US-funded health search-engine censors all results for searches on "abortion" -- UPDATED

Popline is the world's largest health-information search engine, run by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with funding from the US government. They have just changed their database so that queries for "abortion" show no results, even though the system has access to more than 25,000 documents on the subject. They say they've done this because they believe it's a requirement of their federal funding.
The massive database indexes a broad range of reproductive health literature, including titles like "Previous abortion and the risk of low birth weight and preterm births," and "Abortion in the United States: Incidence and access to services, 2005."

But on Thursday, a search on "abortion" was producing only the message "No records found by latest query..."

A librarian at the University of California at San Francisco noticed the new censorship on Monday, while carrying out a routine research request on behalf of academics and researchers at the university. The search term had functioned properly as of January.

Puzzled, she contacted the manager of the database, Johns Hopkins' Debbie Dickson, who replied in an April 1st e-mail that the university had recently begun blocking the search term because the database received federal funding.

"We recently made all abortion terms stop words," Dickson wrote in a note to Gloria Won, the UCSF medical center librarian making the inquiry. "As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now."

There was no notice of the change on the site.

Dickson suggested other kinds of more obscure search strategies and alternative words to get around the keyword blocking.

"In addition to the terms you're already using, you could try using 'Fertility Control, Postconception'. This is the broader term to our 'abortion' terms and most records have both in the keyword fields," she wrote.

She also suggested using a euphemistic search strategy of "unwanted w/2 pregnancy." But the workarounds don't satisfy critics of the censorship.


Update: They've turned around:

I was informed this morning that the word “abortion” was blocked as a search term in the POPLINE family planning database administered by the Bloomberg School’s Center for Communication Programs. POPLINE provides evidence-based information on reproductive health and family planning and is the world’s largest database on these issues.

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 ordered that the POPLINE administrators restore “abortion” as a search term immediately. I will also launch an inquiry to determine why this change occurred.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and not its restriction.

(Thanks, Rachel!)


  1. I’m trying to decide whether this is an act of cowardice or commentary….

    Nope, still can’t tell.

  2. “As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now.”

    That is a simply chilling, Orwellian statement.

  3. Under a Reagan-era policy revived by President Bush in 2001, USAID denies funding to non-governmental organizations that perform abortions, or that “actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations.”

    Acknowledging the existence of scholarly research on a topic apparently constitutes active promotion of that topic.

  4. “Castration” brings up 653 results. At least we can still promote that as birth control option in foreign countries.

  5. is produced by the National Library of Medicine, is free, and does not block abortion search terms (in fact, it comes up with about 64,000 results), so needy searchers can still go there. Kind of shoots a hole in the whole “federally-funded” angle.

    Also, I just had to point out that Popline bills itself as “the world’s largest database on reproductive health” not “the world’s largest health-information search engine”. Popline contains about 360k citations, while Embase contains about 18m and PubMed 17m.

  6. Thanks for covering this. What has been missed by many reading newer posts as the news has traveled outside the librarian community is that there is currently a work-around – the database staff have not removed the abortion indexing term or the actual citations, but have simply made it deliberately impossible for your basic searcher following the database directions to retrieve those citations. I have a bit of an explanation about how to find the “abortion” citations themselves (rather than just trying to use other terms), as well as a fairly detailed overview of the situation, including that that “government funding” for the database comes from USAID, which has been widely criticized for its approach to abortion and sex ed concerns. A running list of other bloggers covering the topic is also included. Thanks for spreading the word; a statement from Popline is expected by another blogger at ResourceShelf today.

  7. Yeah, this story sounds right. When my mother worked for a federally-funded family planning clinic during Bush Sr. era, they prevented the clinic from talking about abortion as an option for women who had positive pregnancy tests. So if someone asked “where can I go to have an abortion?” all the counselor could say was “I’m sorry I can’t talk about that.” The clinic eventually got around the issue by having certain people’s salaries (and even office space) not funded by the Fed money. So the reception area was funded by federal dollars, and the counselor’s office wasn’t. Crazy isn’t it? When Bill Clinton campaigned in ’92 he promised that this would be one of the first things he would reverse. And sure enough within a week or so of his being inaugurated the clinic got a fax saying that they could once again mention abortion as an option. This is what goes on in our country every day.

  8. I’d like to know whether someone from USAID or the Federal government actually told Popline “censor abortion” or if they did it voluntarily. Both are inexcusable, but if they’re doing this voluntarily (as it would appear), and not as a condition of their funding, I have little sympathy for them. Make the censors censor you; don’t do their jobs for them.
    This kind of story should be getting much more press than it’s receiving now.

  9. Ah, conservative logic. This is a very subtle version of “If we make it illegal, then people won’t do it and it will never happen.” You know, like with drugs. This is always an unspoken premise in their crazy argument to make abortion illegal: If it is illegal, people will not do it. Well, that is the side they attempt to take in any case. The reality is that if it is illegal then they can punish people if they are caught, which in the end is the overriding philosophy of nearly everything conservatives believe in. It is also part of a larger philosophy of believing that if you can hide what you don’t people to know then they will never discover it, which is quaint and pathetic all at once in today’s world. Of course, there are place that truly believe it (I am thinking of Xtian internet filtering here).

    I wonder if they are logging IP addresses of all people who DO search for “abortion” so they can get a nice map of which institutions to target for reeducation?

  10. Why is it that religion always creeps into the really happy threads, but never the ones that aren’t.

    This wreaks of it. I’m not anti-religion or anything like that; I’m not agnostic or atheist. I don’t go to church on a regular basis, but I have gone and will again. This isn’t an attack on religion.

    Just an observation.

  11. Ah yes – welcome to the Soviet Union, where certain words are not OK. Next step: anyone who does enter “abortion” into that search engine gets automatically entered into a blacklist. Or something like that.

    To all of you who are outraged – go volunteer for your friendly local abortion clinic. They need you now more than ever.

  12. Folks,

    Okay, this is beyond my belief that JH would do this, so I’ve written their president and the chair of the dean of the school responsible for this research a nice civil letter and I’ll continue to post the responses.

    If anyone else is interested in writing the
    addresses are:,,

    Disgusting lack of scientific ethics at Johns Hopkins reported in the popular press

    Dr. Brody, President of Johns Hopkins University,
    Dr. Klag, Dean of Bloomberg school of Public Health,
    and the POPLINE team,

    This morning I read a post in Boing Boing (a popular web blog on a variety of topics) that suggested
    that your esteemed university had participated in censoring scientific research. The link is Boing Boing is in the top
    four thousand most popular website in the United States (according to Alexa).

    The article maintains that the word abortion has been added to your federally funded search engine’s
    list of stop words and that one of your researches felt that this was a requirement to take federal funding.

    I have a number of questions that I would like to ask and will happily post your response on BoingBoing
    to help clarify this problem.

    Is this true?
    I should hope that it violates your university’s ethics policy for you faculty to participate in the censorship of the scientific community.
    Who is the principle investigator on this project?
    Would you kindly add them to this correspondence?
    Which office within Johns Hopkins handles your issues of Scientific Integrity and Ethics?
    Is it likely that even if Johns Hopkins ethics policies have not been violated by this action that
    the principle investigator has violated the ethical tenets of one or more medical societies?

    As search engine professional (with companies such as Lycos, Amazon and Zillow) and a former
    researcher at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, I can only express my dismay that,
    if these charges are true, that your fine institution has sullied its name by bowing to political censorship
    of science.

    Sincerely, Brian G. Milnes

  13. JH made a very cowardly decision, but I don’t see any evidence their funding had been threatened. I’m well aware of, and disagree with, the administration’s views on abortion, but nowhere do we have evidence that JH was TOLD to censor their search engine.

    BobDobbs points out the NLM’s PubMed hasn’t been government-censored or self-censored, so I don’t think this act reflects US policy at all.

    If you go about blaming the government for something they didn’t even do, you won’t put the pressure where it belongs: on the organization that is don’t something you don’t like.

    For that matter, crying Orwell about this is showing the same degree of paranoia as JH. There’s a comment on Wired that sums it right up:

    “What fucking assholes John Hopkins are. Government doesn’t need to censor when people are willing to censor themselves.”

  14. Well done, Brian. Keep us updated.

    Just to let everybody know: This thread is about a publicly funded search engine that has censored all references to a legal medical procedure.

    It is not about abortion per se. If you try to make it an argument about abortion itself, your contents will settle during shipping.

  15. Folks,

    I rang the JH President’s office and was directed around to their communications director, Dennis OShay. I pointed out that JH was about to receive a hopefully unwarranted black eye. He said that they’ve already received calls from the mainstream press and that the school of public health is working on this.


  16. CSBMonkey,
    The phenomenon you describe is what’s known as “Disapproval lawmaking.” It actually has nothing to do with preventing the act. It comes from the view that the laws should reflect morality–if it’s bad, it should be banned. Whether the laws happen to reduce the incidence of the bad act is immaterial, and any evidence that it they don’t is discarded by the law’s proponents as irrelevant.

    See the War on Drugs, where even those who recognize that it hasn’t stemmed drug use defend the current policies because drugs are baaad, m’kay?

  17. #11: “Ah, conservative logic. This is a very subtle version of “If we make it illegal, then people won’t do it and it will never happen.” You know, like with drugs.”

    Except it’s the opposite for guns: You can’t outlaw them because criminals will just ignore the law.

  18. This really is horrendous. Thanks to those who posted contact information for people in charge.

    Whatever your view on the subject, it is an overriding interest that medical information is available to people. It would probably be unwise under present circumstances, however, to take this to the courts. The damage done by a bad precedent can take years to undo.

  19. I don’t see how this is an anti-abortion tactic as some seem to think it is. Getting the info out about abortion should not make it more likely that abortions will be done.

  20. Right on, JETSETSC. It’s like “Christians” who believe in the death penalty but don’t believe in helping the poor.

    This is sympotmatic of two trends in the US:

    1) The idea that being a citizen is nothing more than being a consumer.

    “It’s federally funded, therefore it should be agreeable to all taxpayers (read: customers).”

    As if that’s ever a possibility.

    Or, “I pay more taxes than you, thus I have more say than you, and I’m a Christian!”


    2) The idea that your health decisions should be based on someone else’s religious convictions.

    There is a place for the abortion debate. Medical databases should be off-limits.

  21. Censorship isn’t the way to deal with such complex issues. The causal effect is what needs to be discussed and proper education and support services in place to assist people in making the ‘right’ decision. My viewpoint is ‘pro-life’ and I find the abortion issue deeply troubling. Debate, education, faith, morality and above all tolerance please – censorship is a solution that should be consigned to the dark ages.

  22. w00t on the response, and applause to those who followed this up with the JH authorities.

    Maybe the internet will become a medium for true democracy. We can but hope…

  23. The most frightening aspect of this is that there are places, virtual and real spaces, where this sort of ‘censorship’– via tagging, manipulation of search terms and parameters, etc– is happening constantly, without clue or trace.

    As for the idea of the internet as a medium for “true democracy,” the idea that there’s a true way is what allows censorship to thrive and these sort of situations to arise. And democracy hasn’t been looking all that promising for the past 8 years.

    I have higher hopes for the internet.


    So much work to be done. . .

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