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.