As access barriers to in-person abortion care increase due to legal restrictions and COVID-19–related disruptions, a team of UC Berkeley researchers wondered if individuals were turning to the internet for information on out-of-clinic medication abortions.
The Berkeley team examined online searches for at-home abortion information during the stay-at-home period of the pandemic in 2020. Their study was published in JMIR Infodemiology.
The researchers, co-authors Sylvia Guendelman and Elizabeth Pleasants of the Wallace Center for Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Coye Cheshire of the School of Information, and Ashley Kong of the Data Science Undergraduate Studies program examined the extent to which people searched for out-of-clinic medication abortions in the United States in 2020 through three initial search terms: “home abortion,” “self abortion,” and “buy abortion pill online.”
They found that the average relative search index (RSI) for searches for the term “home abortion” were three times higher than “self abortion” and almost four times higher than “buy abortion pill online.”
“Google searches are a novel way of understanding population level health concerns and needs in real-time or near-time,” said Sylvia Guendelman.
The project began in a two-semester data science course on “Infodemiology” co-taught by School of Information professor Coye Cheshire and several faculty colleagues in the School of Public Health in 2020-2021. “Infodemiology perfectly aligns the interests of the School of Public Health and the School of Information, since the focus is on the distribution of health information and misinformation on the Internet,” Cheshire said. The purpose of the year-long course was to collaborate with students to identify important research problems related to online search behaviors and health-related topics in the United States and then develop these ideas into complete data science projects.
The Berkeley team observed the highest interest for home abortion and self abortion in states hostile to abortion, suggesting that state restrictions may encourage these online searches. Top webpages provided limited evidence-based clinical content on self-management of abortions, and several antiabortion sites presented health-related disinformation.
“As we analyzed the data, we realized that the state-level differences in relative search terms about abortion told an important story: searches for home abortions tended to be more popular in states that have higher restrictions on abortion access,” Cheshire said. “For example, several of the states with the highest search traffic for ‘home abortion’ in 2020 attempted to limit abortion access during the COVID-19 outbreak by deeming abortion ‘non-essential.’”
“Our analysis shows that many people across the United States are actively searching for safe, effective, and private methods for pregnancy termination,” Cheshire said, “even as lawmakers and courts at the State and Federal levels continue to work to restrict the rights of women and girls who become pregnant.”