Librarians’ Outcry Returns “Abortion” to Federal Health Database

Librarians’ Outcry Returns “Abortion” to Federal Health Database

The March 31 discovery by an academic librarian that the administrator of the reproductive-health database Popline (Population Information Online) had placed the search word “abortion” on its stop list, or file of blocked terms, has led to the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health reversing the decision a scant five days later.

Administered by JHU, Popline is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and contains more than 360,000 items about family planning and sexually transmitted disease. However, federal laws dating back to 1973 prohibit the use of federal funds for abortion advocacy or supplies, according to the April 10 Johns Hopkins University News-Letter.

After finding that a routine Popline search on the word “abortion” retrieved fewer citations at the end of March than it had in January, librarian Gloria Won of the Medical Center of the University of San Francisco e-mailed database officials to ask about the discrepancy. Popline Database Manager/Administrator Debra L. Dickson replied April 1, “We recently made all abortion terms stop words. As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now.” She went on to suggest that librarians could substitute the terms “fertility control, postconception” or “pregnancy, unwanted.”

An outraged Won and her supervisor Gail L. Sorrough alerted the library community on a medical-librarian discussion list and soon word had spread to the biblioblogosphere and the mainstream news media. On April 4, Michael Klag, dean of the public health school, stated that he “could not disagree more strongly with this decision,” adding that he had “directed that the Popline administrators restore ‘abortion’ as a search term immediately.”

Reporting on the findings of an investigation he had ordered, Klag explained April 8 that the stop-listing of the word “abortion” began in February; Popline officials took the action unilaterally after USAID inquired about two articles in the Winter 2008 issue of A, the Abortion Magazine characterizing the termination of pregnancy as a human right. Popline officials also pulled the two articles, plus another five from the same issue of A, from the database. Pledging to “work with our staff to reinforce their appreciation of the importance of academic integrity,” Klag said, “Unfettered access to information is essential for informed debate and rational choices in any field, especially in family planning.”

Posted on April 11, 2008. Discuss.