According to the one-star Yelp review, Jennifer was five weeks pregnant when she called White Rose Women’s Center in Dallas to schedule an abortion. Her first choice, Planned Parenthood, was booked out several weeks in advance, and she didn’t have much time. Texas had recently passed a law outlawing abortion at roughly six weeks gestation, which is around the time electrical activity in the area where heart will eventually form can be picked up by an ultrasound
Online, White Rose advertises itself as an “abortion counseling clinic,” telling prospective clients: “Need help with your abortion? We’re here for you.”
Jennifer called to schedule an appointment and was relieved the clinic could see her quickly, but dismayed when she arrived and was ushered into a room to watch what she describes as an hour-long video “about how terrible abortion is.” When it was over, she was given an ultrasound — complete with commentary: “They proceeded to try to talk me out of an abortion saying ‘oh well you must have SOME KIND OF SUPPORT’ … no. I don’t.”
She goes on to describe an uncomfortable experience in which the ultrasound technician “tried many many times to get the ‘heartbeat’ to show up on the monitor, even going so far as to tell me to hold my breath so they could catch it. There was ABSOLUTELY NO MOVEMENT.” When the ultrasound was over, she writes, “They ended with saying ‘well you’re 6 wks 1 day, too far along to do anything about it.’”
Jennifer recalls “LITERALLY bawling my eyes out” as staffers offered to connect her with a therapy group and sign her up for a Medicaid program available to pregnant women in Texas.
For weeks after her appointment, she says she continued to receive calls from the center following up on the progress of her pregnancy. By then, Jennifer writes, she’d found a provider and “dealt with it.”
White Rose, as Jennifer belatedly discovered, is not an abortion clinic. It’s a crisis pregnancy center, an organization whose sole purpose is to persuade women seeking abortions to keep their pregnancies instead. There are more than 2,500 crisis pregnancy centers across the country, a figure that dwarfs the roughly 800 clinics that provide abortion care, according to the most recent figures available, from 2020. (That number has almost certainly revised downward in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.)
The sheer volume of crisis pregnancy centers, combined with the fact that such organizations often employ misleading advertising tactics, can make it difficult for a person seeking an abortion to distinguish a CPC from an abortion clinic. That’s why, if you seek out White Rose on Yelp today, at the very top of the business’s page you’ll see a consumer notice warning prospective patients: “This is a Crisis Pregnancy Center. Crisis Pregnancy Centers do not offer abortions or referrals to abortion providers.”
The notice is part of a larger effort the company has undertaken in recent years to prevent CPCs from using its platform to mislead its users — an effort that has both distinguished Yelp from its less-proactive competitors, and placed the company squarely in the crosshairs of dozens of Republican attorneys general.
Last month, Yelp received a letter from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accusing the company of having “deceptively disparage[d] facilities that counsel pregnant women instead of providing abortions,” and informing the company that the state of Texas planned to file a lawsuit against it — which it did on September 28. It’s a lawsuit, Yelp’s lawyers contend, that doesn’t just threaten the platform itself — it threatens users like Jennifer who share their experiences online.
Shortly after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in the summer of 2022, Yelp began adding disclaimers on the pages for crisis pregnancy centers on its platform. In February, Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron — now the GOP nominee for governor in the state — sent a letter signed by 23 other attorneys general (including Paxton) accusing Yelp of a “scheme to discredit crisis pregnancy centers and to discourage women and families from accessing their services.”
Sternly worded letters like these have become an increasingly common tactic among ultra-conservative AGs — and a tactic that they have frequently found to be successful. Walgreens, the second-largest pharmacy chain in the country, caved instantly upon receiving similar correspondence earlier this year from a group of Republican AGs upset at the idea that the drug store might dispense the abortion medication mifepristone over the counter under new rules implemented by the Biden administration. (Walgreens quickly assured the attorneys general it would not dispense the medication in their states.)
Upon receiving the letter from Cameron, Yelp agreed to make the notice more specific. Its notice initially said CPCs “typically provide limited medical services and may not have licensed medical professionals onsite.” But it refused to take the notice down. Cameron was satisfied, and even praised the company’s “timely response;” Paxton’s office called the new disclaimer “accurate” — and then seven months later filed a lawsuit over the old one. He contends that Yelp’s initial assertion that crisis pregnancy centers offer “limited” medical services misled its users.
Yelp’s support for reproductive rights is a point of pride at the company. As co-founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman recounted in an email to Rolling Stone, he first learned of the problem while watching an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in 2018. “Knowing that many of these centers likely had Yelp pages, I asked our user operations team to look into how we could take preventative measures to mitigate this type of deceptive behavior on our platform,” he says.
Those measures, says Noorie Malik, VP of Yelp’s User Operations Team, involved manually evaluating thousands of businesses, one by one — visiting the businesses websites and social media pages and combing through their reviews — to determine whether they actually provided the services they claimed to.
The company now performs such audits regularly. In 2022, Yelp says it evaluated more than 55,000 reproductive health service business pages, recategorizing 1,300 of them as crisis pregnancy centers. Often, Yelp has found, those businesses have tried to circumvent the quality control measures in order to avoid being identified as a CPC. Out of the more than 2,000 businesses recategorized as crisis pregnancy centers since 2018, 380 of them — 19 percent — tried to change their categories back a total of 1,740 times, according to figures provided by the company.
Users looking for pregnancy-related services on Yelp can still find CPCs, some of which offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, but the company won’t surface those listings to people searching for facilities that provide abortions. That might seem like the minimum a platform can do to ensure that it isn’t used to purposefully mislead its customers, but other companies’ abject failures to address the same problem make Yelp’s efforts look positively heroic.
Consider Google: According to a recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, the search behemoth accepted an estimated $10.2 million in ads for crisis pregnancy centers in the last two years alone — ads designed to appear in response to search terms like “abortion pill,” “abortion clinic,” “abortion clinic near me,” “abortion pill cost,” and even “planned parenthood.” The same report found that Google is not only profiting from the misinformation these organizations spread, in some cases it may even be bankrolling it: because some CPCs are registered nonprofits, in many cases they are eligible for $10,000 of free advertising a month from Google.
At the same time that it is doing business with crisis pregnancy centers, Google is reportedly refusing to accept ads from the nonprofit PlanC, which connects women seeking abortions with organizations that offer the abortion pill by mail. A spokesperson for the group told Wired this summer that it has been banned from Google ads for advertising “unauthorized pharmacies.”
That’s just Google Ads. Last year, a Bloomberg investigation found that Google Maps “routinely” misled people seeking abortion, showing crisis pregnancy centers in their results roughly a quarter of the time. (After years of criticism over this practice, Google announced last year it would start labeling clinics that provide abortions in Maps.)
Yelp’s example shows how simply labeling misinformation can make a company a target for partisan officials looking to score political points. The company says it is not backing down. After being informed of Paxton’s plans to sue, Yelp filed its own lawsuit against Paxton first, asserting that the Texas AG’s threats to prosecute violate it’s First Amendment rights — and the rights of individual users who post on its platform.
Ironically, Paxton is suing Yelp under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, a law that prohibits “false, misleading, or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.” A prior Texas attorney general, Jim Mattox, in 1988 used the same law to prosecute a crisis pregnancy center for defrauding consumers who were seeking abortions.
The details of Mattox’s case are strikingly similar to the experience Jennifer described in her review decades later. Women found the crisis pregnancy centers through the Yellow Pages and made appointments believing they would be provided abortions. They arrived and were given pregnancy tests, then “led into another room by themselves whereupon they were shown a slide show and a videotape showing graphic pictures pertaining to abortion procedures. …After the presentations, counselors came into the room to attempt to persuade the women against having an abortion. This was later followed up by notes and phone calls from the Center’s personnel.”
In that case, a jury found — and appellate court affirmed — the CPCs had violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
A hearing in Yelp’s case is scheduled for November.