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

By Rachel Walden — April 3, 2008

Cross-posted at Women’s Health News

Yesterday 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database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning, and related health issues.”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
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

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