Poland’s biggest protests since the fall of communism broke out in October 2020, after a court decision rendered nearly all abortions in the country illegal. The protests stretched on through that fall and well into January 2021, when the new restrictions ultimately went into effect, threatening anyone who assisted in the termination of a pregnancy with up to three years in prison.
For Martha Dimitratou, digital strategist for the international abortion access group Women on Web, this would have been a prime time to spread the word on social media that people in Poland could continue to access abortion pills by mail. But she couldn’t; at least, not on Facebook and Instagram. Because as protesters flooded the streets in Warsaw, Women on Web’s Polish Facebook Page and Instagram accounts were suddenly suspended — and remained that way for months.
“People were looking for information, and we’re a trusted source,” Dimitratou said of the organization, which was founded in 2005 by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts. “It’s suppressing and withholding vital information from people who need it.”
Now, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Dimitratou’s experience could serve as a warning of what’s to come for abortion rights groups in the U.S. — that is, if it hasn’t already.
Doctor Rebecca Gomperts (second from the right) founded Women on Web. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Even before the Dobbs decision, Instagram suspended the account of a leading abortion pill resource, Plan C Pills, just days before Texas’ abortion ban was set to go into effect in 2021. Since the Dobbs ruling, Motherboard has reported that Meta automatically blocked some Facebook posts related to abortion pills and banned the accounts behind them, while NBC News found Instagram apparently limiting search results for the hashtags “abortion pills” and “mifepristone.”
Meta has attributed the issues both to its policies related to the buying, selling, trading and gifting of pharmaceuticals, as well as to enforcement errors.
But it’s not just Meta. Democratic strategists have also reported seeing ads related to abortion taken down across Google properties since the Dobbs decision leaked in May. “We've repeatedly run into problems running ads that talk about abortion on Google properties specifically, including YouTube and search,” said Stephanie Grasmick, CEO of the group Rising Tide Interactive. “Sometimes ads run for a while and then abruptly get disapproved, while other times ads appear to be approved but don't serve any impressions.”
While the platforms have chalked these issues up to mistakes, not policy changes, Evan Greer, director of the advocacy group Fight for the Future, views these examples as the inevitable consequence of platforms trying not to fall afoul of rapidly evolving laws in the U.S. Already, the National Right to Life Committee is pushing draft legislation that would criminalize running ads for abortion services and pills. “Despite all their bluster about moving fast and breaking things, for-profit tech platforms are fundamentally risk-averse,” Greer said. “This is why we need to be just as concerned about the power that platforms have to suppress speech as we are about the power they have to amplify it.”
It feels like we have no protection. We’re very vulnerable, and at any moment our voice can be shut down.
None of this is new to Dimitratou, who has spent years trying to navigate U.S. tech platforms’ complex rules regarding abortion, then endlessly appealing their takedown decisions, which can require producing identification and notarized documents. Women on Web’s global Facebook page has been taken down; so have its pages in Mexico, Malaysia and Singapore. Its Facebook ads and organic posts have been rejected or removed repeatedly.
“The appeal is often a lengthy process, and many verifications are required from us to even be able to start the appeal,” she said. “When some of our accounts and posts are put back up, Facebook sometimes says that the incident was a ‘mistake.’”
Meanwhile, on Google, abortion ads aren’t even permitted to run in dozens of countries, including Poland. Even where they are allowed, Dimitratou said, abortion-related ads are often rejected. That’s to say nothing of how Women on Web’s website traffic nosedived after a major Google search update in 2020. “It feels like we have no protection,” Dimitratou said. “We’re very vulnerable, and at any moment our voice can be shut down.”
For abortion right groups like Women on Web, Meta and Google’s content policies are riddled with land mines — particularly when it comes to advertising. In Canada, Dimitratou recently tried to run a Facebook ad that read, “Unwanted pregnancy? We can help.” Even though abortion is legal in Canada, the ad was rejected for violating Meta’s policy against ads that imply personal attributes about an audience.
“Several ads were correctly rejected for using phrases like, ‘Are you pregnant?’” said Meta spokesperson Dani Lever. “We allow the word ‘pregnancy’ to be used in ads if not violating other policies.”
When an ad is rejected, the appeal process can be slow and laborious. Screenshot: Women on Web
Google’s rules severely restrict any abortion-related advertiser, including Women on Web, from serving ads in nearly half of the world. Anyone who wants to run ads targeting abortion-related keywords in the U.S., the U.K. or Ireland must also get certified as an organization that either does or doesn’t provide abortions — an option that’s not available to Women on Web, anyway, since it’s based in Canada.
Complicating matters even more for Women on Web is that, in all but three countries, Google prohibits the names of prescription drugs — including mifepristone and misoprostol — from appearing in the text of an ad or the landing page the ad directs to. And on YouTube, ads for abortion services are banned worldwide, cutting off abortion rights groups from a crucial platform for digital outreach.
Women on Web's ads have been rejected or removed repeatedly.Screenshot: Women on Web
"We have clear and longstanding policies that govern abortion-related ads on our platforms, including where these ads can run around the world,” said spokesperson Michael Aciman. “We’re committed to helping advertisers comply with our policies while continuing to ensure that people have access to transparent and helpful information about the services they’re looking for.”
Despite the platforms’ stated rules, Dimitratou said it’s not always easy to figure out what went wrong, like in April when Instagram removed a post from Women on Web’s Arabic page for supposedly violating community standards. The post, translated from Arabic, read, “Abortion should be a private matter.”
Another time, Facebook blocked an ad from running in Canada that read, “Our trained helpdesk is guided by doctors and provides confidential support 7 days a week in 16 languages.” Facebook rejected it for violating its policy against “unacceptable business practices.”
Facebook has blocked a number of Women on Web's ads.Screenshot: Women on Web
For a while last year, Women on Web’s entire ad account was put on the equivalent of Facebook probation, with limits imposed on which ad tools the organization could use. Facebook said at the time that “too many ads were hidden and reported” by other users, leading to the restrictions. “Meta just treats us like we’re trying to scam people, even though our pages have been up for a long time,” Dimitratou said.
Meta’s Lever said some of the ads and posts that were removed in error have since been restored and that the organization no longer faces restrictions on its ad account. “Earlier this year, we removed restrictions made in error on the ability of Women on the Web to advertise and restored their Instagram account,” Lever said.
Similarly puzzling, Dimitratou said, was the sudden drop in traffic to Women on Web’s website in May 2020, when Google issued one of its core updates. “Our traffic has never again reached the same volume as prior to the update,” she said.
Google’s Aciman said: “There are a variety of reasons why a certain site might not appear at the top of our results for a certain query. Our systems look at hundreds of signals to match queries with the most relevant, reliable results. A drop in traffic is not necessarily an indication that a website is not ranking highly for relevant searches.”
Dimitratou noted a sudden drop in traffic to Women on Web’s website in May 2020.Screenshot: Women on Web
Whatever Meta and Google’s reasons, Dimitratou said, as a result, these actions not only withhold information about abortions from people who may need it, but also make Women on Web appear to be doing something illicit or illegal. “There is this stigma that’s reinforced, and people have less access to important, accurate, trustworthy information,” Dimitratou said.
There are, of course, reasons why abortion providers and abortion rights groups may face fewer complications in the U.S. than they do abroad. For starters, abortion isn’t banned at the federal level as it is in countries like Poland and Brazil, and in the U.S., Section 230 shields platforms from liability for what their users post. But that shield is increasingly under threat, including in states like Texas that have passed restrictive abortion bans statewide. According to POLITICO, more than 100 laws have been introduced in the last year alone that would regulate how online platforms handle user posts.
As states chip away at free speech online and abortion rights offline, Greer said, that makes stories like Dimitratou’s not just possible in the U.S., but likely. “With more and more U.S. states passing laws that criminalize not just providing abortions but talking about them, fundraising for them and facilitating them, we'll see tech platforms get more aggressive at removing abortion-related content,” she said. “When called out, they'll say over and over again, ‘Oops, we made a mistake.’”