UC Berkeley study shows trends in abortion searches

UC Berkeley study research abortion internet
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UC Berkeley researchers found a link among state policy on contraceptives, the number of unplanned pregnancies and Google searches related to abortion, according to a study published May 21.

Sylvia Guendelman, co-principal investigator of the study and campus professor of maternal, child and adolescent health, said the study was created because the researchers wanted to have a better understanding of family planning and what concerns and preferences consumers have. The study was published in the journal PLOS One

“I am very concerned about what is happening in the present administration that has been cutting back, for ideological reasons, on choices of contraceptives and what providers can or cannot tell patients or consumers about what is important,” Guendelman said.

According to UC Berkeley Health Research for Action staff research associate Elizabeth Pleasants, who worked on the study as a graduate student on campus, the researchers looked at the volume of searches for “abortion” and “abortion pill” in relation to other searches in all 50 states.

They found that a state’s unplanned pregnancy rate and number of contraceptive-related Google searches were indicative of the frequency of abortion searches. States with more unplanned pregnancies and contraceptive-focused searches had more abortion searches.

This was still true even when researchers controlled for factors such as opinions on abortion in the state, health care access and legal restrictions and protections for abortion, according to Guendelman.

Pleasants added that the researchers found that states with higher volumes of contraceptive searches and unplanned pregnancies generally also had policies that restricted access to contraceptives.

According to Guendelman, the information found on the sites people visited when they searched for abortion information online is the focus of another paper, which is currently under review. She said the researchers are examining whether people are receiving misinformation about abortions and contraceptives online or if they are accessing evidence-based information.

“When people search online for abortion and the abortion pill, they’re searching, I think, very much pragmatically,” Guendelman said. “They’re concerned about contraceptive methods and what these methods do in terms of their own health, the methodology, the side effects and user preference.”

Additionally, Guendelman noted that due to COVID-19, she thinks there should be a bigger investment in family planning because many people are struggling with child care, health care access and economic uncertainty.

Pleasants said closures of family planning services and loss of employment, which leads to lack of insurance coverage and restricts access to contraceptives, will further limit access to abortion and other resources.

“With COVID-19, it seems likely that the internet has become an even more important resource for vital family planning information and services,” Pleasants said in an email. “This increased reliance creates opportunities … but it also heightens some concerns, as disinformation around family planning online is widespread and can pose notable challenges to informed choice.”

Contact Mela Seyoum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.