More than a dozen states this year passed laws to either restrict or expand access to abortion, with a flurry of activity happening within the past few weeks alone.
Reaction to the changes has dominated cable news networks and social media platforms. It also seemingly spurred record-breaking Google searches for words related to abortion.
On May 14, the Alabama Senate passed a bill banning nearly all abortions. The same day, more than a half million people searched the phrase “Alabama abortion law” on Google — the fourth-highest query of the day behind “Tim Conway,” “the Warriors,” and “NBA draft lottery,” according to the Internet search engine’s statistics.
The next day, when Alabama’s governor signed the bill, a single word — “abortion” — ranked No. 2 for trending searches in America with more than 200,000 hits, according to Google Trends.
Owned by the search engine for which it’s named, Google Trends uses “an unbiased sample” of its users’ search data to provide snapshots of queries dating back as far as 2004.
The site displays the number of hits for top search terms each day. It also tracks search terms’ popularity over time based on an index of 1-100. Not provided are most of the demographics behind the searches. So it’s impossible to speculate on who is fueling the spike in abortion-related queries or why.
But Google Trends does show where searches originated. And Southern states generally ranked on top for abortion-related searches.
The phrase “abortion clinic near me,” for example, reached an all-time high in May. It was most popular in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Maryland, the site showed.
Because Google Trends takes random samples, state rankings sometimes fluctuate with each query of the search term.
Searches for the above phrase and its plural counterpart “abortion clinics near me” have both increased overall in recent years.
Searches related to the topic of abortion also reached a record high last month but showed little variation in the location of those who Google it.
"The abortion issue is in many ways unique among social issues in how long it has been the focus of attention. It has been at the forefront of many national and local-level conversations for decades,” said Ziad Munson, an associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University. “This sustained attention does wax and wane a little bit, and in the last few months there's been a lot more attention than in some previous periods."
Searches spike but abortions fall
The abortion rate dropped to a decade low in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reported 11.8 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 — a 26 percent decline from 2006.
The fertility rate among same-aged women in 2015, by comparison, was 62.5 births per 1,000.
Despite this, searches for “pregnancy center near me” in the past year are significantly lower overall than the number of searches for “abortion clinic near me.”
That could be because many women who discover pregnancy centers find them by searching information about pregnancy symptoms, pregnancy tests or ultrasounds, said Andrea Trudden, director of communications and marketing for Heartbeat International, a network of pregnancy resource centers in the United States.
Google recently changed its policy for advertisements related to the topic.
Due to confusion over pregnancy centers using misleading language in advertisements, Google now automatically generates “in-ad disclosures” for certified advertisers saying they either do or do not provide abortions.
While abortion-related Google searches spiked, some pregnancy-related queries are on the decline. “Am I pregnant” has trailed off since its peak in August 2012. “Pregnancy symptoms” reached its peak 13 months earlier but has tanked since then.
Mississippi-based internet users ranked among the top source for both those search terms, according to Google Trends.
Mississippi also generated some of the highest number of searches for “abortion clinic” in May — the same month a federal judge temporarily blocked the state’s new bill banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.
Other top states for that search term were Georgia, which recently passed a similar law, as well as Alabama.
Searches for “Planned Parenthood near me” also reached an all-time high in December. The nonprofit women’s health care organization provides women’s health care and abortions in clinics across the country and is well-known for its lobbying efforts for abortion access. The second-highest peak for that search term was last month.
At the same time, searches for “how to get an abortion,” reached a 90-day peak on May 16, as did searches for “abortion pill.”
Some of the Google queries might reflect confusion about recent legislation and what it means for women seeking to terminate a pregnancy. For example, searches for “where abortion is legal” reached a 15-year peak last month.
“It’s certainly an increased fear and anxiety we’ve been noticing,” said Alison Dreith, deputy director of the Hope Clinic for Women, an abortion provider in Granite City, Illinois.
The clinic is near the Illinois-Missouri border — just 10 miles from St. Louis — and serves women from both states, as well as those coming from elsewhere in the country.
Missouri lawmakers last month banned abortions after eight weeks, and the state’s sole abortion provider is operating only thanks to a judge’s order. Illinois, meanwhile, passed a law protecting abortion rights.
“We’ve been fielding a lot more calls than we normally do and getting messages on social media saying, ‘I made my appointment before these bans, can I still get my procedure?’” Dreith said. “They are seeing these headlines and news and worried about how that affects their procedure.”