeating conservative ideas. 

While CCDC's website says the organization is "funded by philanthropic trusts and members of the public," CCDH has reportedly received at least $100,000 in funding from the Geneva-based Oak Foundation, according to data cited last year by MRC. The foundation has also given funds to support global infrastructure initiatives backed by the Chinese government. 

A screenshot of Foundation Directory Online data provided by MRC showed the grant was intended to support CCDH in "shining a spotlight on digital misinformation platforms that are polluting the public discourse on issues such as climate action, women's rights, and racial equality." 

According to its website, Oak Foundation gave nearly $339 million during the 2021 calendar year, including program and special initiative grants to more than 400 organizations based in over 40 countries.

In 2018, the Oak Foundation reportedly donated $1 million to an organization called the ClimateWorks Foundation, "to support the greening of the Belt and Road Initiative."

The Belt and Road initiative, inaugurated in 2013 by Chinese President and Communist Party chair Xi Jinping, is a Chinese global infrastructure project aimed at linking the country with the rest of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific region.

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