Google AdWords Policy Disallows Ads for Abortion Services in Over a Dozen Countries

Last night, a Google spokeswoman confirmed that Google AdWords, the advertising network that allows advertisers to create ads that appear next to relevant search results, updated its policy in September of 2008. Among other policy changes, AdWords now prohibits ads for abortion services of any kind in over a dozen countries, including Brazil, France, Mexico, Poland, and Taiwan. Never thought I’d be taking sides in the war of the search engines, but is looking real good right about now.

Google’s rationale behind disallowing ads in these particular countries, whose abortion laws range from conservative (Argentina, Brazil ) to more liberal by comparison (France, Italy), is shrouded in mystery: the spokeswoman deftly avoided answering my question about how the countries were chosen.

Regardless of the reason, I’m pretty disturbed by Google’s ability to withhold information about reproductive health services in these countries without justification or accountability. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that women living in the countries in question should be granted the same access to reproductive health services as women in other parts of the world. If you agree, call or email Google today and let them know they have some ‘splaining to do. For sample text of an email you can send, visit the Action Alert on the International Women’s Health Coalition’s blog Akimbo.
And in case you’re still as incredulous as I was when I first heard about this, please read the unedited email exchange I had with a Google representative yesterday regarding the official policy after the jump.

From: [redacted]
Sent: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 12:54 PM
To: Lori Adelman
Subject: Re: Your recently changed abortion ad policy
Hi Lori,
I just heard back from the policy team, and have the below information for you.
The Google AdWords advertising program is managed by a set of policies that we develop based on various factors, including user and customer experience. Our goals are to provide more relevant results and a higher quality experience for our users, and to have policies that are fair, consistent and adaptable. We regularly review our policies and make changes to keep them current and effective, but the policy regarding ads that promote abortion services has not been changed since September 2008.
The issue of abortion is an emotive subject and Google does not take a particular side. Last September, we reviewed our abortion ads policy in order to make sure it was fair, up to date and consistent with local customs and practices. Following the review we decided to amend our policy, creating a level playing field and enabling religious associations to place ads on abortion in a factual way.
We decided to disallow ads for abortion services, such as abortion clinics, in the following markets: Germany, Poland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, France, Italy and Spain. (Emphasis mine.) However, general, factual ads on abortion continued to be allowed and we also enabled religious associations to place ads on abortion in a factual way.
Under our current policy, religious associations are able to put up ads on Google in a factual and campaigning way. This means that their ads need to aim to educate and inform, not to shock. The ads can refer to government legislation and existing law and the alternatives to abortion. But, they cannot link to Web sites which show graphic images that aim to shock people into changing their minds. In terms of campaigning, this means that the ads can link to Web sites which are taking a particular view on a piece of government legislation. But, once again, those Web sites cannot possess graphic images or language that aims to shock or blame people.
Hope this clarification helps,
Hi [redacted],
Thank you very much for this information. You’ve been extremely helpful in clarifying the policy in question. For additional clarification, can you please expand on the reasoning behind choosing those specific markets in which to disallow ads for abortion services, as described in paragraph 3 of your email? Is this policy in response to a particular law or other social characteristic particular to Germany, Poland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, France, Italy and Spain?
Thanks so much,
Hi Lori,
I can share that we conducted the review and made the change to ensure our policy was fair, up-to-date, consistent with local laws and codes of practice.
Thanks to Women on Waves for bringing the original policy to the attention of the International Women’s Health Coalition.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

Read more about Lori

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  • mouchette

    it would really help if feministing or akimbo provided a proper email for google legal or google ads. i like to try and do email activism during downtime on my job, but it would make it easier if you provided the addresses. i couldn’t seem to find any when i did a search. thanks!

  • Lori

    Hi mouchette. You can use for now, as Google Legal and AdWords doesn’t post a public email address. I’ll let you know if I get my hands on any other contact info. Thanks!

  • katemoore

    Google Ads are best known for spam. I wouldn’t go near any service, abortion or otherwise, that used it.

  • ClinicEscort

    This makes no sense. What the hell?
    Even more infurating, Google has no problem allowing ads from “pro-life” orgs (see my air-quotes!) on many pro-choice websites. It pisses me off every time, and clicking the little feedback link doesn’t do any good. Just one example here: Makes me sick.

  • Gretel

    I think it’s important to note that Google restricts search results for certain topics in certain countries. I’m sure China was not included on that list because Google has already bowed to the government’s restriction requests there.
    Maybe it’s time more people used a non-profit alternative to Google, which is a business after all and willing to bend over backwards in order to appease investors. I try to use Scroogle instead of Google.

  • Sabriel

    Why bing? Is bing more ethical?

  • AlexaD

    This is the same Google that filters the word “clitoris,” the legitimate medical term for an anatomical feature on the female body, out of every single “safe” search, while leaving the word “penis” in all safe searches? I’m not surprised. Google seems to have something against female reproductive health information.
    I do absolutely everything I can to avoid Google, specifically because of the clitoris issue, but as much so because they cave into countries like China in their efforts to restrict access to information, thereby promoting/supporting censorship.

  • damigiana

    In Italy there are no legal for-profit abortion providers. Abortion is legal under some circumstances, but it can only be obtained in public hospitals. I think it is costfree (or maybe it has a copay, as this is the way the italian public health care works).
    I have never seen abortion ads in Europe (anywhere, not just on google). And I think abortion is covered by public healthcare in many European countries.
    So maybe google is not as evil as you think.

  • Entomology Girl

    That sucks. A lot. I am loathe to give up Google, but after this I am seriously considering it.
    Also, don’t use First of all, Microsoft. Eew. Secondly, their ad campaign is based entirely off of the theme “Being exposed to knowledge of things you weren’t specifically looking for, and may never have encountered on your own, is annoying and geeky! Never leave your little bubble again! Let Microsoft handle it and don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”
    Not the kind of attitude that I would espouse, especially as a feminist.

  • Lori

    Regarding I don’t know that is necessarily more ethical than Google- it looks like that site uses the same AdWords system. I only mentioned it to begin with because I was trying to make a joke (rather unsuccesfully, it seems!) about the “search engine wars” that I was surprised to find myself suddenly caring about, by virtue of my interest in this particular feminist issue. Sorry for any confusion. Sounds like some commenters have some good ideas about alternative search engines to use.

  • MarkTaylor

    This definitely looks disappointing, but I think it’s important to take note of the distinction between withholding information and withholding advertising. Some commenters have raised clear concerns about the latter point (although I’m not sure how terrible it is to provide a day-to-day that won’t be blocked), but I don’t think there’s a moral imperative to take advertising money, especially if it might provoke legal problems.

  • MarkTaylor

    And by “the latter point”, I of course mean “the former point”. Sorry. Gin.

  • Karin

    I’m not surprised that GoogleAds doesn’t show the ads for abortion clinics in Germany.
    In Germany, like in damigiana wrote about Italy, there are no legal profit abortion clinics.
    Abortion here is illegal, but exempt from punishment. After a mandatory counseling appointment you can have an abortion at a public hospital/clinic, done by a ob/gyn. AFAIK, the costs amount to about EUR 400, which, under certain circumstances, are paid for by health insurance.
    But I don’t understand why the contact person didn’t just mention that in hir mail, stating that, for example, they weren’t allowed to show ads of “free” (=profit) abortion clinics in Germany, because these clinics could be illegal or shady. *shrugs*


    Why is it better to use Scroogle than Google? Scroogle is just a front end to Google. It’s like saying, “I don’t want to buy Nestle products because of the baby milk controversy, so I refuse to buy them wholesale from Nestle and I just buy them in the supermarket.”
    Or are you saying this because Scroogle doesn’t run ads, and you want to boycott Google’s advertising department rather than its search engine department?

  • southern students for choice

    Ok, Google is prohibiting abortion providers from advertising in those countries. That’s bad, of course, but let’s ask a few hopefully insightful questions for some clarification:
    1) Are we correct in assuming the abortion provider ads are prohibited from Google websites which are in the most popular native language for that country (like for Germany the German google for example), but people in those countries could still google “abortion” or whatever the word(s) are in that language and find clinics? We just tried some variants of a search on “abortion clinic berlin” and got numerous results which link to apparently authoritative pro-choice resources and directories of clinics.
    2) And along the same line of thought, are there any countries where Google has gotten pressure, at least, to block search results for abortion clinics, or have ISPs or the governments themselves in any countries tried to block searches or even access to the websites themselves of abortion providers?
    3) Are abortion rights advocacy groups — prochoice advocacy groups — prohibited from buying ads? If so, how far do they go in determining if a group engages in abortion rights advocacy?

  • katemoore

    Because Google Ads are also not really known for their relevance. They’re known for keywords and their keyword parsing sucks. Try looking at the ads you get with Gmail if you use them. They’re quite funny.
    Internet ads, in general, are pretty much known for sucking. Just look at the weight loss scam/work at home scam ads we keep getting.

  • StephenMoore

    Is the disallowing of advertising for abortion service providers in these nations a legal issue? If the law of a nation prohibits abortion, then presumably advertising such a service would also be illegal.
    And if the law of a particular nation allows abortion, does it also allow advertising for service providers?
    In either case, if advertising abortion services is prohibited, then complaining to Google for not allowing such ads in these nations seems the wrong approach. The issue is with the relevant nations’ law, not with Google compying with those laws.
    From what I can gather from info posted in the comments and my own quick searchings, the nations mentioned in the initial reply to Lori either forbid abortion, restrict in some manner, or do not have private practice abortion service providers, i.e., it’s handled in the public health sector by referal, ergo no need for advertising (putting aside that even in such nations advertising the service may still be illegal).
    That Google basically ignored the specific enquiry in their reply to Lori’s follow up question certainly doesn’t help their image, but advocating that Google (presumably) act illegally is not appropriate.
    Also, prohibiting the advertising of the service is not the same as prohibiting access to the information. If the latter were the case then that would certainly be cause for concern and require action. But in this instance that seems not to be the case.

  • MsM

    I think you’re on to something. Where I live in Europe, advertising for medical services is restricted by law. So is advertising for drugs that can’t be sold over the counter. I think this might be the case in more countries.
    But then, I would wonder what they’d do about “Unplanned pregnancy? Get to know your options” type ads. Though I’ve never seen them from pro-choice groups, I would imagine they would be allowed.

  • TypicalGamer

    I couldn’t agree more. Google is an Internet (meaning global) company. It has to comply with all sorts of laws and regulations. What is legal in Germany might be illegal in China. You shouldn’t be mad at a company that is law abiding. If anything your frustration should be at those governments laws.
    You wouldn’t approve of a company in your country breaking the law, would you?
    Secondly, Google is a private company, meaning it is not forced to offer any service. If you don’t like it, you can try Yahoo, MSN,, etc… The list goes on and on.
    Google has some of the strictest requirements for ads being served on their pages. Yahoo and Bing have fewer and less stringent terms. If you think you are going to get a better search engine experience on one of the other search engines,you would be hard pressed to find it.
    Lastly, I would agree more with this article if it was restricting actual information (search results) as opposed to just advertisements. AdWords ads are a form of commercial speech and they get their own form of regulations.
    P.S uses its own software called adCenter to serve advertisements.

  • southern students for choice

    StephenMoore and TypicalGamer, others can probably do a much better job of reviewing the problems that come with prohibiting any sort of speech, including commercial speech, but that’s what the problem is here, and not so much that Google is or isn’t conforming with that country’s laws in that regard, whatever one thinks about abortion.
    Even if a given country outright bans abortion, it also permits it under “certain circumstances”, giving the oppertunity for providers that can offer abortions to somehow let others know — or advertise, if they wish — they offer abortion under those circumstances. And if like in the USA there is pressure on clinics to not offer abortion, then there will be fewer clinics offering abortion, and maybe more reason for the remaining clinics to advertise even in the face of opposition, even violent opposition, as was the case with Dr. Tiller’s Wichata clinic.
    Banning any kind of speech, even commercial speech for something one finds abhorrent, inevitably leads to claims of discrimination based on issues and beliefs (including religious beliefs) and selective enforcement against individuals and groups that may have nothing to do with their position on the issue (like if they’re supporters of political opposition parties, of if they didn’t pay protection to local government officials or even criminal groups).
    If Google restricts ads from abortion providers becaues of a given country’s laws, it follows that people will question it’s reliability in providing unbiased search results, especially from algorithms that in themselves have to introduce a kind of ranking — or bias — to simply display a list of results.
    So it’s reasonable to say it’s a bad thing that Google is doing this at all, whatever that country’s laws on advertising the services of abortion providers.
    If Google doesn’t want to pull some sort of act of civil disobediance or challange that country’s laws regarding advertising through that country’s legal process, they ought to at least consider pulling all ads related to abortion, and if that means pulling ads from the equivalent of Crisis Pregnancy Centers and pro-life groups, including religious groups that focus on restricting abortion rights, they should do so, and also prove to the public that their search ranking, at least, is not biased against clinics that support elective abortion access, any more than they’d be biased against groups that promote alternatives to unintended pregnancy that doesn’t involved abortion. They could do that by making public their search algorithms for how they rank results for searches like “abortion”, “abortion clinic”, or “abortion “, etc.
    There should be some sort of grassroots support for that sort of free speech / civil liberty in almost any country, and it would be a public service in Google’s interest to help that movement with their efforts. It would also be great to see alliances develop between Google and free speech groups and reproductive health care providers in those countries, and we hope that people writing Google about their policies encourage Google to help make that happen.

  • FGJ

    I was a little surprised to see you recommend bing, but now I see it was just a joke.
    Bing is, of course, run by Microsoft, which is known for extorting governments of developing countries with hyped up lawsuits, and stealing millions of dollars from governments and educational institutions through double-billing and legal threats. I doubt civil liberties are even on their list of priorities.

  • Gretel

    Google gets information about which ads to run through users’ searches, so if you use Scroogle (which allows people to search anonymously and doesn’t keep records of searches) you’re not contributing to Google’s vast data mine that feeds its AdSense program and therefore its profits. I know it’s not a perfect solution, but I’m not aware of another search engine that is–let’s face it–as good as Google without the evil. I’m all ears, though!

  • Gretel

    Actually, I would say it’s more like stealing a Nestle product. :)

  • mandoir

    Agreed about the ad campaign. Not only are the ads themselves irritating to watch, but they imply that there should be only one answer for every search “question.” Though their point seems to be that some search results simply aren’t “relevant,” I’d like to make that decision for myself – I could easily see a lot of useful information being filtered based on someone’s arbitrary idea of what’s “relevant” or “helpful.”

  • TypicalGamer

    Let me see if I can take this on:
    1) If a country outright bans abortion…most likely it doesn’t allow “certain circumstances”. There are a litany of rules and regulations that go with abortion so obviously each country is different. We could debate that issue alone, but that would distract us from the issue at hand: Google.
    2) I agree that banning a form of speech can lead to first amendment cases (in the US). I am not sure what point you are trying to make in connecting that statement with Google.
    3) How advertisements and search results show up are based off of two similar but different approaches. Google’s search results have little to do with Adwords API’s or algorithms.
    4) Google is a private business, not an advocacy group. Unless the problem is detrimental to its business model, Google will most likely “work within” the system, not buck it.
    5) Google uses a method called PageRank to calculate search results (not advertisements). The way you want Google to rank pages is seriously biased. You want Google to go into search results and select or remove results that meet a certain criteria that is completely different from other topics.
    Google’s PageRank is a well known company secret. They don’t divulge it because they don’t want webmasters to game the results (well, more than they already do).
    The way Google ranks “abortion” or “abortion clinic” is the same way it ranks “television” or “cute puppies”.
    6) Your advocating a grassroots campaign against a search engine? Just use Yahoo or Bing if you don’t like Google.

  • southern students for choice

    1) No country can outright ban abortion, except in the sense it was in the US before Roe, where there were exceptions, as there would have to be, for serious medical or psychological reasons. If not, women would demonstrably suffer and some would die, especially poorer or lesser-educated women who would find it hardest to negotiate the exceptions to the law. So there have to be “exceptions”. In geographic areas (states, countries, etc) where abortion rights are restricted it is even more important for people to be informed about laws, policies, and existing providers, both through advertising as well as through more objective sources of information.
    6) Did it seem like we are advocating a grassroots campaign against a search engine? Makes about as much sense as organizing a boycott against a particular library. But if we’re talking about the Library of Congress or something that can set precident for other libraries, it might be worth organizing some campaign around changing their policies. If not, other search engines might well follow suit, especially if they can shrug their shoulders and say they’re trying to just follow the local laws, customs, prejudices, etc.
    And we’re not really suggesting doing anything “against” or “opposing” Google. There may be ways to turn this into something where Google is a voice and force for freedom of speech and access to information.
    Google has been associated with that before with pro-democracy movements in China, if we’re not mistaken, and it would be awesome to see something similar, even if it was on a very much smaller scale, for abortion rights in these other countries. And if we don’t stand up for the rights of people in those other countries, we might find our own rights in this country even more at risk — both on and off the internet.

  • smiley

    Let’s get a grip here.
    Google bans certain adverts in certain countries. It does not seem to ban any results from the Search itself, in those countries.
    I cannot work myself up into a fury over this. If a country bans advertising for abortions, then I don’t really see how Google can be blamed for aligning itself on that country’s policies (results in the search part is another question).
    The results will provide all the answers required anyway.
    If the French edition of Playboy Magazine does not carry advertising for cigarettes, is anyone shocked? Of course not – advertising for tobacco products is forbidden in France.
    If Google Adverts, in the USA, popped up with an advert for an openly racist or anti-semitic party or product based in another country, would Feministing call for its banning? Probably.
    Go figure.

  • leonie86

    I am a german girl and also a feminist blogger and I am really fucked up with this. What is wrong with Google? When I google “Abtreibung” (abortion in german) with the german version of Google there are only pro-life sides also in the ads. Is this “not take a particular side”?
    But the most concering thing is that women who want to have an abortion and try to get some information, only find Pro-Life sides with thousand of lies.
    It really drives me crazy!
    hope my english isn´t to bad.

  • leonie86

    you are right it is forbidden to advertise for abortion in germany. But it is legal to adverstise against abortion. really hate this!
    But this is no excuse for allowing Pro-life sides to advertise.

  • Steph

    This comment has been deleted due to noncompliance with Feministing comments policy.

  • denelian

    i really take offense to this.
    i have had an abortion. granted, in my case this is because i have a genetic disease that will almost definitely *kill* me before there is even a viable fetus, but that should actually made the whole thing more upseting.
    and i have to tell you, having an abortion did *NOT* fucking “hurt me deeply”. and people assuming that abortion “hurts all women deeply” are throwing around various hurtful and demeaning stereotypes, and these are all based on the idea that “the best and most wonderful thing any women (every woman!) can ever accomplish is having and raising a baby”. which is complete and utter bullshit – pregnancy is *NOT* the pinacle of every woman’s life, and there are many many MANY women who have had abortions who ONLY feel relief, or even are HAPPY that they were able to have it.
    sure, there are *some* women hurt by abortion. there are *more* women hurt by pregnancy – and you don’t see people running around advocating that no one ever become pregnant because of how harmful it can be, how dangerous it is, do you?
    further, abortion is a fucking MEDICAL PROCEDURE. should women be given full disclosure? of course they should, but it’s the sort of thing where if you aren’t arguing that *everything* is set up with mandatory automatic full disclosure, you are essentially arguing to the Strawman. i, personally, had a point where i was really ill and in the hospital and they decided to remove my gall bladder. i was told that it was my decision, but the doctors and surgeons really thought it was the only real option that would get me better. i WAS NOT TOLD that losing my gall bladder was going to fuck up my digestion. i was told the risks of the surgery *itself*, but not any of the long-term possible consequences. and when i complained after the fact, i was essentially told that they don’t *have* to tell me that losing my gall bladder means my body can’t process a lot of fats like it used to – the responsibility is *mine* to find out stuff like that out. there are more issues EVERY FUCKING MINUTE with medical issues where EVERYTHING is not discussed, because realistically while it would be nice to know everything that might happen, there isn’t enough time or money to provide that. and abortion is one of *THE* most talked about procedures in the *world* – i was given WAY more information about abortion and the possible risks and consequences that i was about HAVING MY FUCKING HIP REPLACED – and the abortion happened very quickly, while there was an entire YEAR between the time the surgeon suggested hip replacement and surgery, and i STILL did not get as much info from the medical people about my hip as i did for my abortion.
    lastly, this is *not* the place to throw around biased-against-abortion remarks and stances. this is a feminist website run and peopled by people who are actively pro-choice.
    saying that “abortion hurts women deeply”, meaning all abortions hurt all women, is a deeply flawed statement that implies no woman, ever, should get an abortion, no matter what, and i (as i said) take huge offense to that.
    it is WRONG and helps to spread stereotypes and misinformation and actively helps the pro-life/forced-birther agenda.

  • denelian

    i am really curiousas to how that works, how it is legally set up (as in, how the laws are written) and what the standard procedure is in Germany.
    if i understand correctly, abortion has a legal status similiar to prostitution or pot use in many countries – it is techniquely illegal, but there are no arrests or prosecutions or anything, no way for someone to punish a woman who has an abortion or an abortion provider. and if that is the case (i.e., i understand correctly), i am really interested in how that came about, and how it functions now. do you know of anything that talks about/explains it, that is in English, so i could read up on it?
    i am also curious if you think it works better, or worse, than in other countries where abortion is techniquely legal, but there are other barriers to getting an abortion – higher costs, stupid protests, reams of extra paperwork and red-tape, sonogram and other “requirements”, etc…
    i had thought that Germany (most of Europe, actually, at least Western Europe) had legal abortion (and that it was free, and fuctioned muc like it does in Britain). not sure where this idea came from in me, thinking about it i don’t think i ever read anything that even implied that. so that is weird of me.

  • ClinicEscort

    “Counselor?” My ass, you are. Anyone who counsels that abortion is never ever acceptable and always always hurts isn’t counseling; they’re proselytizing. They’re force-feeding propaganda to anyone who will hear.
    Here’s some real truth—which you may or may not recognize as such, given your apparent unfamiliarity with the concept—I have never spent five minutes regretting the abortion I had fifteen years ago.

  • agnes

    Regardless of the reason, I’m pretty disturbed by Google’s ability to withhold information about reproductive health services in these countries without justification or accountability.
    I can speak to France. Advertising for any medical services (prescription drugs, doctors, hospitals, anything) is strictly forbidden by law there.
    No yellow page ads for doctors, no Viagra ads on TV, no posters on the streets raising money for your local hospital, no flyers from the neighborhood dentist in your mailbox, no newspaper ads for lasik surgery.
    All things that shocked me deeply when I moved to the States, by the way.
    Call me crazy, but it seems to me that women living in the countries in question should be granted the same access to reproductive health services as women in other parts of the world.
    Google cannot be above the laws of the countries where it does business. They have tried to use the US First Amendment and other points of US law (copyright, right to privacy…) with complete lack of cultural sensibility — or success — in Europe (Google vs Copiepress) and South America (the Orkut case) already.
    Not sure I am 100% unhappy about it — American cultural hegemony has triggered deep resentment in many countries for many years, and having huge multinational corporations argue that American laws should apply worldwide… is not going to fly too well in most places. Can’t blame Google for finally wising up to that fact.
    Google is not censoring organic search results. They also (from the letter) are not censoring informational sites.

  • Eliza-Rose

    It’s slightly off-topic, but abortion is pretty much completely illegal in Poland, and the situation for women seeking even legal abortion is horrible. I don’t know anything about the other countries involved, but the Polish government definitely would have arranged for this.
    Google a pdf called “Polish Womens’ Hell” if you can stand to have your heart broken at the injustice there.
    There was a case a couple of years ago where a pregnant 14-year-old seeking a legal abortion was publicly assaulted, had the taxi she was travelling in broken into, and was then literally kidnapped by “pro-life” psychos trying to prevent her from getting it. (They said her mother was unfit since she arranged the, again, LEGAL procedure.)