In February, in line with various other information-stifling administrative orders from Bush functionaries over recent years, two articles were purged from the partially government-funded POPLINE database (the world’s largest public database on reproductive health) maintained by the Public Health School at John Hopkins University, because the funding agency “expressed concern” that they were “about abortion advocacy”. Then,
Employees who manage the database instructed their computers to ignore the word “abortion” as a search term.
When the Dean of the Public Health School was informed, he immediately told the POPLINE database managers to lift the search restrictions on “abortion”. But how was he informed? This is where the librarians come in.
Librarians at the Medical Center of the University of California, San Francisco, expressed concern about the restrictions this week after they had difficulty retrieving articles from Popline.
In an e-mail response on Tuesday, Johns Hopkins told the librarians that “abortion” was no longer a valid search term.
“We recently made all abortion terms stop words,” Debra L. Dickson, a Popline manager, wrote. “As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now.”
Ms. Dickson suggested that instead of using “abortion,” librarians could use other terms like “fertility control, postconception” or “pregnancy, unwanted.”
Gail L. Sorrough, director of medical library services at the medical center in San Francisco, said it was absurd to restrict searches using “a perfectly good noun such as ‘abortion.’ ”
Under the rule, Popline ignored the word “abortion,” just as it ignores terms like “a” and “the.” Ms. Sorrough and a colleague, Gloria Won, reported their experience on an electronic mailing list, and librarians protested the restrictions.
“We sent this out on a listserv, and it just exploded,” Ms. Sorrough said. “Eliminating this term essentially blocks access to reports in the database and ultimately to information about abortion. Unwanted pregnancy is not a synonym for abortion.”
The government agency involved, USAID, said the the managers of POPLINE misunderstood their request regarding articles on abortion in the database.
The Popline search site is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, the federal office in charge of providing foreign aid, including health care funding, to developing nations.
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.”
Sandra Jordan, director of communications in USAID’s office of population and reproductive health, could not identify the documents that prompted her office’s complaint, but said the publications were one-sided in favor of abortion rights.
“We are part of the Bush administration, so we have to make sure that all parts of the story are told,” says Jordan. “The administration’s policy is definitely anti-abortion, and the administration does not see abortion as a part of family planning policy.”
Jordan says that the Johns Hopkins database administrators blocked the word “abortion” on their own, and had misunderstood USAID’s request.
The librarians, for now, are appeased. But they are still alert.
“Any federal policy or rule that requires or encourages information providers to block access to scientific information because of partisan or religious bias is censorship,” [American Library Association’s president Loriene Roy] said. “Such policies promote idealogy over science and only serve to deny researchers, students and individuals on all sides of the issue access to accurate scientific information.”