Magazine Led to Database's 'Abortion' Search Block

An inquiry into why the world's largest database on reproductive health blocked searches using the term "abortion" has found the restriction was put in place because of articles from an abortion advocacy magazine available on the site.

The block was an "overreaction," says Michael Klag, the dean of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which maintains the POPLINE database. When Klag learned that the search function for abortion had been removed, he ordered it restored. The block was taken down Friday afternoon.

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.

Ipas' executive director, Anu Kumar, says she knew about the block but didn't know it had anything to do with Ipas.

"We are disappointed," Kumar says. "We know that 40 million abortions take place every year and nearly 20 million of them are unsafe. Women are literally dying while we're dithering about these words."

The issue in question focused on abortion as a human rights issue and profiled abortion rights advocates around the world.

The federal agency that funds POPLINE, the U.S. Agency for International Development, cannot by law support abortion activities. Sandra Jordan of USAID says abortion statistics and research are acceptable. But she says the agency did have problems with some materials on the site.

"The materials on POPLINE about which USAID made its inquiries were abortion advocacy materials. Afterward, POPLINE administration made the decision to restrict 'abortion' as a search term," Jordan says.

She says USAID did not ask POPLINE to limit searches.

The block was discovered by medical librarians doing routine searches.

After Gloria Won, a librarian at the University of California, San Francisco, conducted a search on abortion for researchers using POPLINE, she told her boss what was happening.

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

Sorrough says that Won then contacted POPLINE and asked if there had been any changes in the database and the 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.

"The average user would go to the database, and you would throw in abortion and you would get zero," says Sorrough, who complained to POPLINE's administrator and then spread word of the block.

"Because abortion is a perfectly good noun, there's nothing wrong with it," she says. "And we sent it out to some library list-servs so medical librarians would know about this, and it just spiraled after that."

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