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Health Database Blocked Searches on 'Abortion'

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.

POPLINE, maintained by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, restored the search function after school officials found out about the block.

The database is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has rules against using federal funds for any activity that lobbies for abortion.

The agency says it did not ask POPLINE to restrict searches.

Librarians Took Notice

The search block was discovered by medical librarians doing routine searches.

One of the librarians who became aware of the block was Gloria Won at the University of California, San Francisco. The term "abortion" seemed to be disappearing every time it was searched.

"(Won) was doing an update of the search in the POPLINE database and she noticed a discrepancy in the retrieval," said Gail Sorrough, UCSF director of medical library services. "She got fewer citations than the first time she ran the search, which is unusual.

"So she contacted POPLINE and asked if there had been any changes in the database," Sorrough said. "And the POPLINE administrator replied that, yes, they had decided to turn the term abortion into a 'stop word.'"

A "stop word" is something like "a," "an" and "the." Search engines ignore stop words.

Sorrough said librarians were instructed by POPLINE to use alternate terms such as "unwanted pregnancy" or "fertility control, post-conception."

A variety of people around the world use POPLINE (short for "population information online"). So Won decided to write to POPLINE herself.

"Eliminating this term essentially blocks access to the reports in the database and ultimately to information about abortion," Won wrote in an e-mail to a POPLINE administrator. The average user would get zero citations if he or she searched the term "abortion."

Won also sent out messages to librarian list-servs so that they would know about the block.

"It just spiraled after that," Sorrough told NPR. Medical librarians wrote to the media, contacted women's groups and went online.

No Block Requested

USAID did not ask POPLINE to remove anything from the database, says Sandra Jordan of the USAID Office of Population and Reproductive Health.

"USAID made an inquiry to POPLINE about six weeks ago, when the agency found information in the database that did not follow criteria that POPLINE has for the site," Jordan said. "The materials on POPLINE about which USAID made its inquiries were abortion-advocacy materials."

"Afterward, POPLINE administrators then made the decision to restrict 'abortion' as a search term," she said.

When asked whether USAID requested that POPLINE remove "abortion" as a search term, Jordan said, "No."

Inquiries started pouring into Hopkins' School of Public Health on Friday, and shortly afterward, Dean Michael Klag released a statement saying he strongly disagreed with POPLINE's decision to restrict searches.

"I have ordered that POPLINE administrators restore 'abortion' as a search term immediately," he said, adding that he would launch an inquiry to find out how it happened.

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