A new study shows that the highest recorded number of Google searches in the U.S. for abortion medication occurred following the leak of a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade – a potential sign of how demand for the method may surge now that the court has finalized its ruling.
Approximately 350,000 internet searches for abortion medication were conducted the week of May 1 through May 8, according to the analysis published Wednesday in JAMA Internal Medicine, with searches 162% higher than expected during the 72-hour period after the leaked draft became public on May 2.
Researchers examined Google search data and relative search volumes tied to U.S.-based searches for “abortion pill” or for specific abortion medications from Jan. 1, 2004, through May 8, 2022. Relative search volume refers to how Google shows a topic’s popularity relative to other searches, using a scale of 0 to 100.
They also compared search volume data in each state in the 72 hours after the opinion’s leak to a letter grade each state received in a reproductive rights index from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The organization assesses states based on factors such as whether they require a waiting period before abortion services and the percentage of women who live in counties with an abortion provider
Nebraska – which received a grade of F in the reproductive rights index – had the highest relative search volume for abortion medication during the first 72 hours after the leak, according to the study. Other states with poor index grades – including Missouri and Michigan – also had some of the highest search volume values.
“Significantly more searches occurred in states with more restrictive reproductive rights,” the study says.
Medication abortion, or the abortion pill, is a method that typically involves a two-drug combination of the medications mifepristone and misoprostol. Approved for use within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it accounted for 54% of all abortions in 2020, according to preliminary data from the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights research and policy organization.
Though the study notes that it cannot confirm a link between abortion attempts and searches for abortion medication, demand for medication abortion reportedly did spike in the wake of the draft opinion’s leak. On Friday, the high court released a finalized ruling that overturned the landmark 1973 precedent cementing a right to abortion in the U.S., putting the matter in the hands of individual states.
“We see this record-breaking demand for abortion medications, and when you see that it raises a host of questions as to what you can do,” says study coauthor John Ayers, vice chief of innovation and an associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at the University of California–San Diego.
While the findings of the new study appear to highlight concern over the loss of access to abortion services, Ayers says the study also raises questions as to whether states that ban abortion will be able to promote strategies that mitigate harms women may face should they choose less safe alternatives to end their pregnancies.
An estimated 7% of U.S. women will attempt to self-manage their abortions at some point in their lives, according to a 2020 study published in JAMA Network Open. Black women and Hispanic women surveyed in English, as well as women earning lower incomes, were more likely to attempt to self-manage an abortion compared with white women and those earning higher incomes, the study found.
“We don’t want people to hurt themselves, we don’t want people to try to attempt an abortion on their own,” Ayers says.
Dr. Daniel Grossman, director of the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California–San Francisco, says the overturning of Roe v. Wade will have large health implications as more women try to self-manage their abortions while others carry their pregnancies to term, which likely will lead to an increase in related complications.
Grossman says harm-reduction approaches to unsafe abortions seen in other places where abortion access is restricted, like Latin America, could possibly serve as a model for helping women in the U.S. who live where abortion is banned. But, he says, a lot will depend on what information will be legal for health care providers to distribute to patients in such states.
“I really hope my clinician colleagues will step up and provide that really lifesaving information to patients,” Grossman says.