iPhone owners in many cities who use the Apple Maps app to search for abortion clinics have been led astray, instead finding results for adoption agencies and deceitful crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs).
But the tech giant is addressing the issue, with officials charging that it was a glitch in the app’s algorithm and not evidence of the corporation’s political leanings.
Though the company first received criticism about the problem five years ago, the issue seems to have worsened since then, according to an investigation by Fast Company:
During January, Fast Company tested both Siri and Apple Maps from various locations around San Francisco using the search term “abortion” in Maps and by asking Siri, “Where can I find an abortion provider?” We were directed to a domestic and international adoption agency almost 30 miles outside of the city called Heartsent Adoptions, and no abortion providers were included in the search results.
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Many advocates for reproductive choice are concerned with these search results, saying that it contributes to the negative stigma associated with abortion.
“If Siri is silent on abortion, women will often look for information elsewhere,” Kim Custer, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of health, told Fast Company. “But suggesting an adoption clinic might add to the existing stigma about abortions.”
Researchers from the University of California San Francisco and the Sea Change Program, a nonprofit organization with a mission to reduce abortion stigma, have put pressure on Apple to make the necessary changes to its search algorithm. Some of the researchers wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook in November, notifying him of what happens when people use Siri:
Apple’s reputation for creating products that are easy to use and understand is well deserved. However, the transformation of Siri’s lack of knowledge of abortion providers to Siri’s anti-choice suggestions is alarming, and contributes to the stigma surrounding abortion care in our country. Despite the commonness of abortion, as nearly one-in-three women will have an abortion by the age of 45, women are confronted on a daily basis with society’s shame-based messaging that having an abortion is morally wrong and unacceptable. 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.
Search results seemed to have improved over the past week, according to Fast Company. Similar searches are turning up a comprehensive list of abortion providers and other options, with adoption centers at the bottom.
Apple publicly defended these search results in 2011, claiming that it was not intentional.
“Our customers want to use Siri to find out all types of information, and while it can find a lot, it doesn’t always find what you want,” Natalie Kerris, an Apple spokeswoman, told Search Engine Land in 2011. “These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks.”
Search Engine Land noted that Siri might not find abortion clinics because Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers don’t list themselves as abortion clinics.
That was in 2011, and the problem has persisted.
“My hunch is that this isn’t political at all, even now,” Sean Gourley, a data scientist and learning algorithms expert based in Silicon Valley, told Fast Company. “Apple is not a search company, unlike Google, and its knowledge base is very different.”
This is hardly the first time a tech giant has played a role in abortion politics.
Google has taken steps to remove deceptive ads for anti-choice CPCs. Google worked with NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2014 after the organization found that CPC ads from groups such as Online for Life violated Google’s policy against deceptive advertising and targeting people searching the web for abortion care.
Some advocates for abortion access believe that Apple needs to address the issue regardless of motive.
“Apple is at the forefront of technology,” Christine Dehlendorf, associate professor and one of the researchers from UCSF, told Fast Company. “When they provide inaccurate search results, it’s stigmatizing and alienating for women who want to get the care they need.”