abortion akin to tiananmen square?

Librarians, students, feminists, writing teachers — heck, anyone who cares about information literacy, access to information, politics, etc. — here’s something you should be aware of. Via Nels, the word “abortion” has been blocked as a term in an information database:

Ten days ago at the University of California in San Francisco, librarian Gloria Won was running through POPLINE (POPulation information onLINE), billed as “the world’s largest database on reproductive health.” Maintained by Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, and freely available to medical schools, health organizations and the public, it is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Won was stymied. Entering the keyword “abortion,” she kept getting the message “No records found.” Odd, because she had done a similar search in January and found thousands of scholarly and peer-reviewed articles on the subject. When she emailed POPLINE, database manager Debra Dickson replied: “We recently made all abortion terms stop words.”

Which means that, just like “the” and “and” and other words databases and browsers such as Google ignore, POPLINE would not recognize “abortion.”


“As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now,” explained Dickson, who suggested that Won search with “fertility control” or “postconception” instead.

George Orwell would have called this a “thoughtcrime.”


This is the kind of thing China does when you search “Tiananmen Square.”


But there’s more than a word at stake here – it’s an indicator of how, both in Canada and the U.S., women’s reproductive choices, are also threatened with erasure.

UPDATE: I guess the word was restored as a search word on April 6:

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has restored the word “abortion” as an acceptable search term on the POPLINE Web site, following criticism from some health advocates and librarians that the restriction amounted to censorship.

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6 Responses to abortion akin to tiananmen square?

  1. k8 says:

    Trust me, librarians are aware and incensed. This has been coming through several news sources I have in that area.

  2. k8 says:

    I meant to add – part of the problem is that when librarians talk about these things, barely anyone else out there listens. I can think of a number of reasons why (stereotypes about librarians, feminized profession, etc.), but the fact of the matter is that either people don’t listen or don’t care. Remember, this is the same group that was among the very first to question the Patriot Act and described as “hysterical” by Rumsfeld.

  3. Anne-Marie says:

    Thanks for posting about this, Michael. Hopkins fixed this particular problem in POPLINE almost immediately after the initial stories started making their way around the Internet. But this can’t be the only case, right? And what if we had to rely only on mainstream news sources to find out about it? You’re absolutely right that we should all care about this story.

    Press release from the Dean of the School of Public Health: http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/press_releases/2008/popline.org

  4. Michael says:

    “Hysterical.” What an appropriate (misogynist) word for a field that’s viewed as a “bunch of ladies.” It is unfortunate, K8, that librarians aren’t listened to more often.

    Thanks, Anne-Marie. I was just looking into this more when I read that it had been restored as a search word. But I agree, this can’t be the only case of search words becoming disabled. This happens a lot, actually, in regards to queer issues and issues of sexuality on certain databases (though possibly less so in more academic ones) and search engines. Words that “scare” dominant culture get erased in these search words, which causes a lot of harm to the health and sex education of citizens.

  5. k8 says:

    I have a pin that says “Just Another Hysterical Librarian.” They were very much in vogue at the time among library-types. And yes, the use of the word hysterical was noted and discussed as a gendered term and its historical context.

  6. Ira Socol says:

    I suppose Johns-Hopkins tendency toward the bizarre political right is starting to bleed across into their medical and public health spheres. For the university which receives the most per-student federal funding in the United States, they might think it important to stay on the good side of the current White House occupant.

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