Apple’s Abortion Search Issue — How You Can Help

Siri-San Francisco, CA

Originally posted on Medium and Feministing

By: Alexis Hoffman, UCSF, Program in Woman-Centered Contraception; Christine Dehlendorf, UCSF, Program in Woman-Centered Contraception; Lauren Himiak, The Sea Change Program

Imagine you are pregnant and don’t want to be. You want an abortion, but fear talking to friends and family might lead to judgment about your personal decision. People you know who have needed abortions were harassed by strangers, questioned by friends, and made to feel that they are doing something morally wrong. Feeling alone, you turn to your phone to search for a clinic that provides abortion, only to find that adoption agencies, crisis pregnancy centers and nurseries are all the come up.

It may sound far fetched, but until very recently this was a reality for individuals across the U.S. who turned to Siri, Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant,” or Apple Maps for help. Siri can answer a variety of questions accurately. What is the weather forecast today? What is the capital of Romania? Where can I buy a gun? Yet, when you asked Siri, “Where is the nearest abortion clinic?” Apple’s search algorithm went remarkably awry.

Tested across the country, Siri and Apple Maps were directing users to adoption agencies, crisis pregnancy centers, nursery schools, and family law practices. When asked for an abortion clinic in San Francisco proper, Siri directed users to Heartsent Adoptions in Orinda, California — an adoption agency 20 miles outside the city. Adoption agencies and lawyers were the result for searches in Chicago, Boston, and Portland. Crisis pregnancy centers — anti-abortion centers posing for women’s health clinics — were Siri’s response in Philadelphia and New Hampshire. Even nurseries were a result in New York City when standing a few feet from a Planned Parenthood.

A similar issue arose in 2011 when Siri was in its early development. Early users noted that Siri failed to provide information about abortion clinic location — stating “I couldn’t find any”- even if standing directly outside a clinic. Demand was high for Apple to correct the issue, with civil rights organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America, MoveOn, and the ACLU putting the Silicon Valley tech-giant in the hot seat for what seemed like a deliberate exclusion of information about abortion providers. In a statement for the New York Times, a spokesperson for Apple assured protesters that the omissions were “not intentional” and attributed the issue to the product being in early stages.

At some point over the past five years, Siri’s relative silence on abortion clinics quietly shifted to blatant misinformation. Recognizing that these searches had the potential to further isolate those seeking abortion care, on November 18, 2015 we reached out to Apple, sending a letter to Tim Cook and Apple’s PR demanding this be rectified, and pitching the story to media outlets:

“Women continue to be bullied, shamed, and marginalized for seeking an abortion, which can lead to isolation and silence. It is in these times of isolation, when women are more likely to turn to your product to locate the health care they need, that Siri’s misdirection to adoption agencies and nurseries is all the more undermining, implying women do not know what is best for themselves…”

After receiving no direct response from Apple, we shared our findings and concerns with Fast Company. The story — Apple Maps Stops Sending people Searching for “Abortion” to Adoption Centers — broke on January 29. Staff at Fast Company based the title on their own internal research showing that searches in the Bay Area were turning up accurate results for abortion providers.

“By press time, the problem with Apple Maps’ search results seems to have been rectified in New York and San Francisco. But people searching “abortion” in Boston were getting directed to an adoption agency called Cambridge Family & Children’s Service. In Sherman, Texas, a crisis pregnancy center was included in the results. We have yet to test Apple Maps in other locations across the country.” — Fast Company

There is no denying that technology has contributed greatly to the growing movement combating stigma around abortion. Women have taken to Twitter in support of the #shoutyourabortion campaign, found compassion through storytelling mediums, and amplified the growing reproductive justice movement. However, Apple’s 5-year failure to correct Siri’s inaccuracy embodies the ways in which technology has the potential to fail its users, in this context by stigmatizing the act of obtaining abortion information. After concentrated pressure on Apple, changes finally appear to be rolling out. We have started to test Apple Maps and Siri across the country and are please to see facilities like Planned Parenthood finally show up as a result. But the work may not be over. Here’s what you can do to ensure Apple is accountable:

· Grab you phone and ask Siri where to find an abortion, or check on Apple Maps. See what comes up in your community!

· If the results show abortion care providers, send a thank you tweet to @TimCook for ensuring no one is stigmatized for their choice.

· If you are still seeing results such as adoption agencies or nurseries, tweet a snapshot of your results to @timcook and ask Apple to fix this!

· Give feedback to Apple here, especially if you see Crisis Pregnancy centers listed:

· Contact your local abortion care provider to inquire if they know their facility does not appear in a search.

Thank you for helping us to keep the pressure on Apple and ensure that individuals across the U.S. have access to the health care they want and need.