‘A swell of interest’: Texas abortion ban triggers surge in search traffic seeking access


Legislation in Texas that bans nearly all abortions — many before a pregnant person even realizes they are pregnant — has triggered a surge in traffic to websites advising how to safely access the abortion pill.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an overnight decision not to heed the calls of sexual health and rights advocates to freeze the restrictive legislation, which came into effect on Wednesday.

The law bans all abortions, even in cases of rape, after six weeks, which would mean a person whose menstrual period is just past one week late would lose the choice of whether to carry the pregnancy before they might even realize they are pregnant.

“We’re seeing a swell of interest,” said Elisa Wells, co-founder and co-director of U.S.-based Plan C.

The organization works to improve access to abortion pills, share accurate information about the clinical data on their safety and efficacy, and eventually get abortion pills available over-the-counter.

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Wells was part of the advocacy team that worked to get Plan B, which is emergency birth control often referred to as “the morning-after pill,” available over the counter in the U.S.

Plan B prevents conception, whereas the abortion pill terminates a pregnancy.

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She said the organization’s web traffic jumped on Wednesday from 1,000 to roughly 15,000 visitors as the Texas ban came into effect and that over the course of July, visitors from the Texas cities of Dallas and Houston were in the top three of the locations for visitors seeking information on the abortion pill.

“People are seeking alternative routes of access,” Wells said, noting 25 per cent of website visitors are clicking through to access a separate website that can help them get prescriptions for the abortion pill via telemedicine.

“We help them understand what those alternative routes of access are.”

The Texas law is the first of its kind to take effect. Previous compositions of the Supreme Court have blocked similar laws in other states from kicking in while legal challenges play out.

But the court is now controlled by social conservatives following the death of the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett as her replacement by Donald Trump.

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U.S. President Joe Biden lambasted the 5-4 decision by the court on Thursday, vowing to launch a “whole-of-government effort to respond to this decision.”

He also ordered federal agencies to look into “what steps the federal government can take to ensure that women in Texas have access to safe and legal abortions as protected by Roe.”

Roe v. Wade was the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled women have the right to an abortion without “excessive” restriction by the government.

However, anti-choice actors have for decades worked to test the limits of what constitutes “excessive” restriction in a bid to erode and ultimately overturn Roe.

And while the lack of options in the past frequently led desperate women to seek out unsafe abortions, the broad availability of the abortion pill means networks are mobilizing to make sure those who need a safe abortion can get one — and that unsafe abortions do not become the only option.

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“We have safe, modern effective pills and they are pretty readily available so we need people to know that so they can seek that through alternative means if they are cut off from that,” Wells said.

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In 2017, a World Health Organization study warned that half of abortions performed around the world are unsafe but that safe abortions can include those obtained through telemedicine, so long as that includes good quality information and support.

One of the safe options for accessing the abortion pill, according to the WHO, is the Canadian non-profit organization Women on Web, which provides virtual consultations with doctors and abortion pills via mail to people around the world.

The executive director of Women on Web, Venny Ala-Siurua, told Global News the organization has been working to make sure there is good quality information about abortion pills available amid the Texas ban, particularly given some U.S. groups including Plan C have seen their social media accounts blocked.

“Although Women on Web service is not open in the US, we have indeed seen an uptick in followers on our social media accounts and in visits to our website,” Ala-Siurua said.

She encouraged Canadians who want to learn more to follow organizations like Plan C as well as Aid Access, which operates on a similar model to Women on Web and has begun offering abortion pills to people in Texas before they become pregnant.

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For those searching for ways to take action, another sexual health advocate urged Canadians to look to the barriers that remain in place here at home.

“It’s important that those of us who unequivocally support abortion access and reproductive rights to remain vocal and unwavering in our advocacy,” said TK Ptichard, executive director of The Shore Centre.

“Abortion is not widely accessible in Canada, despite common belief.”

Access to abortion in Canada is a well-documented challenge.

Global News has previously reported on the fact that dozens of Canadian women are sent to the U.S. for abortions each year because of a lack of access to the time-sensitive medical service domestically.

Prichard urged Canadians to raise their voices, and work for change.

“For Canadians who want to make a difference right now, it’s important to support organizations who facilitate abortion access and with an election taking place — reach out to their local candidates.”

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