Advocates for sexual and reproductive empowerment say the glitch was unacceptable
By Valerie Tarico / AlterNet
Ask Siri where to get an abortion and you 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.”
The Apple glitch inadvertently replicates a deceptive practice used by conservative Christian anti-choice activists, 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 an appointment 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 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 to 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 is to direct her either to pregnancy support services or to an adoption agency—just like Siri does. And just like glitchy Apple maps, the volunteer counselor sometimes directs a woman into a dead end. And unfortunately, a life can be a lot harder to turn around than a car.
Research shows that unplanned pregnancy, carried to term, can mire young parents and their children in poverty. In a recent UCSF study, women denied abortion care were more likely to be living in poverty and needing public assistance three years later. Fewer than half of girls who give birth before completing high school will go on to graduate, and fewer than two percent go on to complete college by age 30. Without the benefits of financial planning and preconception care, a pregnancy is more likely to end in a high-risk delivery or low birth weight, and to create financial and health challenges families may struggle to overcome.
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. 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.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.