Facebook and Instagram have begun promptly removing posts that offer abortion pills to women who might not be able to access them following a Supreme Court decision that stripped away constitutional protections for the procedure.
Facebook has since announced the removal of some posts discussing the pills – as opposed to distribute them – was done in error, due to incorrect enforcement.
"Content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, gift, request or donate pharmaceuticals is not allowed," Meta spokesperson Andy Stone tweeted. "Content that discusses the affordability and accessibility of prescription medication is allowed. We've discovered some instances of incorrect enforcement and are correcting these."
Facebook's policies prohibit "attempts to buy, sell or trade pharmaceutical drugs," except when the seller is a "legitimate healthcare e-commerce business." These policies have been constantly evolving over the years, particularly in light of the pandemic, which opened the door to telehealth services across the U.S. Now telemedicine is expected to play an important role in providing abortion care to people in states where abortion will be banned or severely restricted. And the ability to share information online about accessing abortion pills by mail is critical to that work.
Still, Facebook and other online platforms are now operating in uncharted legal territory, where individual states are seeking to outlaw mailing the abortion pill mifepristone, while Attorney General Merrick Garland has said such bans are prohibited. That could set up another legal fight between states and the federal government.
Even as Facebook works to correct whatever enforcement problems led to the abortion pill posts being blocked, Meta and other platforms must also grapple with what to do about abortion misinformation, including a slew of Facebook ads that claim abortion pills are reversible or dangerous, despite medical guidance to the contrary. Meta spokesperson Dani Lever previously told Protocol that ads and posts about abortion will be eligible for fact-checking by third parties.
"Posts debunked by our independent third-party fact-checking partners will appear lower in Feed, be filtered out of Explore on Instagram and be featured less prominently in Feed and Stories so fewer people see them," Lever said. "We also prohibit ads that include misinformation, mislead people about the services a business provides or repeatedly use shocking imagery to further a point of view."
Such social media posts ostensibly aimed to help women living in states where preexisting laws banning abortion suddenly snapped into effect Friday. That is when the high court overruled Roe v. Wade, its 1973 decision that ruled access to abortion a constitutional right.
Memes and status updates explaining how women could legally obtain abortion pills in the mail exploded across social platforms. Some even offered to mail the prescriptions to women living in states that now ban the procedure.
Almost immediately, Facebook and Instagram began removing some of these posts, just as millions across the U.S. were searching for clarity around abortion access. General mentions of abortion pills, as well as posts mentioning specific versions such as mifepristone and misoprostol, suddenly spiked Friday morning across Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and TV broadcasts, according to an analysis by the media intelligence firm Zignal Labs.
By Sunday, Zignal had counted more than 250,000 such mentions.
The AP obtained a screenshot on Friday of one Instagram post from a woman who offered to purchase or forward abortion pills through the mail, minutes after the court ruled to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion.
"DM me if you want to order abortion pills, but want them sent to my address instead of yours," the post on Instagram read.
Instagram took it down within moments. Vice Media first reported on Monday that Meta, the parent of both Facebook and Instagram, was taking down posts about abortion pills.
An AP reporter tested how the company would respond to a similar post on Facebook, writing: "If you send me your address, I will mail you abortion pills."
The post was removed within one minute.
The Facebook account was immediately put on a "warning" status for the post, which Facebook said violated its standards on "guns, animals, and other regulated goods."
But there is evidence of inconsistencies in enforcement. When the AP reporter made the same exact post but swapped out the words "abortion pills" for "a gun," the post remained up. Likewise, a post using the same exact offer to mail "weed" was left up. This, though marijuana is illegal under federal law and it is illegal to send it through the mail.
Abortion pills, however, can legally be obtained through the mail after an online consultation from prescribers who have undergone certification and training.
In an email, a Meta spokesperson pointed to company policies that prohibit the sale of certain items, including guns, alcohol, drugs, and pharmaceuticals. The company did not explain the apparent discrepancies in its enforcement of that policy.
Meta spokesperson Andy Stone confirmed in a tweet Monday that the company will not allow individuals to gift or sell pharmaceuticals on its platform, but will allow content that shares information on how to access pills.
Stone acknowledged some problems with enforcing that policy across its platforms, which include Facebook and Instagram.
"We've discovered some instances of incorrect enforcement and are correcting these," Stone said in the tweet.
Attorney General Merrick Garland said Friday that states should not ban mifepristone, the medication used to induce an abortion.
"States may not ban mifepristone based on disagreement with the FDA's expert judgment about its safety and efficacy," Garland said in a Friday statement.
Some Republicans have already tried to stop their residents from obtaining abortion pills through the mail, with some states, like West Virginia and Tennessee, prohibiting providers from prescribing the medication through telemedicine consultation.
Information from The Associated Press was used throughout this report.
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