As a librarian for over 30 years, I’ve seen my share of April Fools jokes. But this year’s seemed more outrageous—and less funny—than in previous years. A librarian at the University of California/San Francisco Medical Center sent an inquiry to staff at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health when she found discrepancies in POPLINE searches that included the term “abortion.” On April 1, she received the following response from Debbie Dickson at POPLINE:
“Yes we did make a change in POPLINE. We recently made all abortion terms stop terms. As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now. In addition to the terms you’re already using, you could try using ‘Fertility Control, Postconception.’ This is the broader term to our ‘abortion’ terms and most records have both in the keyword fields…”
In effect, the word “abortion” was downgraded from a medical search term to the status of words such as “a” and “the.”
This had to be a misguided attempt at an April Fools joke! POPLINE (POPulation information onLINE), 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database on reproductive health, containing citations with abstracts to scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports in the field of population, family planning and related health issues.” It’s maintained by the INFO Project at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health/Center for Communication Programs and is funded by USAID.
I subsequently discovered that the timing was pure coincidence, and this was no joke. Apparently, the POPLINE database includes a number of articles on abortion law reform. Years ago a decision had been made by USAID to strongly encourage its grantees to scrub their websites and publications of material offensive to the delicate sensibilities of Bush political appointees. Now the repercussions of that decision are clear; USAID has been compelled to enforce this policy of censorship. And POPLINE is feeling the long arm of the federal government reaching into its academic research collections.
Johns Hopkins is a university that openly prides itself on “securing more federal research funding than any other university.” Understandable, in the day—not so long ago—when scholarship, libraries, and federally-funded research aligned harmoniously behind the principles of free and open access to information, and of commitment to learning built on the sum of human knowledge. This setback at POPLINE represents more chipping away at these foundational principles, and—even more alarming—turns a fundamental principle of democratic governance on its head: Whereas there has always been the possibility that private sources of funding carry the risk of private bias or censorship, slant or “spin”, public funding has always presupposed protection of the free flow of information and ideas. This is fundamental to a democratic society.
Such an Orwellian act runs counter to everything I learned in history class and in my graduate library programs. How is it possible for “the world’s largest database on reproductive health” to remove the word “abortion” as a search term? What does it say about our government’s lack of respect for freedom of speech and for scientific and academic integrity? What are they afraid of, and why are users of this database not trusted to have access to comprehensive information on abortion?
Not only is Big Brother watching you, but he is afraid to let scientists, researchers, students—and even librarians—have access to honest and evidence-based information. As a librarian, I am outraged that I am being asked to sacrifice everything I learned to the altar of the Bush Administration’s ideology. Censorship is always the antithesis of freedom. Please join me in alerting the world to this latest breach of trust with the American people.
—Mary Panke, Director of Knowledge Resourcing, PAI