Johns Hopkins officials restored full access yesterday to a reproductive health Web site funded by the government, after learning that searches containing the word "abortion" were being intentionally restricted and that thousands of studies were being hidden from easy view.
The change came after librarians and women's health advocates flooded the blogosphere - and e-mail boxes at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health - with complaints of censorship.
They became concerned after one research librarian was told the action was not a mistake - with the implication that it could be related to Bush administration rules restricting dissemination of information about abortions in foreign countries.
Dr. Michael J. Klag, Bloomberg's dean, said he learned about the action yesterday morning and ordered administrators of POPLINE to restore "abortion" as a search term "immediately." He also said he would launch an inquiry into why the decision was made to limit searches.
"I could not disagree more strongly with this decision," 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."
How POPLINE officials came to that decision - and whether it was requested by officials with the United States Agency for International Development, which funds it - remains unclear. USAID officials were at a retreat yesterday and could not be reached for comment.
Under federal policy, USAID denies funding to nongovernmental organizations that perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations.
Officials devised the policy under President Ronald Reagan and revived it after President Bush came to office in 2001. Some critics refer to it as the "Global Gag Rule."
Tim Parsons, spokesman for the school, said USAID officials found two items in the POPLINE database that were related to abortion advocacy - which does not meet the criteria for publication in the database. Agency officials asked that they be removed, and they were.
After that inquiry, POPLINE administrators made the decision to restrict abortion as a search term, Klag said.
On Monday, Gloria Won, a librarian at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, sent an e-mail to POPLINE administrator Debra L. Dickson informing her of a puzzling problem she was having with the database.
Won had run a routine search in January for articles on a specific topic. When she re-entered the query this week, the database returned fewer citations. Usually, she wrote, she finds more references when she runs a search at a later date - not fewer.
The response from Dickson came the next day: "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 one that a search engine will ignore. In most online libraries, they're common words such as "a," "an," "the," "is" and so forth.
This addition prevented searchers from using the term "abortion" to find studies with titles such as, "Reasons for induced abortion and their relation to women's emotional distress" or "Attitudes toward abortion in Poland and the United States."
"The citations are still there," said Rachel Walden, a biomedical librarian in Nashville who writes a blog called Women's Health News. "The actual references haven't been removed. But it's been made quite a bit more difficult for the average user to get. Most people in this profession are really interested in people having access to information ... and for it to be reliable."
In Dickson's message to Won, she gave the librarian a few suggestions for an end-run around the "abortion" ban, by using the terms such as "fertility control, postconception," or "unwanted w2 pregnancy."
"That's not how people search," Gail Sorrough, Won's boss, said yesterday.
Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, applauded Klag's quick action yesterday. But she said she was "dismayed" that the restriction was allowed in the first place, as it 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 went beyond censorship.
He said it had the potential to limit the ability of doctors and women to link to scientific literature on the topic, possibly jeopardizing patient care.
"Too often in this political climate we see political ideology trumping science in the field of reproductive health," he said. "Removing abortion as a search term on a publicly funded reproductive health care 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."
POPLINE - which stands for POPulation information onLINE - is a free database containing citations and abstracts of scientific articles, reports, books, and unpublished reports about population, family planning, and related health issues, according to its Web site.
It contains nearly 360,000 records, mostly from 1970 to the present, but there are selected citations dating back to 1827.
You can reach POPLINE at http:--db.jhuccp.org/ics-wpd/popweb/