Update: Your Search for “Abortion” Now Yields Something


Update as of Friday, April 4th, 3pm EDT: According to Rachel at Women's Health News, the search term abortion has been reinstated in the POPLINE database (read below for full back-story).

Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH and Dean of the School of Public Health issued a statement today in which he strongly condemned the action and called for the term to be immediately restored:

"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 directed that the POPLINE administrators restore "abortion" as a search term immediately."

Great news, indeed. Had Rachel and other medical librarians not made an issue of this, the situation undoubtedly would have remained static. It's a testament that one can be an activist in a multitude of ways.

Sarah Seltzer wrote an excellent piece today about the invisibility of women's issues, in particular reproductive health and rights, on otherwise progressive programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. She writes, "Cristina (Page) mentioned that a Daily Show staffer had dismissed the idea of her appearing on the show to promote her book, "How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America." The reason? The topic was ‘too serious'."

Reproductive rights being dismissed by the progressive, newer-boys network is not merely frustrating – it's offensive. Reproductive health issues have become a battlefield that few will enter – and no one topic seems more off-limits than abortion these days.

But this story, straight from the ever-vigilant women's health watchdog and superhero medical librarian Rachel Walden, is not just about sexism. This borders on censorship.

It seems the POPLINE database, defined as "the world's largest database on reproductive health (emphasis mine), containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues" has made the decision to essentially delete the word abortion as a searchable term.

The librarian who first encountered the issue contacted POPLINE and asked point-blank why her search was not yielding any results. She was told, "We recently made all abortion terms stop words. As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now." According to Rachel at Women's Health News, stop words are words like "a" or "an" – words that don't have added value and so are omitted from a search.

The representative from POPLINE suggested, instead, the librarian search on terms like "fertility control" and "unwanted pregnancy." Leaving aside the issue that abortion is a medical term and as such has an entirely separate definition than "fertility control" or "unwanted pregnancy," why has a government-funded medical database deleted the word abortion from its searchable terms?

That's what the librarian who made the initial inquiry wants to know.

Rachel notes that POPLINE is a project of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and receives its funding from USAID.

She also gives some very librarian-like pointers on how to bypass the system's censorship and retrieve what you need anyway. But this is by no means a substitute for the issue at hand.

POPLINE's explanation is utterly insufficient. Abortion is a medical term for a legal procedure. Politics has absolutely no place in the medical database of one of the most prestigious universities in this country.

Check out Rachel's post and posts from librarian activists for more.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

  • invalid-0

    As someone who has worked in public health on USAID-funded projects, I am not at all surprised by this unfortunate, deliberate obfuscation. USAID doesn’t exactly “legislate” language, but they have a “grey list” of terms that one should think twice about using in a proposal or report. (For example, “adolescent sexual and reproductive health” is discouraged. If you remove “sexual,” it’s OK.)

    I think that the “grey list” is deplorable. And it is absolutely deplorable that POPLINE has removed “abortion” as a search term, especially considering that USAID does fund post-abortion care programs (i.e., programs providing care and treatment to women who have had complications due to an unsafe and/or possibly illegal abortion procedure). However, I am not surprised. Given the amount of money that USAID is in control of and the power they wield in the public health world, there is a reticence among funding recipients (such as JHU and POPLINE) to do anything that would damage the relationship with the purse-holder. Clearly, policies such as the Global Gag Rule have a chilling effect in the US as well.

  • anna-clark

    … but this is stop-in-your-tracks shocking. Maybe USAID isn't aware, but abortion is–first of all–legal. For a governmental organization to de facto condemn it is astonishing. I'm bewildered as to what motivated their choice to make this a stop word–were they bombarded by users who were offended that their searches for "abortion" yielded results? Apparently they don't feel the need to pull all the information abortion off their database–yet–so what exactly do they hope to gain by pretending it doesn't exist in its search function? There's been some U.S. press lately condemning how China state-controlled media is filtering its news of the protests in Tibet. I wonder if our at-home censorship will be similarly called out for the ridiculous and unethical act it is.

  • invalid-0

    I think, Anna, this is exactly what they’ve done – they’ve de facto removed the word for fear that their federal funding – ie USAID funding – would be threatened somehow. And CQ seems to be confirming this (thanks, CQ).

    This whole situation is deplorable.

    I have heard that POPLINE will be issuing a statement so I’ll be sure to post if/when I receive.

  • invalid-0

    Numerous comments have been posted about Popline’s decision to remove a keyword from their search terms, a decision made by management that hopefully will keep Popline around. The current administration makes decisions like this necessary and service providers like Popline are forced to play by the unofficial rules. By Popline keeping the data in their database but making the information more difficult to obtain allows them to tell any powers that be that the governments money isn’t being spent to “promote” something on their no-no list. It’s easy to stand back and jump on our high horse about what Popline should and shouldn’t do but we need to consider their position and realize if rules aren’t followed then funding can be eliminated and valuable resources are lost.

  • invalid-0

    Katrina, I understand what you’re saying but this is not an issue where we can sacrifice censorship for the greater good – that is a slippery slope to be sure. As well, it’s crucial that we highlight these stories so people are well aware of what’s happening under this administration. POPLINE may be caught between a rock and a hard place right now because of USAID and our federal administration’s ideology. But it’s important that we not make excuses and chalk it up to “well, I’m just following the rules.” That’s a scary statement that’s followed us through history in more terrifying times than this.

    I do appreciate the reminder that our energy needs to be focused on the source of the directive, though.

  • kirsten-sherk

    Amie, thanks for posting this. I was just going to write you to see if you'd run a post on the topic. What's particularly sad is that it appears that Hopkins wasn't ordered to make this decision by the U.S. government — as a U.S.-based organization, they are not bound by the Global Gag Rule. Sadly, they seemed to feel that they had to make this decision themselves.

  • invalid-0

    As someone who worked for several years at JHU’s Center for Communication Programs where POPLINE is based, I can confirm that the environment at USAID-funded organizations is completely oppressive. There is strong self-censorship in all types of publications that come out of these organizations. There is a constant fear that funding could get cut, and that the whole project could be discontinued overnight. I know everyone who works within POPLINE, and all of them are good people. No one who works there agrees with the global gag rule. There is just a strong desire to keep the project going. With 100% dependence on US government funding, in these times there is constant worry that POPLINE could be completely dissolved if someone at USAID wanted it so. The current atmosphere is, let’s just survive a few more months until there’s a new administration, and after that, we can go back to business as usual.

    International family planning programs have been drastically slashed in the past few years. It is very sad.

    I think the decision to change abortion to a stop-term was stupid, and probably a decision made by the Center’s administrators, a level much higher that at the POPLINE level. Debbie Dickson is a dear and one of the warmest people you could meet. I am not trying to excuse the baseless decision to make abortion a stop-term, just wanted to add some context behind the decision. This decision is not what we should be attacking, but instead the larger environment of fear that the Bush Administration is fostering among people who in their hearts fight alongside us for reproductive health and rights.

  • http://www.wisdomofwhores.com invalid-0

    I think Amie is right. A lot of this is about self-censorship, at every level. But doesn’t that make you wonder about the democratic process in the States? Democrats control Congress, and they therefore control USAID’s budget. What are they so scared of?

    I’d like to know more about who identified the offending “abortion advocacy” articles that tripped this whole series of events. The Times says it was USAID staff but I’d be surprised. I’ve worked for years on USAID-funded programmes that skirt the outer fringes of the rule book. I’ve always found USAID staff (at least at the technical level) to be eager to try to help us get around restrictions imposed by Congress, which they themselves usually rail against. But I do know that the higher-ups jump to the pipe of a Congressman, and that Congressmen tend to jump to the pipes of their best-heeled lobbyists. I’m only just beginning to understand how poorly the lobbyists represent the views of the majority.

  • invalid-0

    I’ve been working with Ipas for 13 years as a researcher and am proud to have contributed to the edition of A-The Abortion Magazine, which caused this stir. This is not the first time that we have experienced censorship. I was told not to submit a paper that presents results of research on safe abortion in a Latin American country to a USAID-funded professional journal since they knew outright that they could not publish it. Reproductive Health Matters, with its fearless and uncompromised editor, Marge Berer, did publish the paper.

    When asked to submit an article about comprehensive care for victims/survivors of sexual violence in Mexico for a USAID funded international health organization, I was told NOT to include the part about safe abortion as an option. Of course, we did not submit the article. Safe abortion is defined by the Mexican Ministry of Health an option for rape survivors and is one of many services that they offer as an option to women and girls. As a result, an entire journal issue was published about the effects of rape on adolescents and youth and yet NOT ONE mention is made of abortion as an option. Note: forced pregnancy is a human rights violation for which States can and should be penalized.

    So once again we face censorship. It’s encouraging that Dean Klag made such a strong public statement and that “abortion” is once again a search term that can be used on Popline. BUT, the articles in A Magazine were defined as “advocacy” and have been removed from Popline. Read for yourself and see what you think: http://www.ipas.org/Publications/A_The_abortion_magazine,_volume_3.aspx

  • invalid-0

    a large issue with USAID. I read your article in that issue – a great one. But the larger story here, that USAID is censoring subjects for political reasons is incredibly disturbing.

    I’m glad that JHU made the decision to put ‘abortion’ back into the database as a searchable term but if there is still censorship happening, and they did this to appease the blogs/bloggers/librarians who made a stink about the issue, it’s not addressing the larger problem at all.

    Thank you for your comment and we will look into this.

  • invalid-0

    egregious. I went to popline and tried it for myself – there were not results for abortion and thousands for abor* – it’s not that they articles are missing – it’s a deliberate act of censorship.