In May 2022 a Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) draft was leaked that revealed it was planning to overturn Roe v. Wade. In the hours and days after, google searches for abortion medication hit a record high, a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine has shown.
On June 24, SCOTUS voted to overturn this abortion law, ending 50 years of federal abortion rights. According to the team, the spike was immediate. In the 72 hours after the leaked draft was first published by Politico, searches were 162 percent higher than would have been expected.
“Discussing abortion openly is not something many are eager to do,” said Dr Eric Leas study co-author in a statement. “But searching online is anonymous. By examining aggregate internet searches, decision-makers can understand the needs of the public based on the content and timing of their queries.”
The researchers looked at the google searches that mentioned specific medication names (misoprostol/cytotec, mifepristone/mifeprex,), “abortion pill”, and queries like “order abortion pills” and “how to get misoprostal”, from January 1, 2004, to May 6, 2022. They looked at the weekly national trends for the entire study period, then the search volumes 72 hours before and after the leak. Lastly, they evaluated the associations between state reproductive rights and google searches.
When they evaluated the trends before and after the draft opinion was leaked, they found that internet searches for abortion medications reached a record national high. During the week of the SCOTUS leak (May 1-8 2022), there was an estimated 350,000 searches in the United States for abortion medications.
When the data was adjusted for population size, the scientists discovered that the states that had more restrictive reproductive rights had significantly more searches in the 72-hour period after the leak. The highest search volume in this 72-hour period came from Nebraska, followed by Iowa and Missouri.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s “Reproductive Rights Index” gives grades to different states on different issues, like work & family, employment & earning, and reproductive rights. States that were given a failing grade (F) for reproductive rights (percent of women living in counties with an abortion service, access to abortions, public funding, etc.) had more people searching for abortion terms than those states that were given a higher grade.
“In states with restrictive reproductive rights and where abortion will likely become criminalized, women appear more likely to search for abortion medications in the wake of the SCOTUS leak,” said first author Dr Adam Poliak. “Although abortion medications require a prescription, women may be attempting to stockpile medication or hazardous black-market options in anticipation of curtailed access.”
“Elevated interest in abortion medications should alert physicians that many of their patients may ultimately pursue abortions with or without them,” added study co-author Dr Davey Smith.
“Failure to meet the needs of online searchers may result in more unsafe abortion attempts,” Dr Steffanie Strathdee noted. “Already 7 percent of women of reproductive age have attempted a self-managed abortion in their lifetimes and that figure could be on the rise following the SCOTUS decision.”
The authors say that one way to prevent unsafe abortion attempts is to allow people avenues to obtain abortion medications legally and safely.
“Accessible information about abortion medications should be prioritized online; including encouraging evidence-based telehealth for those seeking abortion medications,” said co-author Nora Satybaldiyeva. “Providing abortion medications via telehealth under the care of a physician is a safe alternative to in-person care, especially for women in states where abortion will be illegal.”
This study may predict what changes will occur when the ruling is implemented and when any state abortion laws are enforced.
Currently, President Joe Biden has said that women will continue to have access to abortion medications. However, there is concern that “Women in states where abortion is illegal or extremely difficult to access may be forced online to access remote services for abortion, such as abortion medications,” added Satybaldiyeva.
“As abortion policies change and new laws are enacted, research tracking the needs of the public in near real-time must be prioritized to inform responsive public health strategies,” concluded Dr. John Ayers, senior study author. “Investments in public health surveillance systems tracking abortion-related needs could become integral to supporting women’s rights.”