Google searches for "abortion" linked to actual abortion rates

New research has revealed a strong correlation between the rate of Google searches for “abortion” and actual abortion rates.

The findings are the result of research at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, which analysed a year’s worth of abortion statistcs within 50 US states and 37 countries. It compared them to Google’s data on the volume of abortion searches from those same countries. They discovered that countries and states with lower abortion rates and a more restrictive policy regarding it had a much higher search volume for abortion, while countries and states with higher abortion rates and less restrictions had lower search volumes.

“One would have expected that ‘the more abortions, the more searches for abortion’,” said Ben Reis PhD, of the Children’s Hospital Boston Informatics Program and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “Instead, these turn out to be inversely related.”

In other words, women may be forced to seek information regarding abortion online, particularly if they have difficulty getting the information through other means, such as local clinics, but the problem is that the internet can often be a very unreliable source.

“One possible explanation for these inverse relationships is that people with limited access to local abortion services are using the Internet to find providers outside their health system or outside their region, while people with more access are able to go through standard local healthcare channels to find an abortion provider,” said John Brownstein PhD, who is also a faculty member of the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program.

The research found that search volume for abortion was significantly higher in regions where information was illegal or where there were additional requirements for those visiting clinics, such as mandatory waiting periods, counselling or parental notification, all of which may be undesirable for a woman in that situation.

Abortion is still illegal in many countries and even information about it may be banned. For example, in Ireland abortion remains illegal and in 1983 public information about it was prohibitted. It was only in 1992 that it again became legal to provide information about abortion to people within the Republic. 

“This exploratory analysis highlights the emerging potential of search data to benefit public policy debates,” said Reis.

The full paper can be found online in the BMC Public Health journal here.