Apple's Siri balks at abortion queries, pro-choice advocates charge

Virtual petition urges Apple to update the iPhone 4S' personal assistant

Pro-choice advocates have accused Apple's new Siri voice-activated assistant of refusing to locate family planning or abortion clinics, and have kicked off a petition urging Apple to update Siri.

Siri, the virtual assistant integrated into Apple's new iPhone 4S, frequently declines to locate local abortion clinics or help find information about contraception, pro-choice supporters have said on multiple blogs.

Even when more traditional searches -- conducted by entering text in Google -- locate nearby clinics, Siri claims it knows nothing, those blogs said.

"Even searching by specific clinic names, and then with their street names, turned up nothing," wrote one blogger on the Abortioneers.com website Tuesday. "[But] searching for a specific hardware store brought results."

Another Abortioneers.com blogger smelled a rat, or at least a possible conspiracy.

"At minimum, this is incredibly fishy," the blogger said in an entry last Sunday. "I can't help but feel that something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

Abortioneers.com launched a petition drive on Change.org asking Apple to add more sources for family planning services, contraception, abortion and sexual assault victims to Siri's database.

The petition had been signed by more than 1,000 people as of mid-day Wednesday.

Computerworld's testing of Siri on an iPhone 4S located in the Boston area revealed mixed results.

When asked one of the four questions Abortioneers.com posed to its readers -- "I am pregnant and do not want to be. Where can I go to get an abortion?" Siri initially replied, "I don't see any places matching 'get an abortion.' Sorry about that."

Minutes later, however, when again asked the question, Siri complied with, "I found 2 abortion clinics not far from you," and listed a pair of locations in Brookline, Mass. and Boston.

Apple did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Siri's results; nor did the national office of Planned Parenthood.

Some gave Siri -- and Apple -- the benefit of the doubt, speculating that it was a technical or search service issue, not a concerted effort to censor results.

Norman Winarsky, who now works at the venture capitalist firm SRI Ventures, and was a co-founder of Siri -- the company that Apple acquired last year -- told the New York Times that he suspected it was an information sourcing problem.

Siri abortion search results
Siri initially balked at answering Computerworld 's question about the location of nearby abortion clinics, but replied to a follow-up query with two clinics in the Boston area.

"My guess at what's happening here is that Apple has made deals with Web services that provide local business information, and Apple probably hasn't paid much attention to all the results that come up," Winarsky said.

A public relations representative of SRI Ventures did not respond to Computerworld's request for an interview with Winarsky.

Siri had no problem answering other questions, including some decidedly from left field.

When Computerworld asked for help in hiding a dead body, the assistant boldly wanted to know what kind of place we were looking for and gave us several options, including swamps, mines, dumps, reservoirs and metal foundries.

Siri is available only on the iPhone 4S, and is one of the top features of the new smartphone touted by Apple.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more articles by Gregg Keizer.

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