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Siri queries

Technology | Apple's iPhone virtual assistant appears to be sidestepping abortion controversies

Siri on iPhone 4S is helpful for those who want to get information by asking a question orally rather than typing a request to a search engine-but late last year it ignored pro-abortion users by being unresponsive to requests for abortion businesses and sometimes offering pro-life pregnancy resource centers instead (see "Pro-life assistant," Jan. 14).

Apple hinted in November that it would address the issue soon, and since Siri is powered by Apple servers-along with web-based search engines-the company can tweak the virtual assistant's answers when it wants. With the arrival of 2012, I talked to Siri to see if it had learned anything new.

To start with, Siri didn't understand the phrase, "I am pregnant." When I merely suggested "Pregnancy," it answered, "I found 16 obstetricians fairly close to you," and presented a list of those within 10 miles of my location, near Schererville, Ind.

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There was a Planned Parenthood clinic that performs abortions just a few blocks away. Yet when I said, "I need an abortion," or simply, "Abortion," Siri answered, "I can search the web for that for you," and presented a link to a Google search for "abortion clinic Schererville." (Google easily turned up the Planned Parenthood clinic.)

Maegen Smith, a nurse in Lancaster, Calif., helped me by asking Siri the same things just north of Los Angeles. Same results: A Google search for "abortion clinic Lancaster" each time she mentioned the word abortion. Siri also searched Google when we asked, "Where can I get a morning-after pill?"

That suggests Apple is avoiding controversy for now by handing abortion questions to Google, instead of letting Siri offer results directly through its user interface.

Siri understands "crisis pregnancy center" only sometimes. It turned up three pro-life CPCs around Lancaster, but it didn't find my local CPC, the Women's Center of Northwest Indiana, until I asked for "women's center." (A Google search for "Schererville crisis pregnancy center" lists the Women's Center as its first result.)

Siri found "birth control" services in California (the nearest was a public health department that didn't provide abortions), but didn't in Indiana. It didn't understand contraceptive, but brought up a list of local drugstores when asked about condoms.

What about "Help! I'm pregnant"? Siri answered, "I don't understand," unhelpfully. And asking about a "crisis pregnancy" brought up the 16 obstetricians again.

Apple developers have programmed some tongue-in-cheek responses into the virtual assistant: Say, "I need to hide a body," and Siri will ask if you're looking for mines, metal foundries, swamps, dumps, or reservoirs. For now, it looks like there won't be any such shortcuts for abortions or for those trying to prevent them.

Read articles from past Roe v. Wade issues from our archives.

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Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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