Ask Siri where to get an abortion and get a list of adoption agencies–for five years that was the experience of Apple users in cities ranging from San Francisco to Philadelphia. Recent technical upgrades appear to have resolved the problem, but advocates seeking to end abortion stigma say they intend to keep an eye on Siri and her competitors.
The media called the problem to Apple’s attention as early as 2011, but until this month requests for a fix got little response other than assurances that technologies were improving. In January, Fast Company searched for abortion providers in and around San Francisco, and both Siri and Apple maps instead directed journalists to adoption agencies, including one 30 miles outside of the city. A researcher from UCSF, Alexis Hoffman, tested Apple products over the course of several months in cities across the country, and got similarly problematic results.
While few critics suggest that the misdirection stems from anything other than imperfect search algorithms, advocates for sexual and reproductive empowerment call this particular glitch unacceptable for two reasons.
People seeking abortion care already deal with shame and stigma imposed by religion or other cultural institutions and, whether intended or not, the suggestion that they should go elsewhere can feel like further judgment. “Individuals are confronted daily with society’s shaming messages that if they seek abortion they are doing something morally wrong and are unworthy of support,” says Lauren Himiak at the Sea Change Program, which seeks to end demeaning abortion stigma. “Apple’s misdirection to adoption agencies or nurseries adds to that stigma, undermining an individual’s choice and implying they don’t know what is best for themselves.”
In addition, the Apple glitch inadvertently replicates a deceptive practice used by conservative Christian abortion foes, who set up and advertise decoy clinics known as “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” that are designed to dissuade women from aborting ill-timed or unwanted pregnancies. The fake clinics recruit customers primarily via mimicry: A distressed person with a pregnancy scare may see an ad offering what looks like clinical services—for free. The official sounding name, something like “Crisis Pregnancy Care,” “Pregnancy Aid,” “CareNet,” “Life Choices,” or “Pregnancy Counseling Center,” implies that the facility provides ordinary pregnancy-related medical care or unbiased counseling; and the location may be literally across the parking lot from a Planned Parenthood or another family planning clinic.
In actual fact, most Crisis Pregnancy Centers are run by volunteers who are recruited and organized through religious networks, and sponsoring churches describe them accurately to funders as “ministries.” A somewhat terrifying app in the Apple store allows prayer warriors to receive an announcement every time a woman in their state schedules with a Crisis Pregnancy Center rather than an abortion clinic. Despite the fact that volunteers and employees often wear lab coats, most CPCs employ no licensed medical providers. They do not provide health care or unbiased counseling, and may make outdated or false statements about birth control, mental health, breast cancer, or the gestational age of a fetus—the last of these being an attempt to delay an abortion until it is too late. That said, many of these centers do—at least in the beginning—connect prospective mothers with mentors, free diapers, and other resources needed by poor women who decide to carry forward an unsought pregnancy. This has allowed the centers, despite their deceptive practices, to argue that they provide needed community services—and even on occasion too obtain public funding to cover expenses.
Ironically, the fact that they are not actual medical clinics exempts them from oversight and from meeting medical or psychological standards of care. A woman waiting for a “free” pregnancy test—otherwise available over the counter but at a cost—may be forced to watch anti-abortion films or engage in a conversation with a “counselor” whose goal it is to direct her either to pregnancy support services or an adoption agency – just like Siri. And just like glitchy Apple maps, the volunteer counselor sometimes directs a woman into a dead end. Unfortunately, once that happens, a life can be a lot harder to turn around a life than a car.
While improvements in technology seem to be fixing Apple search, the problem of deliberate misdirection is harder to solve. Public health advocates in some states have sought regulations requiring clear outside labeling and informed consent for people who may walk through the door of a pregnancy ministry with the misperception that it is a clinic, for example, disclosure of whether there is a licensed medical provider on staff, and whether they provide referrals for the full spectrum of reproductive health services. But save in California, free speech and religious privilege have largely won out against consumer protection. In the long run, perhaps the churches involved—like Apple—will come to recognize that people generally want the kind of information and services they are searching for and giving out bad information is bad for Christianity’s brand.
As a social commentator, Tarico writes and speaks on issues ranging from religious fundamentalism to gender roles, to reproductive rights and technologies. A primary focus is on improving access to top tier contraceptive technologies. To that end, she serves on the board of Advocates for Youth, a D.C. based nonprofit with wide-ranging programs related to reproductive health and justice. Tarico co-chairs of Washington Women for Choice, serves on the Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest Board of Advocates, and is a Senior Writing Fellow at Sightline Institute, a think tank focused on sustainable prosperity. Her articles appear at sites including the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Salon, AlterNet, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and at her blog, AwayPoint.