Building, perhaps, on the resounding success of abstinence-only sex education, a government-funded health database has reprogrammed its software to prevent users from searching for information about abortion. The term has been reclassified as a “stop word,” meaning that it is treated as the functional equivalent of “a,” “an,” and “the” (terms automatically omitted from searches under the assumption that they don’t add value or meaning).
The database, Popline, which bills itself as “Your connection to the world’s reproductive health literature,” and is maintained by the INFO Project at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Center for Communication Programs and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), did not announce or explain the change.
A reader forwards a medical librarian’s exchanges with a Popline representative. On Tuesday the librarian inquired about a reduction in results — from 1684 to 1478, in one case — for particular search strings. The representative responded as follows:
Sent: Tuesday, April 01, 2008 7:26 AM
Subject: RE: Popline retrieval discrepancy
Yes we did make a change in POPLINE. We recently made all abortion terms stop words. As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now. In addition to the terms youâ€™re already using, you could try using â€˜Fertility Control, Postconceptionâ€™. This is the broader term to our â€˜Abortionâ€™ terms and most records have both in the keyword fields. Also, adding â€˜unwanted w2 pregnancyâ€™ in place of aborti*. We have a keyword Pregnancy, Unwanted and there are 2517 records with aborti* & unwanted w2 pregnancy
I hope this helps.
Update: After Wired’s Sarah Lai Stirland and the Village Voice’s Ward Harkavy picked up the story, the Dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins issued a statement promising to restore access to abortion searches in Popline.