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JEFFERSON CITY — Abortion is banned in Missouri, but Gov. Mike Parson’s administration is spending $266,000 on a social media campaign designed to steer women away from abortions.
A contract inked in April shows the Missouri Department of Social Services has hired a Columbia marketing firm that specializes in online advertising — and beating potential roadblocks erected by search engines — to help market the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program.
“The contractor shall provide digital marketing including social media content creation and web-based advertising for the state agency,” the contract notes.
The company is called Choose Life Marketing. It has done similar work in Arkansas, Florida and for at least one major anti-abortion group in Missouri. The contract could be in place for as long as four years.
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Next year, the company’s contract could grow to $275,000 annually, according to the state Legislature’s $50 billion budget proposal sitting on Parson’s desk.
As written into the spending plan approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in May, the money will pay “to help alternatives to abortion agencies reach pregnant women at risk for having abortions when such agencies are blocked or in any other way suppressed by any search engine, social media platform, or digital advertising network.”
Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, have claimed that companies like Google and Facebook-owner Meta have blocked ads from groups associated with programs like Alternatives to Abortion.
At the same time, Democratic lawmakers in Washington have said Google needs to do more to prevent misleading Google search results that may direct pregnant women to anti-abortion clinics.
A July 2022 letter led by U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., said, “Directing women towards fake clinics that traffic in misinformation and don’t provide comprehensive health services is dangerous to women’s health and undermines the integrity of Google’s search results.”
The hiring comes nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that women do not have a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. Minutes after the decision was announced last June, Missouri officials took steps to ban the procedure in the state as part of a previously passed law.
The law makes it a felony punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison to perform or induce an abortion. Medical professionals who do so also could lose their licenses. The law says that women who undergo abortions cannot be prosecuted.
Now, despite abortion no longer being an option within the state’s borders, the new contract will try to steer women to clinics that seek to counsel them against undergoing the procedure.
Work on tap, according to the contract, includes building a website that provides a searchable database of contractors for the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program.
While that aspect of the program seems to apparently work based on the state’s website, the company also will roll out an advertising plan that will help the state market the program using various social media platforms.
“The contractor shall create and develop advertisements promoting the Alternatives to Abortion Program services for production via video, internet video, or other viewable programming provided to be transmitted through various social media platforms,” the contract notes.
The company also touts its ability to overcome search engine problems that have previously blocked access to vendors involved in counseling against abortion based on misinformation.
In 2021, after a Choose Life Marketing manager’s Facebook account was suspended, the company sought assistance from Hawley. With the senator’s pressure, the company claims that Meta lifted the suspension in less than a week “instead of the projected weeks of review Meta had communicated to us,” contract documents available on the state’s database of vendor agreements noted.
The 60-employee firm, overseen by President Nelly Roach, also has done campaign work for the anti-abortion Missouri Right to Life political action committee, netting $1,500 in 2022, according to Missouri Ethics Commission reports.
This year, lawmakers put $8.3 million in the budget to pay for the Alternatives to Abortion program, which is designed to help women carry their pregnancies to term by providing services ranging from housing to adoption assistance to prenatal care.
Some of the organizations that are part of the network are crisis pregnancy centers, which have been found to provide misleading information to pregnant women about their options.
In addition to the state funding, Missouri also offers taxpayers a tax credit if they contribute money to one of the facilities. An analysis by ProPublica found the program cost the state more than $7 million in 2022.