Campus researchers find disinformation on medication abortion webpages

Infographic depicting the inaccuracy of online information about abortion pills
Quynh Truong/Staff
UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers developed a way to assess medication abortion webpage accuracy and found that four out of the five top “abortion pill” query results on Google were less than 50% accurate.

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UC Berkeley School of Public Health researchers found that four out of the five most presented webpages in response to “abortion pill” queries on Google were less than 50% accurate, in a study published Thursday.

Of the top five most presented webpages, three were anti-abortion, according to lead researcher and first-year doctoral student Betsy Pleasants. She added that these anti-abortion webpages — American Pregnancy Association, Abortion Pill Rescue and Abortion Procedures — had “very limited” factual and clinical information and are covertly affiliated with religious organizations.

“Abortion is a particularly contentious and polarized topic in (the United States), and that makes it particularly susceptible to disinformation online,” Pleasants said. “There are a lot of organizations that have a strong presence online that are anti-abortion.”

Medication abortion, sometimes referred to as an “abortion pill,” is a series of prescription medications that induce an abortion typically within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, according to Pleasants.

Pleasants and her colleagues developed a way to assess medication abortion webpage accuracy by combining clinical recommendations from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, clinical information from a colleague and other information deemed important for anyone who uses Google to learn about medication abortion.

The most accurate information on medication abortion, according to Pleasants, was presented on Planned Parenthood’s webpage, with over 80% accuracy. She added that Planned Parenthood’s webpage had essentially everything Pleasants and her colleagues were looking for: factual information related to medication abortion side effects, how one can access these medications and presented that information and more, in a “usable format.”

“Organizations like Planned Parenthood … have been so discredited that it’s about time to bring back credibility and trust,” said study co-author Sylvia Guendelman. “This organization is not only important in providing healthcare services, but also healthcare education around sexual and reproductive health. We want to be able to reduce abortions and reduce unwanted pregnancies.”

Pleasants said she and her colleagues dedicated much of their time to reviewing past studies that evaluate online reproductive health information despite the study’s subjectivity in quantifying webpage accuracy. She added that through an exhaustive literature review, they came to a set of “very comprehensive metrics” that should be reproducible with further refinement.

“We have seen an onslaught of abortion restrictions in this country in the last decade, and the anti-choice movement is gaining momentum,” said Karen Weidert, UC Berkeley Bixby Center for Population Health and Sustainability executive director, in an email. “It is critical that abortion-related information is accurate and can facilitate informed and responsible decision making.”

After their initial analysis, Pleasants and her colleagues reassessed the webpages to quantify disinformation, which she defined as information that is not only inaccurate but intentionally misleading.

The research team found that several of the anti-abortion pages presented misinformation about medication abortion. Among the claims were that medication abortions can increase mortality and reduce future fertility, that the procedure is inappropriate for women with mental illness and that the abortion can be reversed, according to the study.

Guendelman believes the research fits into the broader misinformation crisis that has become increasingly more guided by ideology, conspiracy theories, and distorted reality, especially in the last four years. She added that this study is important because it can provide more facts that can improve policy-making decisions.

Weidert noted that most Americans oppose the Supreme Court overruling the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which found that the United States Constitution protects women’s right to an abortion.

“Yet, it does seem like whenever there is pro-choice momentum, the anti-choice movement hijacks the conversation with hyperbolic rhetoric and disinformation to incite public outrage and gain support for policies which inhibit access to abortion care,” Weidert said in an email.

Eric Rogers is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @eric_rogers_dc.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Karen Weidert is the technical and strategic advisor for the UC Berkeley Bixby Center for Population Health and Sustainability. In fact, she is the executive director.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sylvia Guendelman is the chair of the World Health Organization’s panel on Reproductive Health for the Americas. In fact, she is no longer in that position.