Abortion, redacted

Thanks to pressure from USAID, the world's largest database on reproductive planning eliminated "abortion" as a search term.

By Catherine Price
Published April 8, 2008 6:10PM (UTC)
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When I think of Internet censorship, my mind goes to China. Case in point: While China just lifted its nationwide ban on the English version of Wikipedia, you still can't search for "Tiananmen Square massacre" or "Tibet." (I'm guessing "Falun Gong" might not pop up, either.)

Unfortunately, the United States just had its own disturbing flirtation with blocking "sensitive" search terms: POPLINE, the world's largest database on reproductive planning (including some 360,000 articles on subjects like fertility and family planning) was recently set to ignore "abortion" as a search term. Yes, you read that right. Administrators programmed the database to treat the word "abortion" the same way it does "a" and "the" -- that is, to pretend it didn't exist.

The reason, of course, was political. POPLINE, which is run out of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency best known to the Broadsheet crew for its decision to deny funding to nongovernmental organizations that "perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations" (as the New York Times describes it). The policy was first put into place under President Reagan and revived with President Bush and is, in my opinion, totally screwed up.

Putting my policy objections aside, though, let's have a moment to consider this: How could including the word "abortion" as a search term (by which I mean not deliberately blocking it) possibly be defined as "actively promoting abortion"? That's like saying that the fact that I am able to do a Google search for doormats means that Google has a vested interest in not letting me track mud into my house.

And it gets better: In the Times piece, a POPLINE manager is quoted as saying that instead of using the word "abortion," people could just substitute other common synonyms for abortion. Like, you know, "fertility control, post-conception" or "pregnancy, unwanted." And maybe instead of searching for "doormat," I could type in "mud control, post-entrance." Because that makes a lot of sense. (Also, since when does "unwanted pregnancy" automatically translate to "abortion"?)

Luckily, the dean of the school, Dr. Michael J. Klag, agreed that this was incredibly stupid. "I could not disagree more strongly with this decision, and I have directed that the POPLINE administrators restore 'abortion' as a search term immediately," the San Francisco Chronicle quotes him as saying in a statement. "The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and not its restriction." And so, according to Ms. magazine, the ban was lifted. The communications director of NARAL Pro-Choice America was described by Ms. as applauding Klag's statement, saying, "Americans deserve to know whether politics played a role in this matter." To which I say, we all already know that politics played a role in this matter. What we deserve is uncensored access to scientific literature, regardless of whether a government agency agrees with the words it might contain. (Then again, I hear the Chinese version of Wikipedia has a pretty good search function ...)

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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