*Membership spots not really limited!
A U.S. government-funded medical information site that bills itself as the world's largest database on reproductive health has quietly begun to block searches on the word "abortion," concealing nearly 25,000 search results.
Called Popline, the search site is run by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland. It's 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.
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."
Stephen Goldstein, a spokesman for Johns Hopkins, said he wasn't aware of the censorship, and couldn't immediately comment.
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."
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.
"The main function of their site is keyword search, and if you use a phrase that contains the word 'abortion,' it ignores it," notes Melissa Just, the library director at the cancer research institute and hospital named City of Hope in Duarte, California. Just followed the conversation on a listserv and said she was outraged when she found out about the censorship incident.
"Even if you were trying to make an argument to someone that abortion is a bad idea for them -- whether it's a health risk, or you're concerned about their mental well being, you wouldn't be able to find articles about your claim," she notes. "It's shutting off both the pro and the con access."
I am outraged by this. The abortion articles are there, they just make it very hard to find them. What is the point in that? Retarded to the MAX!