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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Abortion Search on Popline Unblocked . . . .

The New York Times on Saturday reported on the controversy surrounding the government's decision to designate abortion as an "ignored" term when searching the database, Popline.  The decision was reversed by Johns Hopkins University.  Robert Pear of the Times reports,

Johns Hopkins University said Friday that it had programmed its computers to ignore the word “abortion” in searches of a large, publicly financed database of information on reproductive health after federal officials raised questions about two articles in the database. The dean of the Public Health School lifted the restrictions after learning of them.  A spokesman for the school, Timothy M. Parsons, said the restrictions were enforced starting in February.  Johns Hopkins manages the population database known as Popline with money from the Agency for International Development.

Popline is the world’s largest database on reproductive health, with more than 360,000 records and articles on family planning, fertility and sexually transmitted diseases.  Mr. Parsons said the development agency had expressed concern after finding “two articles about abortion advocacy” in the database. The articles, he said, did not fit database criteria and were removed.  Employees who manage the database instructed their computers to ignore the word “abortion” as a search term.

After learning of the restrictions on Friday, the dean, Dr. Michael J. Klag, said: “I could not disagree more strongly with this decision, and I have directed that the Popline administrators restore ‘abortion’ as a search term immediately. I will also launch an inquiry to determine why this change occurred.”  . . . . Dr. Klag said the school was “dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge, and not its restriction.” . . . .

Librarians at the Medical Center of the University of California, San Francisco, expressed concern about the restrictions this week after they had difficulty retrieving articles from Popline.  In an e-mail response on Tuesday, Johns Hopkins told the librarians that “abortion” was no longer a valid search term.  “We recently made all abortion terms stop words,” Debra L. Dickson, a Popline manager, wrote. “As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now.”  Ms. Dickson suggested that instead of using “abortion,” librarians could use other terms like “fertility control, postconception” or “pregnancy, unwanted.”  Gail L. Sorrough, director of medical library services at the medical center in San Francisco, said it was absurd to restrict searches using “a perfectly good noun such as ‘abortion.’ ”

Under the rule, Popline ignored the word “abortion,” just as it ignores terms like “a” and “the.” Ms. Sorrough and a colleague, Gloria Won, reported their experience on an electronic mailing list, and librarians protested the restrictions.  . . . .

Women's Health News has more about this controversy here and here.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/healthlawprof_blog/2008/04/abortion-search.html

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