MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — NARAL Pro-Choice America recently made a striking claim: "We’ve gotten Google to take down deceptive ads from anti-choice crisis-pregnancy centers!" read an online alert to supporters and the media.
"Google’s leadership in removing the majority of these ads is a victory for truth in advertising and for the women who have been targeted by a deliberate misinformation campaign by crisis-pregnancy centers," said NARAL’s president, Ilyse Hogue, in an April 28 statement.
The abortion-rights group asserted that the crisis-pregnancy centers’ (CPCs) use of keywords, like "abortion clinic," violated Google’s policy barring false advertising and that "more than two-thirds of the ads we identified have been removed or taken down."
Headlines on The Washington Post website and other media outlets echoed Hogue’s claims. "Google Removes ‘Deceptive’ Pregnancy-Center Ads," reported the Post, while other news outlets announced that Google had imposed a ban on CPC ads, at the behest of NARAL.
However, just two days after NARAL issued its online alert, a search on Google yielded a plethora of CPC ads, and Google itself has not backed up NARAL’s suggestion of a broad policy shift that would bar most CPC ads.
For now, pro-life leaders will continue to evaluate the impact of NARAL’s work, but they have begun to question whether the abortion-rights group exaggerated the outcome of its campaign with the goal of energizing its base and further stigmatizing the CPCs, a longtime target of Planned Parenthood.
Further, whatever the practical outcome of NARAL’s campaign against CPC ads, headlines underscored the new realities and fresh opportunities of conducting pro-life outreach in the digital age — especially when many powerful corporations, like Google, are often more sympathetic to abortion rights.
For now, Google has portrayed its decision to drop an undisclosed number of CPC ads as a limited effort to enforce its policy that requires accurate advertising on its site and not as an attempt to take sides on a contentious political issue.
"We’re constantly reviewing ads to ensure they comply with our AdWords policies, which include strict guidelines related to ad relevance, clarity and accuracy. If we find violations, we’ll take the appropriate actions — including account disablings and blacklists — as quickly as possible," a Google spokesman said in an emailed statement.
NARAL’s Concerted Effort
One source at Google, who agreed to speak without attribution, alleged that NARAL had pushed for a broader response to address CPC ads it viewed as misleading. The Google source did not outline NARAL’s additional concerns, but the organization’s online alert stated, "NARAL Pro-Choice America’s own investigations have found that CPCs lie to women about abortion causing an increased risk of breast cancer, future fertility problems and psychological trauma ... in order to convince them to carry their pregnancies to term."
NARAL did not respond to a request for comment.
Margaret Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International, an affiliation organization that links needy women and families to 1,100 U.S. pregnancy health centers, maternity homes and nonprofit adoption agencies, told the Register that when she first heard the news about Google’s decision to drop CPC ads, she emailed network members to assess the damage, but only a few reported any problems.
"The handful of cases where directors reported … that their ads were pulled turned out to be incorrect," Hartshorn said on April 30.
Heartbeat trains CPC staffers in "keyword advertising" on Google and other search engines. And Hartshorn learned that these clinics had "gotten the message from Google that their ad had to be reviewed," an apparently routine but easily resolved process for ads involving abortion.
"These centers got the message that their ad needed to be reviewed, and they did not give permission for the review and thought the ad was pulled," she said, when, in fact, the ads were only delayed pending the review. Once the ad passes review, it can be reinstated.
For now, Hartshorn remains skeptical about NARAL’s claim that it triggered a broad crackdown on CPC ads on Google.
Instead, she views NARAL’s allegations "as simply one more in a long line of attacks that Planned Parenthood has launched on CPCs since the ’80s."
"Planned Parenthood has not been successful using legislation to close centers down at the state and local level. So they are trying to use the media to attack the CPCs," she argued.
Hartshorn saw NARAL’s efforts to influence Google’s policy as a sign that the CPCs pose a threat to the services and information provided by the abortion-rights movement. And she suggested that pro-life organizations can benefit from advertising on Google.
"We do a lot of keyword advertising with Google and have done so successfully," she said.
"Google reviews ads constantly. It does not accept deceptive ads, and we are in agreement with that."
However, pro-life organizations like Heartbeat International must still accommodate Google’s "abortion policy," which places limitations on ads related to abortion.
"Google AdWords doesn’t allow ads related to abortion that use violent language or gruesome imagery. In certain countries, we allow ads for abortion or related services," reads one section of Google’s policy, which identifies the phrase "abortion is murder" as violent language.
"Ads for abortion or related services won’t show on partner websites who don’t accept this type of content or in countries where this content isn’t allowed. Please see the country-specific section below for further details," state the guidelines, which note that specific keywords are barred in some countries.
There are two ways to advertise with Google AdWords: on the company’s Search Network and on what it calls the Google Display Network. The Search Network is the familiar Google.com, and ads that accompany that search show up on the Search Network. The Google Display Network is everywhere else their ads show up, like on YouTube, blogs and phone apps. Google’s abortion policy bars the placement of specific ads on the Display Network.
The Definition of ‘Offensive’
Katie Short, the legal director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, raised questions about the search engine’s policy and argued that "pro-lifers should resist efforts like this to have agreed-upon labels of what is ‘offensive’ when it comes to anti-abortion speech, because that label will become broader and broader."
"If tomorrow everyone in the pro-life movement were to restrict themselves to saying ‘Abortion Hurts Women,’ in no time at all, there would be protests that this statement, too, is offensive," she contended, noting that San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors condemned the use of such language on banners marking the 2014 Walk for Life in the city.
Chastidy Ronan, the executive director of Alpha Pregnancy Center in San Francisco, raised a different issue with Google’s policy on abortion during an interview with the Register.
The Alpha Pregnancy Center has never paid for ads on Google, but Ronan said the center applied for a grant through a Google program that assists nonprofits with their advertising goals and was rejected.
"They said our mission statement was not in line with Google’s values. That was the only reason they gave us," she reported.
"We don’t explicitly say that we oppose abortion. We do offer information for all three options [abortion, adoption and keeping one’s child], and we explain the most common abortion procedures and their impact on women," she said. "But we do whatever we can to support women to make a life-affirming choice, like providing supplies for raising a child and help looking for a job and becoming great parents."
The Register requested further comment from Google but has not received a response.
For now, CPCs will continue to draw women to their programs by optimizing the search process. And CPC leaders like Joe Young, vice president of operations and strategic initiatives for Heroic Media, which works to connect pregnant women with support and resources, have called on Google to maintain a policy of neutrality that protects the rights of all activists in the policy debate and in the trenches.
Said Young, "We encourage Google to remain neutral in its stance on this issue by applying the same standards to crisis-pregnancy centers’ advertising as every other industry or organization, including abortion providers."