Internet searches for abortion medication hit an all-time high in the days after a leaked draft opinion showed the US supreme court was on the verge of overturning Roe v Wade – a decision the court finalized last week.
Increased Google search volume – 162% more than would have been expected – was especially pronounced in states hostile to abortion, according to a study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine – a trend the authors said showed how important engaging online is as states quickly move to restrict or ban abortion.
“People ain’t gonna talk about this out in the open and publicly,” said John Ayers, an adjunct associate professor with the division of infectious diseases and global public health at the University of California, San Diego, and an author of the study.
“If we turn to internet searches, we can know what they’re thinking based on the timing and content of their query,” said Ayers, adding that searches are often predictive of behavior.
The new research analyzed searches for the terms “abortion pill” or specific medications, such as mifepristone (or the brand name Mifeprix) and misoprostol (or Cytotec), originating in the US and specific states from January 2004 to May 2022.
“Now that we know people are searching, how do we move those searches?,” said Ayers. “What are we doing to meet those hundreds of thousands, and over the course of weeks and months, millions of women – to meet their needs?”
Ayers said search engines should consider creating specialized warnings or boxes for abortion medication in the same way they do for other topics prone to harmful information – such as Covid-19 or suicide. Doing so could help prevent people from undertaking potentially harmful self-managed abortions.
The study closely follows a seismic ruling from the US supreme court, in which the conservative supermajority overturned the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v Wade and found there is no constitutional right to abortion.
The decision left states free to regulate the procedure as they see fit. That has led eight states to banning abortion immediately and almost entirely, including several without exception for rape and incest. Experts predict as many as 26 states in total are certain or likely to seek to ban abortion.
Ayers said both the court’s recent decision and forthcoming news about states banning abortion – changes likely to take place over the coming weeks and months – will probably further drive search traffic. He said public health experts should view that as an opportunity, and push for evidence-based information to appear in search results.
“The need has always been among us, people have been searching for this historically, and there will be episodic increases in demand,” said Ayers. The previous peak in internet searches for abortion medication was in September 2021, when Texas successfully banned abortion at six weeks.
Technology companies have quickly become a focus of the abortion debate as policies change rapidly across the United States.
Facebook and Instagram, both owned by the company Meta, have been criticized for removing posts that offered to mail abortion medication to women in states where abortion is illegal.
Privacy advocates have warned internet searches and other mobile phone data could be used against women by zealous police and prosecutors. Further, users of period tracking apps have begun to delete software as some worry the data could be used against them.
Wat meer is, Google has been harshly criticized in the past for the way it has regulated searches for abortion. Often, searches for nearby abortion clinics populated results with crisis pregnancy centers, which oppose abortion, and advertise online in ways some advocates and women said was deceptive.