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Why is a Government-Funded Reproductive Health Database Blocking Users from Searching for Abortion Articles?

April 2, 2008

Cross-posted at Our Bodies Our Blog

Today through medical librarian channels, I got word that entering “abortion” as a search term in the POPLINE database now returns zero results because of a move by the database personnel to block that search. For background, POPLINE is “the world’s largest database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues.” This may seem like a long and libraryland-focused post, but I think it’s important, because it touches on government, reproductive health, and access to information, so stick with me on this one.

The librarian who noted the problem inquired about it, and was informed that it wasn’t a simple technical glitch; the response she received was, “We recently made all abortion terms stop words. As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now.

If you’re not familiar with “stop words,” they are typically words like “a,” “an,” and “the” that are omitted automatically from the search, because they is assumed to have no added value or meaning. Suffice it to say, it’s quite unusual for a word with “real” meaning to be a stop word, especially one so relevant to the resource being searched.

The librarian was then advised to do a search for unwanted pregnancy as a substitute, which ignores the fact that these words are not synonyms, as a pregnancy can be unwanted but carried to term or desperately wanted but aborted for various health reasons.

Now, a little digging reveals that the POPLINE folks haven’t actually removed the term “abortion” (or related ones) as subject terms from the citations, or from their Thesaurus which tells you which subjects appear in the database. If you know to use the “Browse Index”* you can still find the term and come up with almost 25,000 results. However, if you simply enter the word “abortion” in the Subject search box, as the instructions directly above the box suggest you should be able to do, the search returns 0 results. Another work-around is to enter the search as =”Abortion” as the Index search would do, and you can still get the results. Of course, that applies for now, until they realize that the work-around is there and remove it as well.

Right now, this move is essentially a barrier to your basic search/er – an advanced searcher might get 25,000 results, while someone just following directions will get none. As the librarian reporting the problem noted, “It is important to remember that this database is used by both professional searchers and the public. The average user goes directly to the query box and searches; they will retrieve nothing when the term “abortion” is entered.” She also notes that using the advanced options was *not* among the suggestions from POPLINE personnel in response to her inquiry.

It’s not clear at this time why POPLINE made this change, whether it was a top-down or a local decision for this federally-funded project, or why they chose not to release any information about the change until people started asking questions. Perhaps this will seem silly to someone at the offices of “the world’s largest database on reproductive health” and access to these citations will be restored. However, it’s important to note that POPLINE isn’t just a project of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (the logo displayed at the top of the screen), but is in fact funded by USAID.

Yes, that USAID, of Global Gag Rule fame, which has been criticized because family planning agencies around the world are prevented from receiving assistance if they perform or counsel their clients about abortion (even if that work is funded through other sources), and through which much controversial abstinence-only money is channeled.

I’d really love to assume that political pressure didn’t encourage anyone to deliberately make it more difficult for people to find references to articles about abortion.

*And can get it to work – it failed in multiple browsers on a Mac and Firefox on a PC.

Update: Other bloggers on this topic; I’ll add more as I find them.
Angular Uncomformities (Scott Hanley)
Crooks and Liars
The Experiment
Feminist Peace Network
Librarian Activist
Library Stuff
Maud Newton
No Maps for These Territories (brassratgirl)
Oh, we’re going to talk about me, are we? Goody. (kylegirl)
Pear Popsicle
Population Action Blog
ResourceShelf [ResourceShelf has been promised a comment from the POPLINE team – stay tuned.]
RH Reality Check (first post outside the library community that I’m aware of)
Social Justice Librarian
Strange Librarian
Threat Level – Wired Blogs

Update #2: The Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health has issued a statement, and access to the search will be restored – see update.

45 Comments leave one →
  1. Rose permalink
    April 2, 2008 8:00 pm

    this is very scary news. I wonder which group lobbied Popline to make ‘abortion’ a stop word?

  2. Ops permalink
    April 2, 2008 8:15 pm

    Freedom of information, freedom of ideas and thoughts, freedom of choice…BULL! You’re free as long as you’re only interested in what you’re told you are allowed to be interested in. Sickening.

  3. greyson permalink
    April 2, 2008 11:39 pm

    This is so insane! I can search “unwanted pregnancy” and then click on the keyword “abortion” hyperlink to presumably get all the records with that keyword, but can’t limit the search from there, b/c if I actually type in abortion in the keyword field of the advanced search it’s back to being a stopword. I keep thinking there has to be some secret workaround. Grr…

  4. April 3, 2008 7:57 am

    Greyson, that’s very frustrating – please share if you find a good work-around so we can pass it along. Thank you all for your comments.

  5. Zeb permalink
    April 3, 2008 11:12 am

    The reason why the Popline staff made their decision is clear for anyone with eyes to see. When you are %100 funded by this U.S. government, and your contract is up for renewal, you do what you have to do to keep your job. High-minded ideals are nice, but if you’re given the choice between changing some word in a database and maybe getting to keep putting food on your family’s table, or not making the change, thus ensuring your demise, I wonder what any of us would do in their place? And if you think that the Center for Communication Programs (where Popline is housed) or the larger Johns Hopkins BLOOMBERG School of Public Health will take a principled stand and fund Popline out of their own coffers you can forget it. They are totally mercenary. Money talks and bull#$%! (read principles) walk. You either bring in outside money and pay your tithe to Hopkins or you find yourself other employment.

  6. greyson permalink
    April 3, 2008 11:38 am

    Rachel – Even “north of the border” here in Canada we are feeling the chilling effects of government burying “controversial” health information. I recently wrote about what’s happening to consumer health information about abortion with the conservative shutdown of the Canadian Health Network resource (here: )
    Guess that’s why I got so riled up about POPLINE! Still want to find some way to outsmart the information-buriers…

  7. April 3, 2008 11:47 am

    Thanks for sharing that, Greyson. Information-burying (especially when government is involved) is definitely worth getting riled up about, IMHO.

  8. Erika permalink
    April 3, 2008 12:35 pm

    I shared this with the chair and chair-elect of a couple of relevant sections at APHA, and am figuring out which public health blogs to target next.

    I do feel sorry for the director of the project–I can’t imagine this was something she wanted to do. This just shows the chilling effect the Bush administration has had on science in the past 8 years. When you can’t even search for the term abortion, it’s not good.

    Let’s hope PubMed isn’t next!

  9. April 3, 2008 12:38 pm

    Erika, I know, I sympathize with what could be people being pressured to do this, but also think it’s important for us to note and talk about and argue against. Thanks for passing it along.

  10. Layla permalink
    April 3, 2008 12:39 pm

    I’m annoyed by the general USAID gag rule/censorship policy, but much more shocked by the fact that this seems to be Johns Hopkins policy as well. The Johns Hopkins INFO (Information & Knowledge for Optimal Health) Project, which maintains POPLINE, seems also to have added abortion as a stopword, as you return 0 hits searching on “abortion” in their search box as well (and can retrieve those articles through the same “unwanted pregnancy” workarounds).

  11. April 3, 2008 12:51 pm

    Layla, that is yet another thing that is very frustrating about this change. Thanks for pointing it out.

  12. Erika permalink
    April 3, 2008 12:59 pm

    Layla, the INFOProject is also funded by USAID, so it’s no wonder this is a “global” change.

    APHA and “Our bodies, Ourselves” have now been informed. Rachel, I definitely agree that we need to talk about this. I just think we need to remember that the director of the project is probably reacting to pressure from somewhere else. I doubt she’d be involved in a project of this type if she were a hard-core right-winger.

  13. Erika permalink
    April 3, 2008 1:34 pm

    Oh, also–“browse index” only seems to work in IE. Blecch.

  14. creechal permalink
    April 3, 2008 1:36 pm

    I’m sending letters to my Senators & Representatives. I suggest everyone else do the same.

  15. April 3, 2008 4:35 pm

    Um, that makes me furious on many levels. First of all, in medical literature, ANY pregnancy loss before 20 weeks is considered an abortion. It can be a termination of pregnancy, which would be a surgical or medical abortion, or any of various miscarriages, which are called spontaneous abortions, and can manifest as missed abortions, partial abortions. Bleeding in the first trimester is called a threatened abortion.

    Would they restrict the word “rape”? How about restrict research on drug use, in the context of women’s health? Not only is abortion legal, but it is the most common surgical procedure in the country, not just in the arena of reproductive health. I can’t imagine why this would be a good idea.

  16. April 3, 2008 4:37 pm

    OK, I just went over to the site. They have a saved quick search on female genital cutting, but we can’t search for abortion? What?

  17. libinfo permalink
    April 3, 2008 4:51 pm

    The interface is awful and doesn’t always work. However, if you enter =”abortion” in the subject or keyword field you will find nearly 25,000 entries.

  18. April 3, 2008 5:41 pm

    ResourceShelf has learned that an official statement on this topic from POPLINE/INFO Project will be available on Friday.

  19. April 3, 2008 5:43 pm

    Thank you for posting about this.

  20. April 4, 2008 11:23 am

    FYI – if you do a wildcard search for ” abor* ” you get results.

  21. Katrina permalink
    April 4, 2008 12:40 pm

    Anger directed at the wrong source

    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.

  22. April 4, 2008 12:44 pm

    Your comment sums up the main reason why I haven’t publicized the name of the database manager who provided the quote about making it a stopword – I don’t know yet who was actually responsible for the decision, or the circumstances under which it was made, and that individual may have been under the kind of pressure you describe. I remain disturbed by the action to make the citations more difficult to reach, and the lack of an explanation thus far.

  23. Eileen permalink
    April 4, 2008 12:59 pm

    Searching =”abortion” will also retrieve the items indexed with the abortion tag.

  24. April 25, 2008 2:23 am

    Well, everything has its own conspiracy, don’t you think?

  25. Andria permalink
    November 10, 2008 3:54 pm

    Popline remains a joke, months later… you quote: …For background, POPLINE is “the world’s largest database on reproductive health… maybe, but it not very accessible!

  26. November 10, 2008 6:34 pm

    And Andria, many of the questions I had about the database going forward have still not been answered satisfactorily.


  1. Maud Newton: Blog
  2. POPLINE searching gets politicized « LACUNY Blog
  3. ResourceShelf » The Popline Story
  4. POPLINE and government barriers to information on “controversial” topics « Social Justice Librarian
  5. the strange librarian » Blog Archive » Govt funded health database sets “abortion” as Stop Word
  6. Feminist Peace Network » If We Make The Word “Abortion” Disappear…Orwell Would Be Proud
  7. Top Posts «
  8. Abortion? No such thing « Feminist Philosophers
  9. Prog Gold » Blog Archive » Linky, Linky
  10. | Government funded database censors the word “abortion”
  11. Selective Dissemination of Information
  12. Why is a Government-Funded Reproductive Health Database Blocking Users from Searching for Abortion Articles? « Women’s Health News « Women’s Studies Liblog
  13. Access to Abortion Search to be Restored in POPLINE; Johns Hopkins Releases Statement « Women’s Health News
  14. POPLINE in the News « A Baltimore Block
  15. It’s Not Just Setting Abortion as a Stop Word, REMOVAL of Articles Also Occured « The Crone Speaks
  16. An odd stopword: “abortion” « Laika’s MedBiBLog
  17. NPR Uncovers More Info on POPLINE Controversy « Women’s Health News
  18. POPLINE Problem Not Entirely Resolved « Women’s Health News
  19. Ten Years in Women’s and Reproductive Health, a Bloggy Look Back « Women’s Health News

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