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Internet searches for abortion meds ramp up, study says

A new study finds a sharp increase in Google searches for abortion medication. Photo by Jan Vasek/Pixabay
A new study finds a sharp increase in Google searches for abortion medication. Photo by Jan Vasek/Pixabay

WASHINGTON, June 29 (UPI) -- It's all about the timing, especially when it comes to data-driven healthcare. With emergency contraceptive pills "flying off the shelves," according to a news report, is also data that indicates people are taking quiet steps to figure out what to do next.

As one example, a sharp increase in Google searches for abortion medication came immediately after the early-May leak of the U.S. Supreme Court's draft opinion overturning Roe vs. Wade, a new study finds.

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And a greater number of such Internet searches occurred in states with more restrictive reproductive rights, according to the research letter published Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

"Data driven-health is about building public health strategies to respond to the public's dynamic needs that can change very quickly," said Adam Poliak, assistant professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and a co-author of the study.

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"Based on data, we identify a need for information about safe medication abortion pills," Poliak told UPI.

He added the researchers feel that, based on their findings, it is "crucial to provide women with information about safe solutions. Otherwise, there might be a rise in unsafe abortion attempts, especially in states with restrictive reproductive rights."

Poliak was part of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers from different universities and from the fields of public health, medicine and computer science.

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The researchers analyzed Google search queries in the United States that mentioned "abortion pill" or specific medication names, such as mifepristone/mifeprex, misoprostol/cytotec. These included queries like "how to get misoprostol," "order abortion pills" or "buy mifepristone."

Their analysis ran from Jan. 1, 2004 -- when Poliak said information about Google search queries became available -- through May 8.

The draft opinion from the nation's high court striking down the landmark abortion rights case was leaked by Politico on the night of May 2.

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Google searches for abortion medications spiked in the hour Politico published the leaked draft SCOTUS ruling online, according to the study.

Searches were 162% higher during the 72-hour period following the leak compared to before, and searches for abortion medications were substantially higher than ever recorded.

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Those states given failing grades by the Institute for Women's Policy Research's index of reproductive rights had 163% more searches than states with an A letter grade, the researchers said.

"Studying Internet searches allows us to understand fast-changing public needs," Poliak said. And while analyzing Internet search trends should not fully replace traditional surveys, he said, "they are a useful adjunct."

Internet searches are an anonymous way for people to find information, he explained, and studying search trends in the aggregate can help decision-makers understand the needs of the public based on the content and timing of their queries.

Previously, Poliak said, "our research team has analyzed interest search trends to discover increases in anxiety attacks during the early stages of COVID-19, as well as interest in police reforms following George Floyd's death."

Poliak said the researchers cannot anticipate what to expect now that the Supreme Court has officially overturned Roe.

"Our work focuses on identifying the increase in interest in medication abortion pills," he said. "We do not want to speculate about the future but rather use data to inform the public health response to the public's changing needs."

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