Google, abortion & religion

Katherine Makinney wasn’t looking for a fight about abortion when she began advertising through Google’s AdWords program. She just wanted to promote a series of films, some by her and some by other directors, to receptive audiences, like church youth groups.

But after a few weeks of promoting the films she makes under the banner of Postmodern Parables, Makinney suddenly had to fight to remain a paying customer of the 900-pound gorilla of search engines.

The reason? One of Makinney’s short films, destiny, is about abortion. Makinney distributes the film in two versions: subtle and direct. The latter cites Scripture at the beginning and end of the film. Thus, one of Makinney’s films mixed the topics of abortion and religion — which, some of Google’s ad-watchers told her, violated the company’s policy about what advertising it accepts.

The film tells the story of Jen, a photojournalist who meets a cop, conceives a baby with him, is abandoned by him and eventually has an abortion. But she repeatedly hears music in the night, and wonders whether she has done the right thing. In one of the more serendipitous casting choices of recent years, Jen is played by Jerri Manthey of Survivor: Australia.

Makinney’s 16-minute film apparently has flown under the radar of most abortion-rights groups. It does not, like The Silent Scream, show an abortion on camera (and which pundits once dismissed as “prolife porn”). It does show how one woman, in circumstances that are repeated thousands of times over, feels the pressure of friends and peers to have an abortion. And it has the effrontery to show that this one woman is haunted by regrets.

“It’s not strong enough for anti-abortion, prolife groups,” Makinney told GetReligion about her film. “It’s too strong for rabidly prochoice groups. But it really resonates with people who have been through the experience of abortion.”

Google ultimately agreed to continue accepting ads for Postmodern Parables. “There is nothing about the content of her site that would cause us to deny advertising on Google,” wrote Cindy McCaffrey, vice president of corporate marketing, in response to a query from GetReligion. “I’m not entirely sure why her ads were initially disallowed, but upon review, we determined that her site and related advertising were indeed appropriate.”

Makinney says her ads were restored on condition that the ads not make connections between abortion and religion. Google did not respond to further questions about its policies on ads that mix abortion and religion as topics, or how those ads might be more volatile, say, than ads for pornographic websites.

But various searches on Google suggest that Makinney refers to a real phenomenon. Type in abortion religion, abortion church, abortion Christianity or abortion God and you’ll find many links but a dearth of paid ads. Even the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice does not appear in Google ads. One site does turn up in an ad: StandUpGirl.com, which offers vague, artsy pictures in a Flash intro but eventually makes its prolife convictions clear.

As a private company, of course, Google can accept or reject ads as it wishes. But what does it say about our culture, much less about the boundary-free potential of the Internet, when the important discussion of abortion and faith is somehow considered more radioactive than something called napster-of-porn.com?

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