Reproductive rights: anti-abortion or anti-choice disinformation. What you need to know.
The spread of lies about reproductive healthcare to mislead and scare people seeking safe abortions is a well-known strategy of the anti-choice movement. Yet, this scaremongering tactic has found even more fertile ground following the 2022 US Supreme Court’s decision to restrict abortion rights. Confusion about the changing status of reproductive rights in the US has led people to resort to social media and search engines to find answers to their many questions. However, unregulated platforms are not always concerned whether the healthcare information amplified by their algorithms or displayed in ads is accurate and safe. Learn more about anti-abortion or anti-choice disinformation in this explainer.
What is anti-abortion or anti-choice disinformation?
Anti-abortion or anti-choice disinformation is the deliberate spread of false or misleading information about abortion with the intent to misinform people seeking accurate reproductive healthcare information, which could end up preventing them from accessing abortions and other reproductive care.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), abortion is safe “when carried out using a method recommended by WHO, appropriate to the pregnancy duration and by someone with the necessary skills.” The WHO warns that people resort to unsafe abortion when they “face barriers to obtaining quality abortion.”
Disinformation is different from misinformation. Lies about reproductive healthcare can also be spread as misinformation when false or misleading claims about abortion are shared unintentionally. In other words, when these false claims are shared by people who believe they are true.
As well as restricting access to reproductive healthcare, anti-abortion disinformation can be used to campaign for further restrictions on access to reproductive care on the basis of false claims.
Examples of anti-abortion or anti-choice disinformation
Anti-abortion disinformation can include false or inaccurate information about the physical and psychological risks of getting an abortion and its consequences. These include false or misleading claims already debunked by medical studies, such as that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer and causes permanent mental health damage. According to the American Psychological Association, research shows that people who are denied abortions are more likely to develop “higher levels of anxiety, lower life satisfaction, and lower self-esteem” compared to those who obtain abortions.
One of the main anti-abortion disinformation claims that circulate online is that abortion is not safe and can cause infertility. However, the reality is that the rate of complications with a first-trimester abortion is less than 1%. Abortion is also unlikely to affect future pregnancies.
Anti-abortion disinformation can also take the form of promoting unproven and unsafe methods to perform an abortion, like the use of herbs, or unfounded claims that medical abortions can be “reversed” using an unproven and potentially dangerous procedure sometimes called “abortion pill reversal”.
What is abortion “reversal” or “abortion pill reversal”?
The so-called abortion “reversal” or “abortion pill reversal” (APR) is an unproven and potentially unsafe procedure that aims to “reverse” the effects of medication abortion through the administration of high doses of the hormone progesterone. Unlike surgical abortion, medication abortion is a procedure that does not require surgery and uses medicine to end a pregnancy.
Experts from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have long warned that claims about so-called abortion “reversal” are “not based on science” and are based on “unproven, unethical research.” They have also condemned legislative mandates for this “reversal” as “dangerous to women’s health.”
In 2021, CCDH’s researchers showed that Facebook and Google profit from ads promoting so-called abortion “reversal” despite the fact that experts say its use is not supported by science and could be dangerous. On Facebook, these ads were seen 18.4 million times, and 75% of the ads were shown to young people between the ages of 13 and 17.
How is anti-abortion disinformation spread online?
The anti-choice movement in the US has established thousands of fake reproductive health clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, to spread misleading claims and fear about abortion care. These fake clinics appear to offer independent advice on reproductive healthcare and pose as legitimate abortion clinics, but in reality they try to shame and scare those seeking services such as abortions. Staff at fake clinics have been found to block access to comprehensive, ethical care by using deception, emotional manipulation, delay tactics, and disinformation.
To achieve their goals, fake clinics invest in digital marketing and online ads on social media and search engines. CCDH’s latest study found that fake clinics spent $10.2 million on Google Search ads over the last two years. These ads targeted search queries used by people seeking abortion information, such as “abortion clinic near me” and “abortion pill”. Further investigation showed that 71% of fake clinics’ websites advertised by Google use deceptive techniques, such as promoting misleading claims linked to abortion and failing to carry disclaimers stating they do not provide abortions.
This is not the first time Google has betrayed people in the US seeking accurate medical information and genuine healthcare. In 2022, CCDH found that 11% of Google search results for “abortion clinic near me” and “abortion pill” in US “trigger law” states lead to websites of anti-abortion fake clinics. The problem was even more acute with Google Maps: 37% of the results presented anti-choice providers as abortion clinics local to the user. “Trigger law” states were the ones where abortion was automatically banned with the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court in 2022.
What harms can anti-abortion disinformation cause?
Experts warn that anti-abortion misinformation and disinformation spread on social media and by search engines like Google can create confusion and steer people away from safe, available abortion methods and clinics. This can lead those seeking an abortion to terminate their pregnancies using unsafe and unproven methods or to resort to unregulated fake clinics, endangering their lives.
Safe abortion is also time sensitive and the spread of anti-abortion lies can delay the search for legitimate abortion options. Medication abortion can be safely performed at home for up to 12 weeks, according to the WHO.
How can we halt the spread of online anti-abortion disinformation?
- Social media platforms and search engines must act to stop the spread of anti-abortion misinformation and disinformation, ensuring their design and algorithms prioritize accurate medical information.
- Social media and search engine companies must demand transparency and honesty from fake clinics advertising on their platforms. They should also label fake clinics’ ads with “does not provide abortions” disclaimers.
- Google should prioritize genuine healthcare facilities and authoritative resources in their search results.
- Lawmakers should empower the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to prohibit misleading advertising on abortion.
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