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Self censorship of US public health search engine

23 April, 2008

Recently, BoingBoing posted about change to a government-funded public health search engine, Popline, so that queries including the search term “abortion” turn up no results. According to the article, the owners of the engine Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, have made the modification because they believed it was a condition of their federal funding.

Lisa Wynn, our resident expert on reproductive technologies, is not able to post about it herself as she’s off doing research in Egypt, but she did send me these comments on the story:

1) what’s interesting to note is the self-censorship. We’ve all known for years that the US administration under Bush has had a chilling effect on research and provision of reproductive health services internationally (the so-called “global gag rule”), but the idea that people in a university would voluntarily self-censor their database based on the interventions at an unofficial and extra-legal level from individuals at a federal funding agency is bizarre and troubling;

2) and secondly, on a whole different level, the restriction would have excluded a large body of medical literature that has nothing to do with “abortion” as it is popularly used, since the medical community uses the term “abortion” to also include miscarriages (“spontaneous abortion”) as well as intended abortions (“induced abortion”).

Johns Hopkins Public Health has a statement by their Dean, Michael Klag, on their website stating that the restriction of the search term was only intended as a temporary measure while certain articles deemed to be “abortion advocacy” were removed from the Popline database. Klag also states that the block on “abortion” was immediately removed once he learned of it. He also kindly includes details of the references removed from the database.

While this paints a slightly better picture of the affair, I’m concerned that materials regarded as advocacy should be excluded from searches. People interested in public health research might have perfectly legitimate reasons for wanting to read advocacy materials. What if some anti-abortion scholar is researching a paper on pro-abortion advocacy and is unable to find materials? It would also seem to imply that there is a clear line between advocacy and other scholarly writing on a topic. Isn’t it possible for writing to be both? And does this mean that all research and writing aimed at promoting social change of some form, or engaging in a debate, should also be excluded on the same grounds? And who is to be the judge of such questions, deciding what is advocacy and what is not? The over-reaction of the administrators to this issue would suggest that many making these decisions will err on the side of caution, and the self-censorship will continue.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 April, 2008 2:51 am

    Greetings from Cairo, Jovan, and thanks for posting on this matter. The point you raise about the indivisibility of “pure” research and advocacy work is at the crux of the new problem raised by Klag. Most of the reproductive health researchers I know are advocates in one direction or another, though the visibility of their political and research agenda may be more or less visible depending on how they write and where they publish.

  2. 24 April, 2008 6:55 am

    Great post, and I wanted to say the same about your food crisis posts as well. Thanks very much.

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