Update: Your Search for “Abortion” Now Yields Something

Amie Newman

Why did the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's medical database black out the word "abortion" from its searchable terms? Does federal funding equal censorship? Update: The Dean of the School issues a statement and restores the word.

Update as of Friday, April 4th, 3pm EDT: According to Rachel at Women's Health News, the search term abortion has been reinstated in the POPLINE database (read below for full back-story).

Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH and Dean of the School of Public Health issued a statement today in which he strongly condemned the action and called for the term to be immediately restored:

"USAID, which funds POPLINE, found two items in the database related to abortion that did not fit POPLINE criteria. The agency then made an inquiry to POPLINE administrators. Following this inquiry, the POPLINE administrators at the Center for Communication Programs made the decision to restrict abortion as a search term.

I could not disagree more strongly with this decision, and I have directed that the POPLINE administrators restore "abortion" as a search term immediately."

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Great news, indeed. Had Rachel and other medical librarians not made an issue of this, the situation undoubtedly would have remained static. It's a testament that one can be an activist in a multitude of ways.

Sarah Seltzer wrote an excellent piece today about the invisibility of women's issues, in particular reproductive health and rights, on otherwise progressive programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. She writes, "Cristina (Page) mentioned that a Daily Show staffer had dismissed the idea of her appearing on the show to promote her book, "How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America." The reason? The topic was ‘too serious'."

Reproductive rights being dismissed by the progressive, newer-boys network is not merely frustrating – it's offensive. Reproductive health issues have become a battlefield that few will enter – and no one topic seems more off-limits than abortion these days.

But this story, straight from the ever-vigilant women's health watchdog and superhero medical librarian Rachel Walden, is not just about sexism. This borders on censorship.

It seems the POPLINE database, defined as "the world's largest database on reproductive health (emphasis mine), containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues" has made the decision to essentially delete the word abortion as a searchable term.

The librarian who first encountered the issue contacted POPLINE and asked point-blank why her search was not yielding any results. She was told, "We recently made all abortion terms stop words. As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now." According to Rachel at Women's Health News, stop words are words like "a" or "an" – words that don't have added value and so are omitted from a search.

The representative from POPLINE suggested, instead, the librarian search on terms like "fertility control" and "unwanted pregnancy." Leaving aside the issue that abortion is a medical term and as such has an entirely separate definition than "fertility control" or "unwanted pregnancy," why has a government-funded medical database deleted the word abortion from its searchable terms?

That's what the librarian who made the initial inquiry wants to know.

Rachel notes that POPLINE is a project of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and receives its funding from USAID.

She also gives some very librarian-like pointers on how to bypass the system's censorship and retrieve what you need anyway. But this is by no means a substitute for the issue at hand.

POPLINE's explanation is utterly insufficient. Abortion is a medical term for a legal procedure. Politics has absolutely no place in the medical database of one of the most prestigious universities in this country.

Check out Rachel's post and posts from librarian activists for more.

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