Google has given tens of thousands of dollars in free advertising to an anti-abortion group that runs ads suggesting it provides abortion services at its medical clinics, but actually seeks to deter “abortion-minded women” from terminating their pregnancies.
The Obria Group, which runs a network of clinics funded by Catholic organisations, received a $120,000 Google advertising grant in 2015, according to a public filing. In 2011, it received nearly $32,000. Such grants are designed to support and expand the reach of non-profits around the world.
Obria was awarded the 2015 grant despite the fact Google had faced intense criticism a year earlier, after a pro-choice group found the platform was running deceptive ads for clinics that appeared to offer abortions and other medical services, but instead focused on counseling and information on alternatives to abortion.
In some cases, such clinics, known as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), are located close to Planned Parenthood clinics and provide some medical treatment, such as pregnancy tests, ultrasounds and prenatal counseling. But they also seek to deter women who enter from seeking abortions and do not offer referrals for alternative treatment.
Google should not allow CPCs to use its platform to serve misinformation to pregnant womenAlice Huling, Campaign for Accountability
Obria runs a network of clinics across the US, many of which suggest on their websites that they offer abortion. The clinics are actually opposed to abortion and all forms of contraception.
Obria’s use of Google grants underscores how Google has become a vital marketing tool for such organisations. A group called Choose Life Marketing, which helps CPCs market their services, encourages its clients to apply for Google grants.
The Guardian obtained a screenshot of an exchange in January in which a Choose Life Marketing employee sought assistance in an open online chatroom for not-for-profit organizations seeking assistance for Google ad grant applications. In the exchange, a Google employee explains that two centers’ websites were rejected because they were not secure, not because of their content. They were encouraged to re-apply.
Alice Huling, counsel for the Campaign for Accountability, a watchdog fighting a recent change in federal rules on what kinds of clinics can receive federal funds for healthcare services, said Google was usually the first resource for a woman with an unplanned pregnancy.
“Google should not allow CPCs to use its platform to serve misinformation to pregnant women,” she said. “Google’s business model is predicated on serving ads to customers, and the company is clearly uninterested in taking the steps necessary to crack down on misleading ads placed by CPCs.”
Google said it made ad grants available to “a diverse group that represents many different views and different causes” and both groups that provide abortions and those that are opposed to abortions are given grants.
Google would not comment on the Obria grant, but said all recipients have to comply with its policies. One such policy prohibits misrepresentation in ads as well as ads that “intend to deceive users by excluding relevant information or giving misleading information about products, services, or businesses”.
Google awarded the Obria grant as part of a program to support nonprofit organisations around the world with in-kind donations worth up to $10,000 a month.
It is not clear which precise ads were published through Obria’s grants, because the information is not public.
Obria did not return a request for comment.
The group recently faced scrutiny after it was awarded $1.7m in federal funds – known as Title X funding – meant to support healthcare providers that offer family planning services. Obria does not offer birth control, including condoms, in its clinics, offering “natural family planning” methods instead.
When the Guardian presented Google with a host of other examples of ads for clinics that appear to offer abortion services but do not, the company declined to comment, saying only that any ads that violated its policies would be taken down. Those ads were still available online several days later.
Google promised to address the issue in 2014. But the problem resurfaced in 2017, when the company was forced to remove more misleading ads. In 2018, Google was criticized for pointing women seeking abortions in Silicon Valley to CPCs through its maps service, while demoting results for Planned Parenthood clinics.
Google continues to feature ads for the clinics that appear to violate its policies. In one such case, an ad for a Texas clinic called the Grapevine Women’s Clinic pops up if a user does a local search for “abortion clinic”.
At first glance, the Grapevine clinic appears to offer abortion services: it emphasizes a woman’s choice, provides detailed information about the abortion pill and recommends that women call insurance providers to pay for their procedures. The clinic also says it provides “post abortive counseling”.
In a statement, Google said: “The Google ad grants program is open to qualified non-profits regardless of their position on abortion and we give grants to nearly 50 thousand organizations globally that represent a wide spectrum of views and causes.
“All grant recipients have to abide by our ad policies, which prohibit misrepresentation in ads. If we find ads that violate our policies, we remove them.”