Internet searches for abortion drugs hit an all-time high in the days after a leaked draft opinion showing the US Supreme Court was set to overturn Roe v Wade – a decision that the court finalized last week.
The increase in Google search volume – 162% more than might have been expected – was particularly pronounced in states hostile to abortion, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine – a trend that , according to the authors, showed how important online engagement is as states move quickly to restrict or ban abortion.
“People aren’t going to talk about it openly and publicly,” said John Ayers, adjunct associate professor in the division of infectious diseases and global public health at the University of California, San Diego and author of the study. .
“If we turn to internet searches, we can tell what they’re thinking based on the timing and content of their query,” Ayers said, adding that searches are often predictive of behavior.
The new search analyzed searches for the terms “abortion pill” or specific drugs, such as mifepristone (or the brand name Mifeprix) and misoprostol (or Cytotec), originating in the United States and specific states from January 2004 to May 2022.
“Now that we know what people are searching for, how do we move that search around?” Ayers said. “What are we doing to respond to these hundreds of thousands, and over the weeks and months, millions of women – to meet their needs?
Ayers said search engines should consider creating specialized disclaimers or boxes for abortion drugs the same way they do for other topics prone to harmful information – like Covid-19 or suicide. . This could help prevent people from undertaking potentially dangerous self-directed abortions.
The study closely follows a seismic ruling by the United States Supreme Court, in which the conservative supermajority overturned the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v Wade and found there was no constitutional right to ‘abortion.
The decision left states free to regulate the procedure as they see fit. This led eight states to immediately and almost completely ban abortion, including several with no exceptions for rape and incest. Experts predict that up to 26 states in total are certain or likely to seek to ban abortion.
Ayers said the recent court ruling and upcoming news about states banning abortion — changes likely to take place over the coming weeks and months — will likely increase search traffic. He said public health experts should see this as an opportunity and push for evidence-based information to appear in search results.
“The need has always been with us, people have always been looking for it, and there will be episodic increases in demand,” Ayers said. The previous spike in internet searches for abortion drugs was in September 2021, when Texas succeeded in banning abortion at six weeks.
Tech companies have quickly become the focus of the abortion debate as policies rapidly shift across the United States.
Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta, have come under fire for deleting posts offering to mail abortion drugs to women in states where abortion is illegal.
Privacy advocates have warned that internet searches and other mobile phone data could be used against women by overzealous police and prosecutors. Additionally, users of period-tracking apps have started removing software as some fear the data will be used against them.
Additionally, Google has been heavily criticized in the past for the way it regulates abortion searches. Often, searches for nearby abortion clinics have yielded results with pregnancy centers in crisis, which oppose abortion, and advertise online in a way that some advocates and women have called of misleading.