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Web Site Restores "Abortion" Search Term

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has restored the word "abortion" as an acceptable search term on a reproductive health Web site funded by the government.

The move followed criticism from some health advocates and librarians that the restriction on searches about abortion amounted to censorship.

It was unclear why the restriction had been put in place. However, the United States Agency for International Development, which funds the site, denies funding to non-governmental organizations that perform or actively promote abortion as a methods of family planning in other nations.

The policy began under President Ronald Reagan and was revived when President Bush took office in 2001. Some critics refer to it as the "Global Gag Rule."

After learning that the word "abortion" was being ignored by the search engine on the site known as POPLINE, Dr. Michael J. Klag, the dean of the Bloomberg school, ordered it restored. Klag said he'd begin an inquiry about why the decision was made to limit searches.

"I could not disagree more strongly with this decision, and I have directed that the POPLINE administrators restore 'abortion' as a search term immediately," Klag said in a statement. "The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is dedicated to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge and not its restriction."

USAID officials were at a retreat Friday and could not be reached for comment Friday or Saturday.

Klag said USAID found two items in the POPLINE database that were related to abortion advocacy. Agency officials asked that they be removed, and after that inquiry, POPLINE administrators decided to restrict abortion as a search term.

Gloria Won, a librarian at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, was one of those who sent e-mails to POPLINE administrators after having trouble with searches.

Won got this response from POPLINE administrator Debra L. Dickson: "Yes, we did make a change to POPLINE. We recently made all abortion words stop words. As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now."

A "stop word" is a word that a search engine ignores; typically they are common words such as "a," "the" and "is."

Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, applauded Klag's action, saying the restriction denied "researchers, students and individuals on all sides of the issue access to accurate scientific information."

Wayne Shields, president and CEO of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, said in a statement that restricting access to the information could possibly jeopardize patient care, because it prevented doctors and women from linking to scientific literature on the topic.

"Removing abortion as a search term on a publicly funded reproductive health database is clearly a decision driven by ideology - and not based on the medical or scientific needs of the reproductive health professional community the database exists to serve," Shields said.

POPLINE stands for "population information online." The site is a free database containing citations and abstracts of scientific articles, reports and books about population, family planning and related health issues. It contains nearly 360,000 records.

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