Home page of French abortion information website www.ivg.net..
screenshot of www.ivg.net

By Julie Charpentrat and Isabelle Tourne

Newly pregnant but not happily so, Jennie called a hotline for those seeking information about abortion.

“Is it something you’ve thought about very carefully?” asked the woman on the other end of the line. “Isn’t there just a little voice within you asking if you want to keep it? Doesn’t part of you already feel like a mother?”

“I broke down in tears,” Jennie told us. 

Thinking she had called a government-backed center offering impartial guidance, 29-year-old Jennie instead had ended up speaking to one of France’s several anti-abortion groups. She felt duped and manipulated, and we ended up describing her experience to illustrate an investigation into the techniques increasingly used by anti-abortion activists.

AFP journalists researching investigative report on abortion-related websites in France.
AFP Photo

Abortion in France was legalized in 1975, and protests against the procedure in the 1980s centered on street prayer sessions and even direct raids on abortion clinics. In recent years, however, campaigners have – just as in the United States – shifted their approach, deploying web savvy and non-confrontational dialogue to sway women considering a pregnancy termination. 

We stumbled on this story idea almost by chance. 

While researching a piece in 2009, one of us typed the letters “IVG” – interruption volontaire de grossesse, a French technical term for abortion – into Google. What popped up was surprising. To begin with, there appeared to be no official government website offering unbiased information, and the official Family Planning site was thin on information and especially resources. But what we did find in abundance were slick, official-looking sites that appeared neutral in tone – for instance www.ivg.net – but were anything but. These sites consistently turned up at the top of our search results, sometimes as sponsored links. 

While the right to abort in France is well-established, many issues around it remain contentious. Access to abortion clinics, for example, is not always trouble free, something French president Francois Hollande vowed to address while campaigning last year. 

Gynecologist Marie-Laure Brival, who works for an association of abortion clinics, pointed to research showing that anti-abortion groups are increasing present online and often hide behind a mask of neutrality. The shift in tactics, she said, is clear: in-your-face campaigns centered on horrible pictures of aborted fetuses have given way to far subtler messages designed to confuse more than shock. 

Screenshot of French abortion information website www.ecouteivg.org.
Screenshot www.ecouteivg.com

In form and content, US anti-abortion websites -- such as the one below -- have the same look and feel, and offer the same kind of advice.

screenshot from www.realoptionsforwomen.com.
screenshot from www.realoptionsforwomen.com

“There used to be this stereotype of Catholic anti-abortion campaigners, brandishing crosses and chaining themselves up,” she told us. “But the strategy has completely changed. Now the movement is everywhere.”

On the www.ivg.net site, the toll-free phone number that Jennie called is prominently highlighted as a “national listening center” offering “free and confidential advice”. “It really looks like it’s a government-run line,” said researcher Nathalie Bajos from France’s national health research center Inserm, one of the 15 or so people we interviewed and one of the few who was able to speak from a neutral position on the highly emotive topic.

But the overwhelming majority of articles on the website stress the mental and emotional toll of having an abortion, often backed up by references to scientific literature. Prominently cited, for example, is the controversial research of US professor Priscilla Coleman on the psychological impacts terminating a pregnancy. Virtually all of the accompanying testimonies are purportedly from women who have lived through such traumatic experiences.

“Each day, the pain gets worse. If I could go back in time, I would have kept it,” one typical comment reads. 

March 2012 anti-abortion demonstration in Bordeaux, France.
AFP Photo/Pierre Andrieu

Anti-Abortion demonstration in Washington D.C.
AFP Photo/Robyn Beck

Marie Philippe, who runs the organization behind the site, insists that the advice ivg.net gives is impartial. “Doctors don’t tell women anything,” she said. “A woman has the right to abort, but also to know the consequences on her relationship with her partner, the psychological effects and how it could impact her sex life.”

Another like-minded group, Alliance Vita, campaigns in France against gay marriage and to reduce the number of abortions. The organization differentiates itself from more traditional anti-abortion groups, which historically have taken to the streets – and do most activists in France – to make their point of view known. An earlier generation of pro-life activists did the same, beginning with the “March for Life” in Washington D.C. in 1973, the year that abortion was legalized in the US. 

“We have no ties” to the March for Life, a spokesman from Alliance Vita told us. That may be true, but did not prevent the group’s president Xavier Mirabel from congratulated organizers of the US protest that saw thousands gather on the American capital’s National Mall.

Alliance Vita has a 1.6-million euro annual budget and lobbies both nationally and at the European level. In 2010 – under pressure from anti-abortion groups including Alliance Vita, which  had submitted a petition with 26,000 signatures – the Council of Europe expanded the right of medical professionals to opt out of performing an abortion if they objected to it on moral grounds. 

Defenders of the right to abortion, we found, are increasingly alarmed by such measures, especially after abortion opponent Tonio Borg was recently appointed European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy.

screenshot from website www.sosbebe.org
screenshot from www.sosbebe.org

screenshot of www.awomanschoice.org
screenshot of www.awomanschoice.org

In the United States, where the debate remains even more heated than in France, public prayers and large demonstrations are still commonplace. But such public displays are backed by massive lobbying and the same kind of faux-neutral tacticis, according to Joerg Dreweke, a spokesman for the Washington-based Guttmacher Institute. Conservatives in the United States helped usher in a record 135 local laws in 2011 and 2012 restricting access to abortion, Dreweke told our US-based colleague Fabienne Faur, who also contributed to our investigation. 

Jennie, the French woman considering a termination, was so frustrated by her experience that she wrote to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s women's rights minister. The minister said some websites are “extremely deceiving” and told us her office is working on an internet strategy so women going through difficult decisions can get impartial information.