The Hidden Women's Health Crisis Revealed by Our Google Searches

June 14th 2017

Mike Rothschild

Researcher Seth Stephens-Davidowitz was working on a doctorate at Harvard University when he began a deep dive into Google Trends, which tracks how frequently search terms are entered into Google over time.

Working under the theory that people's searches would reflect their anxieties and fears more honestly than polling or posts on social media, Stephens-Davidowitz spent five years studying what was being put into the search engine.

What he found: that the national mood was far darker than most knew. He also found that Donald Trump was an extremely popular search term in states he was projected to lose, and that African-American voters weren't searching for information about voter registration and polling places.

Beyond political data, though, Stephens-Davidowitz believes he found evidence of an extremely disturbing trend: a rise in self-induced abortion.

There's almost no data on the number of self-induced abortions in the United States, as the procedure is a crime in many states. In one study, researchers at the Texas Policy Evaluation Project surveyed 780 women of and found that 1.7 percent admitted trying to end a pregnancy on their own, while 4.7 percent believed a close friend had. If accurate, this extrapolates to anywhere between 100,000 and 240,000 women having attempted self-induced abortions — in Texas alone.

"I'm pretty convinced that the United States has a self-induced abortion crisis right now based on the volume of search inquiries," Stephens-Davidowitz told Vox. He added that searches for ways to terminate a pregnancy were "concentrated in parts of the country where it's hard to get an abortion and they rose substantially when it became harder to get an abortion."

In the last five years, Republican-dominated state legislatures have passes a flood of laws restricting access to abortion and making it harder for abortion clinics to operate. In total, state legislatures passed 338 new abortion laws from 2011 to January 2017. That represents well over a quarter of all abortion laws passed since the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in 1973. 

Searches for "self-induced abortion" have remained remarkably consistent over the last five years, while the states with the least access have the most searches.

Self-induced abortion

The top 10 states in terms of searches over the last five years are Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Missouri. And according to data from Guttmacher, as of 2014, all of these states but Georgia had fewer than seven abortion clinics; most had three or fewer, and some have likely closed since then.



Stephens-Davidowitz pinpointed the problem over a year ago, writing in The New York Times that "demand for self-induced abortions has reached a disturbing level" and that it would be years before the relationship between abortion access and self-abortion was fully understood. 

What is fully understood, however, is the relationship between new laws and clinic closures. In oral arguments at the Supreme Court in 2015, Justice Elena Kagen summed up the link perfectly. Discussing the legal challenge to Texas' omnibus abortion law HB2, Kagan said "it's almost like the perfect controlled experiment as to the effect of the law, isn’t it? It’s like you put the law into effect, 12 clinics closed. You take the law out of effect, they reopen?”