Librarians notice “abortion” stop word, take action

“The world’s largest database on reproductive health, POPLINE, has been blocking searches using the term “abortion” since late February. The block was removed Friday afternoon…. The search block was discovered by medical librarians doing routine searches.” More on this story from Wired. Johns Hopkins who hosts the database made a strongly worded statement against the blocking of this term.

As near as I can tell, a few things happened in a row. USAID, who funds the database, complained about finding items in the database that did not “fit the criteria” of what the database was created for, items that were apparently pro-abortion in some way. From the Wired article

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.”

The database administrators then dealt with the complaints by making searches for the term “abortion” come up blank, effectively making abortion a stop word in the database. Loriene Roy the president of ALA released a statement supporting Johns Hopkins removing the term from the stop word list.

I find this whole incident exceptionally creepy. While I’m pleased that the outcome was ultimately favorable to open access, the demonstration of the chilling effect of complaints about an information resource and the perhaps well-meaning but utlimately censorious actions of the database administrators is concerning. [thanks sven!]

4 comments for “Librarians notice “abortion” stop word, take action

  1. 08Apr08 at 12:08

    I would really like to see this whole incident raise the issue of the restrictive USAID regulations on abortion in foreign countries that receive development funds from the US, too. If it’s wrong to censor information on abortion here in the US, its equally wrong to do so elsewhere–perhaps even more wrong, as we’re enforcing our government’s position on foreign people. Anyway, I could go on and on–clearly, this is an issue that gets me a little irate. Glad to see you bringing attention to it here.

  2. 08Apr08 at 2:14

    So, when called out for censoring a public database, the USAID Director of Communications said “…we have to make sure that all parts of the story are told…”

    I guess this makes sense in a place and time in which a shrinkage of the economy is called (officially) “negative growth.”

  3. Michael B. Klein
    08Apr08 at 3:22

    I’ve been hearing speculation (from my more conspiracy-minded friends) that POPLINE did this on purpose to shine a light on the administration’s information-suppression policy. One friend’s take on it was, “USAID had recently objected to some materials available by searching POPLINE, so the folks there decided to comply in as attention-getting a manner as possible.”

    If true, good for them. Otherwise, they’ve at least acknowledged and righted a poor decision.

  4. Eli
    13Apr08 at 3:31

    Jessamyn …

    According to an NPR story, the “objectionable” articles that caught USAID’s attention was from a special issue of a reproductive rights magazine:

    “Klag says the seven articles that triggered the restriction in late February were from an issue of A, the Abortion Magazine, which is published by Ipas, an international reproductive rights organization. … The issue in question focused on abortion as a human rights issue and profiled abortion rights advocates around the world.”

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89486048

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