As a women traveling to new places, be it meeting a friend at a new restaurant, or trying to find my dentist's office, I have started to rely unquestioningly on the maps in my phone. Yet this week while talking to our friends at Damn Joan, I found out about their investigation (in partnership with Gizmodo), which involves something pretty disturbing about the results of some very specific Google Map searches.
When women ask the search engine for "where can I get an abortion near me," in places like Jackson, Mississippi, it brings up a Google map with eight different pins, all located within 10 miles of your location. You think you have options and choices. Yet Gizmodo has found "It's once you click on the map itself and see the list—including their names, distances from you, and customer reviews—that you learn that your real choices are far, far fewer. Your first result is Birthright of Jackson, a local crisis pregnancy center [CPC] that doesn’t do terminations. The third result is Center for Pregnancy Choices, which is the same story. The fourth result is CPC Fondren, yet another crisis pregnancy center. The fifth is Dr. Beverly McMillan, a former abortion provider turned anti-abortion activist, and whose late husband was a frequent protester on the sidewalks in front Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the only actual place in the listings (or in the state itself) where a person can actually obtain a legal abortion."
In 2014, NARAL Pro-Choice successfully lobbied Google to stop selling the ad results to these heavily funded, often religious pro-life institutions; after according to the organization’s research, using the search engine to seek out an abortion directed users to the pro-life facilities 79% of the time.
Yet Google is still very much the Wild West when it comes to giving women the answer they were looking for. As Pro Life groups have now turned to Google Maps, a non-profit listing can be created on the app by anyone, with mostly unmonitored and unlimited user intervention.
With vague designations like “Women’s Health Centers” and “Health Clinics,” it can prove difficult to distinguish what services each facility truly offers. This means that many women are being directed to “Abortion Advice,” or offered “Free Pre-Termination appointments,” which implies that either such places offer abortions, or at least can refer women for legal abortion care, which is not the case at all.
While Gizmodo looked into what was happening from a technical standpoint, Damn Joan shared the very real and very human experience of what it is like to visit a crisis pregnancy center.
At a time where the ethics of fake news, bots, dopamine addictions fuelled by "likes," and teen mental health are all at the forefront of conversations for the tech world, you'd think that literally sending women in a different direction on the abortion issue would be something that Google would make sure stayed strictly partisan.
I for one will be less naively lead up the garden path - or down the highway in the future (in my self-driving car) - as the internet grows, as does the need for regulation both in the industry but also by women ourselves. If we come together, we can create safe and trusted spaces for real information.